Process is very important — indeed critical. It is important to democratic self-government that the people know how and when they can participate. It is important that as much of the decision making as possible be transparent, so people understand how decisions were made and what the tradeoffs were. It is important that elected officials listen to the public.
But process can also become the enemy of effective governing. Alexandria is one of the most organized cities anywhere; and there are more opportunities for participation here than in most other places. While that is all good, at some point, decisions have to be made.
On any major decision, there will always be some group or individual who arrives at the last minute and says, "Stop. I just got here. I just heard about the issue. I want to share my opinion." To avoid a tough decision, it is often easy to say, "OK, one more hearing or study group." Or "Let's refer this back to staff to smooth out tough political differences." I would encourage you to resist this temptation.
Over the years, I have (not always, but too often) watched City Council delay, defer, refer back to staff, because they did not want to make a tough political decision. The problem is that most decisions do not get easier over time. At some point, the City can seem incapacitated. Endless process is tiring and discouraging not only to residents but the business community. (By the way, I want to make clear that I am referring not only to land use decisions, but also other hotly contested issues that come before the council, like taxi regulations.) Does this mean that council should never defer? Absolutely not. Most answers lie in the balance. There is always a need to balance the desire for more information with the benefits of closure on the merits; and this is a judgment call. The danger I am warning against is the easy habit of deferring because there is a political conflict and because the decision is hard.
One other point about process — every vote does not need to be unanimous vote. Consensus is good and should be pursued ... to a point. But if you have to go with a 4-3 vote, that is OK. You vote and move on. I was once on the losing end of a 4-3 vote (stopping the lawsuit over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge). The issue was very important to many in the community, but once that vote was over, I never heard a peep. I had my chance to argue against dropping that suit; the other side had its arguments and they prevailed. We all just moved on to the next important matter that deserved our attention.
This is the second in a series of columns, coordinated by former council member Lonnie Rich, that will also include other past city leaders writing on governance and politics.
Lonnie Rich served on the Alexandria City Council from 1991 to 2000. He is a law partner in Rich Rosenthal Brincefield Manitta Dzubin & Kroeger, LLP.
You may come to learn that many “process” arguments mean “I can’t win on the merits” or “let’s delay and maybe the opposition will become so discouraged that it will quit.” Rarely does process equal substance. A monarchy can make good decisions or bad decisions; a democracy can do the same thing. In a representative democracy, a minimum level of process is necessary for an informed electorate, but we rely chiefly on our elected officials — those people we have elected because of their political views, but mostly because of their character and judgment — to make decisions on our behalf. You need to ensure that you can get to the merits of the public’s business.
To summarize: while clear, open process is important, it is equally important that you be willing to press for a vote on the merits, even if not a unanimous vote. In other words, at some reasonable point, you must make decisions.