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First November Elections, Now No CBC to Nominate Slates for Them

F.C’s Citizens for a Better City Won’t Vet & Back Candidates for 1st Time in 52 Years

For the second time in less than two weeks, a major modification to how elections are done in the City of Falls Church has upended decades of tradition.

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SUNDAY’S ANNUAL MEETING of Falls Church’s Citizens for a Better City (CBC) resulted in an historic vote to cease the organization’s half-century practice of nominating and backing slates of candidates in F.C. city council and school board races. (Photo: News-Press)
F.C’s Citizens for a Better City Won’t Vet & Back Candidates for 1st Time in 52 Years

For the second time in less than two weeks, a major modification to how elections are done in the City of Falls Church has upended decades of tradition.

Following on the Nov. 8 referendum that saw two-thirds of voters cast ballots to move the City’s local City Council and School Board elections from May to November, last Sunday night the City’s premiere civic organization that has historically shaped those elections voted to get out of that business.

At its 52nd annual meeting Sunday, members of Falls Church’s venerable local election vetting organization, the Citizens for a Better City (CBC), voted overwhelmingly, 47-3, for a bylaw change upholding an option to cease the organization’s long-standing practice of holding nominating conventions to establish slates of candidates it backs in local City Council and School Board elections.

The vote upheld the recommendation of the organization’s executive committee, which met only two days after the Nov. 8 election to devise the move.

It means that for the first time in over half a century, there will not be a February nominating convention of the CBC where prospective candidates come to seek CBC backing, making their case to an audience of CBC members and then being voted by secret ballot either onto the CBC’s slate, or not.

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STEVE SPRAGUE was honored as the recipient of the annual Wayne and Jane Dexter Award by the Citizens for a Better City at its annual meeting Sunday night. Sprague is treasurer of the organization. (Photo: News-Press)

The powerful role played by the CBC through this process dominated local politics in Falls Church throughout the last 50 years, even when CBC slates did not win all the elections.
But well-organized opposition to the CBC’s influence was successfully mounted on only a few occasions, including once in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s. In recent years, however, the CBC’s influence has clearly eroded, and in 2010, only one of four CBC-backed Council candidates won.

In conjunction with Sunday’s vote, CBC spokesmen said that efforts were underway to ensure that future elections – the next one is May 1, 2012 and then, assuming the Virginia State Legislature endorses the referendum result, the next one will be in November 2013 – will be “non-partisan.”

However, under advisement of the Falls Church City Attorney John Foster, the ability to mandate non-partisan elections is very constrained by First Amendment guarantees. For example, a proposed resolution being crafted for a City Council vote later this month is limited to establishing that candidates in local elections can qualify for the ballot by petition, only, and not by nomination of a recognized political party.

But nothing, Foster advised, can prevent political parties or any organization from endorsing candidates at their will, or from fundraising for them. (This fall, both the Falls Church City Democratic Committee and Republican Committee affirmed their desire to stay out of local Falls Church elections).

The only legally-mandated limitation on partisanship in local elections is the state law that prohibits party affiliations from being listed on the actual ballots in local races.

Sunday night’s CBC meeting was held for the first time in the “clubhouse” of the Falls Church Housing Corporation in acknowledgment of the corporation’s 30th anniversary.

Besides the vote to change the organization’s bylaws to back away from nominating and supporting candidate slates, the other major order of business at the meeting, the 10th annual Wayne and Jane Dexter Memorial Award was presented to CBC Treasurer Steve Sprague.

CBC President Sally Ekfelt spoke in support of the bylaw change, which technically puts into the organization’s executive board the “on-off switch” decision-making ability to hold or not hold a nominating convention in any given election cycle. The purpose, however, was clearly to abandon the policy for at least the time being.

Ekfelt said the change was needed to “get the organization back to the grass roots to engage citizens. It is an “experiment,” she said, to “take time off to market the CBC brand” in the community.

F.C. City Council member Ron Peppe spoke in support of the change, which came to the annual meeting by way of an initiative from the group’s executive board at its Nov. 10 meeting, because there had developed in recent years “a push back simply because we’re the CBC,” and not on the basis of issues. “There was a ‘secret handshake’ perception of the CBC, and it is not a good descriptor of anything now.”

Former F.C. Councilman Dan Maller said that because no one can lead Falls Church now who is not in support of the school system, in one way or another, the CBC “has won the battle of supporting the schools,” and “it is time to find new ways to reconnect to the community.”

Phil Duncan stated that while some are commenting the bylaw change could spell the death of the CBC, “It couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The lone dissenter to speak up was Vice Mayor Dave Snyder, who said “it is a serious mistake” for the CBC to be “stepping back,” because its principles “will cease to be operative in the elections.”

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