Commentary: On Leadership

Commentary: On Leadership

A citizen’s reflection on a lack of political vision and priorities.

Increasingly, I feel forced to wonder whether our local elected officials have the collective leadership chops to articulate a vision and prioritize toward it.

Vision. I closely followed the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force. Their findings highlighted that “Alexandria lacks a shared joint vision for the future. Each entity [City Council, School Board] has its own strategic plans and vision but not a document that distills them together and that would support understanding priorities and tradeoffs.” Eyebrow-raising. Whatever else leadership is, it’s absolutely about vision.

Two basic military concepts come to mind: “commander’s intent” and “unity of command” (or of governance). What’s the end picture, the “what for”? Not some jargony, utopian catchall that’s wide open for interpretation, but a crisp vision to sieve and focus action. And in what single, delineated structure is authority vested? The dual-legislature design for localities makes little sense to me. But if that’s the way it is, then the local bodies taking initiative to establish their own structure for unifying vision- and decision-making seems like a no-brainer.

Council expressly hoped to glean sage advice beyond the staffs’ knowhow. That this blue ribbon task force in turn yielded certain very elementary counsel evidences a deficit of political leadership, not of staff expertise. It’s as if my editor said to a writer: Digging into the thesaurus and style guide is good; but let’s also just work on having a point.

Prioritization. Councilman John Chapman said of the schools’ capacity problem: “If we’re in a crisis,” we should pursue “crisis solutions.” An emergency requires a decisive, even if politically unpalatable, hammerblow.

We absolutely face a schools crisis. Though the School Board overblows its narrative of neglect (every sagging ceiling tile isn’t a calamity); and it’s too tunnel-visioned, absolving itself of weighing citywide needs and constraints (the whole village has to function in order to raise the child). Still, youths receiving instruction in frigid hallways, etc., is flatly unacceptable.

We also face a housing-and-wage crisis. A coalition, including some city departments, concluded: “The lack of affordable housing is the ground zero of need in the city.” I’ve never heard this refuted. We face losing whole demographic chunks. Yet we allocate microscopic public resources to housing. We don’t even pay core public servants enough to live here. It’s unsatisfactory that a government, endowed with authority for the common good, prefers doublespeak to taking a Babe Ruth swing at this recognized “ground zero” of human need.

The task force urged differentiation between “critical infrastructure” and “nice-to-haves,” specifically in relation to a proposed $16 million swimming pool at Chinquapin. This decision-making is called “hard.” Really? A pool versus half an elementary school, two housing projects for struggling households, some length of pay bumps for cops and teachers? Another no-brainer. Other ideas I heard: it’d be much cheaper to move the city administration to an office building than to renovate city hall; and the city sits on a huge opportunity cost in the Torpedo Factory. Historic preservation and the arts are good. But, here again, they plainly take a back seat to primary education and housing that doesn’t vaporize families’ resources.

There’s also perhaps considerable potential for consolidating the city and schools’ back offices, as other Virginia jurisdictions have done. Virginia law requires School Board autonomy, but not near-total administrative duplication.

Winnow the “nice-to-haves,” concentrate resources toward “crisis solutions.” Leaders don’t balk at owning the handful of decisive yeses and saying no to much of the rest.

The writer, a city resident, reports on a variety of housing, budget and faith-based issues for the Gazette Packet.