Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Local Voter Turnout: Is That What Faltered in Alexandria?

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Local Voter Turnout: Is That What Faltered in Alexandria?

During the Pandemic, and long before, we have come to value reliable, informative and straightforward coverage provided by the Alexandria Gazette Packet reporting staff. Coverage of the June 8 Primary was right to the point.

But I thought the June 10 headline, “Opposition Candidates Falter,” was not.

What “faltered” was the local turnout.

According to the Alexandria Voter Registration office, the City has 98,719 “active” voters plus another 12,505 “inactive” voters for a total of 111, 204 registered voters. (“Inactive” is defined as meaning they are on the valid voting roster but their names are marked for address confirmation. If they don’t vote during the past two federal elections, they can be dropped.)

Why did so many people opt out?

In my Polk Precinct, only 147 people had voted during the first four hours of the polls being opened. Granted, many people did early in-person or by mail voting, but still the overall turnout was low for a city with an estimated 2020 population of 159,613.

Mayor Justin Wilson won by a total of 13,716, which is a small fraction of the total eligible voters. And two Council candidates got more votes than he did, with Alyia Gaskins winning 13,364 votes and John Chapman getting 13,460.

Back in 2009, Wilson set in motion a process to diminish the influence of the long-time Alexandria elections, once held in May, and now held in November, lumped in with everything else.

At the polls, Wilson lost after his first term ended in 2009, but he was thinking way ahead. He teamed up with Tim Lovain, who had also lost his election and they came up with a statewide strategy to change the election to piggyback on the coattails of 2012 Presidential re-election campaign of President Barack Obama. And, over time, they were hugely successful. The Alexandria Council voted 5-2 to move the elections to November.

Unfortunately, one detail was lost in the planning and plotting, with an unexpected consequence from the shifting dates. To select the candidates for the November contest against the Republican candidates, Alexandria now holds its primaries in June.

That means that the three current “Lame Duck” Council members (who voluntarily opted not to run in 2021) will now be able to cast very consequential votes on several major City issues for the next seven months. And City residents will have no power to hold them accountable for any of those decisions during the following election. We had a similar situation with the involuntary “Lame Ducks” in 2018 who lost at the polls.

Hopefully, as the Pandemic winds down, we will revive in-person hearings and Council meetings, instead of the remote Zoom options. And more people will be able to voice their opinions. I hope the old and the new Council will return to the more adequate public comment periods instead of a very limited quota system for citizens to speak.

Three major issues will face this 2021 Council with its incumbents and lame ducks, and they deserve adequate debate and discussion and transparency. And perhaps these final votes should be deferred until the new Council is sworn in office in January 2022. An executive search can take several months to research qualified candidates, interview them and do background checks and interim officials can fully function.

The three “hot topics” include:

  • Upcoming retirement of City Manager Mark Jinks, who is rumored to have already selected his replacement, Yon Lambert, current head of TES (Traffic and Environmental Services). This should be an open process, with a substantive national search. It should not be a done deal.

  • The Council will also need to grapple with the replacement of Police Chief Michael Brown, who steps down on June 25, with an expected interim appointment of Assistant Chief Don Hayes. Jinks had indicated that the City will retain an executive search firm to recruit candidates for this position.

One potential complication for the Council and for the City Manager for filling this vacancy, is a comment by Alexander Police Officer Bennie L. Evans Jr. (Alexandria Gazette Packet, June 10-16, 2021) who has spent 23 years on the force, noted that “City Council gave Chief Brown a police department but didn’t give him the resources he needed to keep it functioning.”

  • And only a few days after the June 8 Primary, a new bombshell arrives in our email, alerting us that the City of Alexandria “Seeks Input to Set ‘Duke Street in Motion’” by July 31.

Does this sound like another debacle that the Seminary Road conversion proved to be? Yes, the City did achieve the “objective” of “slowing down traffic” by cutting down four lines to only two lanes, for one of only three East/West arterial roads. City officials said they sought “input” and 13,000 residents responded, signing a petition opposing this poorly planned upheaval, and attending numerous public hearings, to voice their objections. But TES and some on the Council turned a deaf ear. And when residents tried to find the detailed background for this poor decision from an FOIA request, all 69 pages were redacted. Admit mistakes---instead of burying them---and fix them.

We congratulate the incoming and outgoing members of the City Council and wish them well. In looking to the future, the goal of “transparency, integrity and ethics” in government is not merely a campaign slogan, but a roadmap to successful political endeavors. Do not be like former President Trump who listened only to his “base” and to only those who voted for him. Our Alexandria Council should represent and listen to all its citizens. The “Opposition Candidates” didn’t falter. The voting system did. We are all your constituents, regardless of whom we voted for. Listen to all of us, and then decide.

Kathleen M. Burns