Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: F.C. Fiscal Issues Come Before Election Timing

While Virginia localities fancy themselves independent, the truth is we exist as subdivisions of the Commonwealth, having limited powers as delegated by the General Assembly. Our City Charter, adopted in 1948, has been amended numerous times by the GA, and most of the changes over the years have been by adoption of general laws applicable to localities and not specific changes to our Charter.

While Virginia localities fancy themselves independent, the truth is we exist as subdivisions of the Commonwealth, having limited powers as delegated by the General Assembly. Our City Charter, adopted in 1948, has been amended numerous times by the GA, and most of the changes over the years have been by adoption of general laws applicable to localities and not specific changes to our Charter.

Forty years ago, the GA changed local elections generally from June to May, and also moved them from odd to even years. This prompted action by the City Council expressing a concern that the move to even years would make our elections partisan and requesting that our elections be moved back to odd years. The GA declined to do so, and the City has conducted local elections in May from 1974 through 2010, with participation generally declining from around 50 percent in the 1970s to 24 percent in the last election, with wide variations but an unmistakable trend towards lower participation, both in percentages but even measured by the number of votes cast for winning candidates.

Ten years ago the Virginia General Assembly made a decision to withdraw support for Spring local elections, and authorized localities whose charters provided for May elections to move them to November of even or odd years. Approximately a year ago, the City Council took up the issue, rejecting a referendum as the proper means to address this issue, moving elections to November after the 2010 election, and selecting odd years when state elections are held rather then even years which are dominated by federal elections.

Perhaps the most precious commodity in our local government process is the limited time available to gather and focus public input on the big issues facing our City. Many criticized the previous Council’s decision to address the issue at all, but looking back I do not question either that the decision was correct on the merits on that a referendum is the wrong choice for the City of Falls Church. In haste to try to undo what was done, the current Council shows a warped, but I suppose revealing, sense of priorities.

I would suggest that the Council spend its time and our money seeking commercial development.

On the merits of May vs. November, what has been created is a system where there are two classes of voters, those who choose to participate and those who do not.  I liken this to “classified shares” in the corporate world, where a “Class A” group reserves to itself the bulk of the management and/or economic rights while allowing “Class B” outsiders to invest, albeit without any real right to participate.

The most notable local example is Bowl America, a very successful company wholly controlled by a small group of founders who have every right to their own agenda, but have frustrated the very best efforts of the community to redevelop our City Center.  I realize that nobody is overtly impeding the right or ability of “Class B” citizens to participate in our local government, but nevertheless the effect is to raise a bar by maintaining a separate system which filters out a substantial fraction of the electorate.

The referendum question, taken in a vacuum, would appear to afford the Council an easy out. After all, who could oppose “letting the people decide?” Unfortunately, we have numerous examples across the Country and right here why this is a decidedly bad idea. California has revealed the horrific repercussions of a system of government by referendum, but even here in Northern Virginia a referendum which would have solved much of our infrastructure deficit and allowed the region to move ahead to solve our problems with our own money was defeated not on the merits but because of how elections “work.” Specific to Falls Church, the referendum process has been used as a blunt instrument by citizens seeking to prevent redevelopment, which although unsuccessful when the votes were counted nevertheless has succeeded in warping and manipulating the process to impose unwarranted restrictions on the City’s ability to negotiate with developers and to achieve successful outcomes for the City generally.

Is it fair to consider all of this baggage, when for example we also have a very proud tradition of supporting school bond referenda? On balance, particularly considering that the Council’s actions on Oct. 12 seem calculated to keep this issue in the public eye for as long as possible and to occupy the electorate with peripheral issues, I think it is more than fair to say enough.

I would suggest that the Council spend its time and our money seeking commercial development like BJs, the Hotel on Broad Street, the office building at 800 West Broad, and transit-oriented, mixed-use development taking advantage of the Metro stations; maybe after building a legacy like that to continue to address our fiscal issues we would be justified in taking the time to debate a largely academic issue of election timing.

 

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