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Council Notebook

Downwash of Celebration

The story about how the Potomac River Generating Station closed its doors this month is an Erin Brockovich story with an Old Town twist. It involved a group of determined neighbors, including Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertel, who joined forces to begin collecting scientific data about “downwash” — a phenomenon that involves pollution raining down on Alexandria.

Chimento and Hertel eventually persuaded Councilman Paul Smedberg and Councilwoman Del Pepper to take up the cause, a fight that brought city officials into a legal battle with Atlanta-based Mirant. Pretty soon, the coal-fired power plant was surrounded by enemies. The company eventually agreed to a settlement that involved investing $32 million to reduce particulate matter at the facility — an investment that never happened because Houston-based GenOn acquired the business and determined that that the new pollution controls weren’t worth it in the long run.

“This is a decision and an action that will improve the lives of Alexandrians and people in the region for generations to come,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) Tuesday night. “It’s that important.”

City Council members adopted a formal resolution Tuesday night praising the efforts of those who worked to close the facility and enjoyed a cake that featured a graph of declining pollution levels — a confectionery creation that one observer described as “the nerdiest cake ever.”

“We didn’t have a lot of unanimous support, to be quite honest, on council and within the community,” said Smedberg. “There were a lot of groups that thought we were crazy to pursue this, and we had council members who thought we were crazy for doing this. But we persisted.”

Losing Religion

Art is a fickle thing, especially public art. And everybody has an opinion — even people at City Hall.

This weekend, members of the City Council are scheduled to approve a design proposal for the Contrabands and Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial. The action is years in the making, a story that began in 1864 when a plot of land south of Old Town was established as a cemetery for African-Americans who fled slavery and sought a safe haven in Union-controlled Alexandria. A century later, the land became a gas station. Now that the sesquicentennial us upon us, the cemetery is about to become a memorial for those who were buried there.

But the conflict did not stop there. In August, a selection panel met to evaluate a series of proposals. Members of the panel recommended that the commission be awarded to Ed Dwight. But when the Public Art Committee met later that month, its members decided against supporting the recommendation of the selection panel. Instead, the committee recommended that the commission be awarded to Mario Chiodo.

“I know that having gone through this once before with the Versace memorial, it’s an exhaustive process,” said Councilman David Speck. “So when I saw the Public Art Committee chose a different artist, I wondered why that was.”

As it turns out, losing the commission was a matter of divine intervention.

“That artist chose to include religious symbols in the sculpture, even though the (request for proposals) noted that those were specifically prohibited,” explained City Manager Rashad Young.

Chain of Succession

Since 9/11, disaster scenarios have become a parlor game. What would happen if the city lost electricity for a month? How would Alexandria cope without Internet service? Who would lead the city if the city’s leaders weren’t around?

That last question is at the heart of a resolution adopted this week designating an acting city manager during the temporary absence of the city manager. The document lays out a chain of succession, beginning with Deputy City Manager Tom Gates. He’s followed, in descending order, by Deputy City Manager Michele Evans, Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks and Deputy City Manager Debra Collins.

“If you all decide to go to Canada and fight extradition, who takes charge then?” asked Vice Mayor Kerry Donley.

“We’ll decide that when it comes up,” the city manager responded.