Commonly, the politically active in the City of Falls Church brag proudly about a level of citizen participation in their town that is second to none. But those gathered at two sessions of so-called Deliberation Days in the city last weekend were confronted with a troubling reality that challenged that conventional wisdom.
The Deliberation Day phenomenon is a new one in Falls Church that three reputable civic groups have bought into, at least on an initial, experimental level. It is the brainchild of Yale University Law School professors seeking models for spurring public discourse in the local political process. Falls Church’s Citizens for a Better City (CBC), Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) and League of Women Voters chapter (LWV), all ostensibly non-partisan groups, shared in the sponsorship of last March’s first session and last week’s.
For starters, last week’s events, including one on a Saturday afternoon, were problematic for one local political partisan because they were held in the critical days prior to an important statewide election, tying down a lot of people who might otherwise have been out fundraising and door-knocking. That would be one indicator of the insensitivity to impending political reality of the experiment’s absentee Ivy League progenitors and the non-partisan civic groups, alike.
But the events also exposed the shallow level of overall citizen interest and participation in the city’s affairs. The attendance of last week’s two sessions, below 100, was considerably down from last spring’s. If not all, by far most present were the “usual suspects” who are familiar faces in the city’s constantly on-going policy discussions.
An upside was that among those, there were some unique opportunities for members of different city groups to talk face-to-face, instead of taking turns crafting declarations and pronouncements or going to the microphone at City Council meetings to speak.
Those in the room were keenly aware that they were fairly much limited to a tiny, self-selected group of town do-gooders, gadflies and nay-sayers, wonderful and loveable as they all may be. A lot of the focus was on why more people weren’t there. Former Vice Mayor and Chamber of Commerce president Dr. Steve Rogers, a panelist, quipped, “As a veterinarian, I can tell you that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Another panelist said that being a citizen activist in Falls Church is serious business. “It has to be almost like a second full time job,” he said.
But then came a shocker when on Saturday the assembled “usual suspects” were asked two questions. Asked how many knew the City was undergoing a thorough review of its zoning code, only about a third raised their hands. When asked how many check out the City website for news or information, only about six raised their hands. These are the city’s best activists, and even they are out of touch.