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Week in Alexandria

Is Takeover Constitutional?

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is weighing into the debate about school takeover with a surprising move this week, announcing that his office will not be defending the Opportunity Educational Institution. The move comes as a change of fortunate for many opponents of the institution, which was designed to take over failing schools. Because Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria is the only school in Northern Virginia to qualify for a takeover, city leaders have been closely following the debate about the constitutionality of the law.

City Council members and School Board members went behind closed doors in July to consider entering into a lawsuit with the Virginia School Boards Association. They ultimately decided against joining the lawsuit, which was eventually filed by the association and the Norfolk School Board. Alexandria leaders said they were concerned about the perception created by engaging in a political lawsuit while students at Jefferson-Houston were still struggling. Meanwhile, School Board leaders have not been shy about publicly challenging the constitutionality of the law.

"It takes away local tax dollars and commandeers them for state use," said School Board Vice Chairman Justin Keating. "So it's simply illegal."

Now Alexandria School Board members have an unlikely ally — the Republican attorney general, who is now refusing to stand behind the landmark education reform of a Republican governor. In a letter to the governor this week, the attorney general informed the governor that his office "cannot defend this lawsuit." He suggested that the governor find special counsel to represent the targets of the lawsuit if necessary.

"The Virginia Constitution states, and the courts have affirmed, that the supervision of public schools must remain with their local school districts," said Brian Gottstein, director of communication for the attorney general's office. "This is a purely legal issue. If the attorney general's analysis shows that a law is unconstitutional, he has a legal obligation to not defend it."

Back in Court

Next week, justices of the Virginia Supreme Court will once again hear oral arguments in a dispute between the Old Dominion Boat Club and Alexandria City Hall. At issue is Wales Alley, a disputed stretch of land that connects Strand Street to South Union Street.

After the Alexandria City Council approved a lease to Virtue Feed and Grain for the restaurant to install outdoor dining tables and chairs in part of the alley, members of the club filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit charged that members have a historical right to use the alley to get their boats to the parking lot at the foot of King Street, the source of an ongoing fight between the club and the city.

The boat club won the case in Alexandria Circuit Court, and the city appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court last year. The Supreme Court decided that the circuit court had not ruled on the merits of the case, so it was remanded back to Alexandria. Then the Circuit Court ruled in favor of the city. So the boat club appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

That means justices will hear oral arguments in the case for a second time. This comes at a time when leaders of the club are considering a final offer from city officials to determine the fate of a parking lot, an offer that comes with the threat of eminent domain.

Reforming Ethics

With the outgoing Republican governor caught up in a scandal involving undisclosed gifts, Democrats are smelling blood in the water. As the campaign season heats up, many Democrats are announcing efforts at ethics reform — a way to capitalize on the media attention while sticking it to Republicans. This week, Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45) was the latest to join the effort, launching a website called VAEthicsReformNow.com.

“The ongoing investigation regarding Governor McDonnell and his acceptance of gifts from Star Scientific has brought to light the urgent need for reform in our political system,” said Krupicka in a statement announcing the new site. “Without changes, we will lose the trust of the people we are supposed to represent."

Krupicka said the idea behind the site is intended to make sure the public has a seat at the table during the discussion of the state's ethics reform, a conversation that includes everything from caps on the dollar amount of gifts elected officials can receive to new rules governing disclosure of gifts to family members. The website features a petition calling for the Virginia General Assembly to pass "significant ethics reform legislation" and a survey to gather input from the public about ethics reform issues.