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February 27, 2016 Published in Editorials

Dangerous Divides Editorial

At Tuesday night's meeting of City Council, Councilman Paul Smedberg moved to rescind the vote that Council took at the previous Saturday's Public Hearing which denied Alexandria’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority's request for a Master Plan amendment and a Rezoning for the Ramsey Homes project on North Patrick Street. Saturday's motion failed in spite of a five "yes" vote because of a protest petition requiring a 6-1 supermajority vote. The motion to rescind passed unanimously, setting the stage for a "do over" of the issue at the March 12 Public Hearing.

The Ramsey Homes project saga has exposed divisions in our community and our governing body of considerably more concern than any we have seen in recent years. The first is between ARHA, the community and City Council.

Last September, ARHA came to the Council seeking Master Plan Amendment, Rezoning, and Development Special User Permit approval for the Ramsey Homes site. Council took ARHA to task for their failure to adequately engage the community and provide alternative proposals for Council consideration. Council admonished ARHA to rectify these shortcomings before presenting their request again to Council. ARHA ignored Council's directive and failed to fully analyze City staff alternatives. As a result the Planning Commission, in a split decision, approved the Master Plan Amendment and Rezoning requests by a 6-0-1 vote and denied the DSUP request, 4-3.

The day before the City Council Public Hearing on Feb. 20, ARHA requested a deferral of the DSUP request but asked that the other two matters move forward. But the damage was done. Mr. Smedberg made it clear in September that he would be hard pressed to support ARHA if they did not work more closely with City staff and citizens.

By refusing to do what the Council asked, ARHA created a divide weakening its credibility and impairing its ability to deliver public and affordable housing that is needed in Alexandria. It is time for ARHA to understand that in the 21st century the public must be engaged in a real dialog if creative plans are to be approved. Given the serious need for low income and affordable housing in Alexandria, the City cannot afford a weak ARHA.

The second divide is between white, upper middle class citizens (including most of the historic preservationists) and the City's Black community. Many Ramsey Homes neighborhood residents want less not more subsidized housing. There's no doubt that the neighborhood between Braddock Road Metro and Washington Street north of King Street contains a significant part of the City's Public Housing stock and a number of affordable housing projects. Most of this housing has been there for 40 to 60 years. Most of the group that is fighting Ramsey Homes has moved in more recently. Some of them make it quite clear that they do not want the housing renewed; they want it moved elsewhere. Unfortunately there is nowhere else in the City to relocate the people who live in this housing.

Few recent issues have so openly pitted white residents against black residents. We have long prided ourselves in Alexandria for our inclusiveness. Now as long-term residents age out of the political process, the newcomers who replace them appear not to share this sentiment.

Many of the City institutions concerned, like ARHA and the Police Department, need to pay more attention to these citizens who have some real concerns. They have raised them repeatedly and have seen little progress. Some of their concerns, perhaps, cannot be fully addressed but there can be a better flow of information, resulting in improvements.

On their part, these citizens need to develop some self-awareness of how they appear to the Black community whose members, after generations of discrimination, are extremely sensitive to white criticism. City Council must get a handle on this and Mr. Smedberg is to be commended for stepping forward to get the process back on track so quickly.

Finally there is another divide that is of greater concern. That is the divide that has grown so rapidly between the Mayor and the other six Council members. This divide was on display during the Ramsay Homes debate.

Our new Mayor, Allison Silberberg, is turning out to be someone who doesn't consult with her colleagues or follow established procedures.

This came to light dramatically when her supporters turned out in force in the public comment period of the January public hearing to talk about ethics. The Mayor had circulated a resolution to some citizens without docketing the matter for open public discussion as required by law. Members of the Council did not know what was happening nor did most Alexandrians.

In the case of Ramsey Homes, the Mayor held a meeting with City and ARHA staff without informing her Council colleagues, two of whom sit on a committee that is charged with working out differences between the City and ARHA. The Mayor's reluctance to approve this project is well known and her actions led to a heated debate with African American Council Members who strongly favor public and affordable housing over the preservation of what they consider as obsolete, inferior housing produced in the era of segregation. It was crystal clear from Mr. Chapman's and Mr. Bailey's comments that they don't trust the Mayor.

The Mayor strongly defended her prerogative to hold meetings with City staff without informing Council. Surprisingly, however, when Mr. Smedberg announced that he had met with the City Attorney to obtain advice on moving the Ramsey Homes project forward, the Mayor complained that he should have informed all the other Council members including her and then berated the City Attorney for not informing her of the meeting. This, of course, produced outrage from Council members both from the double standard she was imposing where she could not inform them but they had to inform her, and that she would criticize a City employee in public rather than following the lawful practice of discussing a personnel issue in a closed meeting.

We are of the opinion that this divisiveness is dangerously out-of-hand only two months into the new Council term. It is clear Ms. Silberberg does not understand that Alexandria is not Boston nor is it Baltimore, where the mayor position has independent clout. Here the Mayor is one of seven equal members of Council and any actions must be taken by majority vote to be valid. The Mayor cannot and should not act independently.

More significantly, her handling of her ethics resolution was a major setback to the City's recent attempts to build a more transparent governing process. Who can have faith in a government that unleashes supporters of something that the Mayor wants without giving proper public notice so that everyone with an interest in the matter can come forward and be heard. That is as much an ethical issue as the alleged conflicts of interest that the Mayor is so intent on smoking out.

It is time to get this situation under control. It is not difficult. Council should hold a special meeting with a few experts in local governance in the Commonwealth to go over what is appropriate and what is not. The first rule of running a successful governing body is and always has been "NO SURPRISES." Council should task the City Attorney with ensuring they are following parliamentary procedure and Virginia Law pertaining to public meetings and he should speak up when they are not. Council should have a code of conduct and statement of ethics that are published, agreed to by all members and enforced.

We sincerely hope that Council considers our recommendations.. Alexandria cannot afford to have a major rift in its governing body at a time of critical fiscal and policy issues. In the long run the very best decisions are those that come from collective consideration with substantial input and not those that spring from the mind of a single individual.

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