What was billed as the first debate among candidates seeking election to the Falls Church City Council last night turned into more of a discussion of the $120 million high school bond referendum. Two of the incumbents on the Council seeking re-election went into details on the reasons on why they voted to have the referendum placed on the Nov. 7 ballot, and a third incumbent explained why he was only one of two “no” votes on that proposition taken in late July.
About 40 people attended the debate held in the American Legion Hall on N. Oak St. Wednesday night. Questions were all asked through the moderator, Ken Feltman. Only in the final moments was the audience invited to ask direct questions.
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly led the charge explaining the ins and outs of what’s gone into the thinking for proposing the bond referendum, with support from incumbent David Snyder. The “no” vote was defended by incumbent Dan Sze.
Of the two “newcomers,” or non-incumbents, in the debate one has been on the Council before — Dan Maller, an attorney — and one is a fresh face, Ross Litkenhous, a young father of three who said he chose to run because of how big an impact living in the City has made on him and his family since moving here from Alabama and because of the expertise in areas of economic development that he brings.
On the school bond issue, Maller said he favors a “reluctant yes” vote and Litkenhous was much more enthusiastic. Therefore, among the five candidates seeking four seats in the election, Sze was the lone dissenting vote, claiming his opposition is based more on the process than on whether City actually needs a new high school or not.
But as has been done numerous times at public meetings and in other settings, the alternatives were again laid out that without the passage of the bond referendum, the cost to the taxpayers of just patching up the existing decrepit and undersized high school would probably be more than if the funds for a new high school were approved, and a comprehensive plan that includes an offset by projected economic development of two thirds of the cost.
Otherwise the event was a cordial and non-consequential affair. One of the six candidates who qualified for the ballot, Spencer Parsons, did not show up for the debate. He’s a first time candidate who has not been a significant presence in City political events to date.
Wednesday’s event organizing group, billed as the Citizens for a Better City, the Falls Church Republican and Democratic Committees, the F.C. American Legion, F.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Falls Church Way and many others, has a similar debate planned for six candidates seeking four seats on the F.C. School Board on the November ballot, and that will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the same location.
The first question by Feltman, following a greeting by Harry Shovlin, set the tone for a “feel good” approach to the debate. He asked what each candidate considered are the “three jewels in the Falls Church crown.”
Connelly said they were having a community worth treasuring, public education, which was why the city was founded, and its history.
Litkenhous cited a “sense of community,” the schools and the future. Maller said what Falls Church represents as the smallest independent city in America “is something you can’t get anywhere else,” where one person can make a difference. He also cited the value of its neighborhoods.
Snyder said it is the principles and values on which the city was founded, its inclusiveness, commitment to working together, its citizens and schools and those who show leadership in a small community.
Sze said “everybody here cares,” and schools that turn out better results than the best prep schools.
Connelly spoke to the importance of economic development and “intentionally shopping in Falls Church.” No one expressed concern that the bond referendum, if passed, would cause the city to temporarily exceed the 12 percent limit on indebtedness.
There was negativity in some of the earliest questions submitted in writing by the audience, including one asking the incumbents to share “their greatest regrets on the Council.” Snyder wouldn’t bite, saying, “There are so many rewards, it’s hard to see negatives.”
Sze defended his support for the Railroad Avenue cottage colony plan, saying it represented an “experiment to retain people who want to downsize and stay in the City.” He said there’s already evidence of people interested in “buying into this paradigm,” and that the “cottage decision was a great one.”
Litkenhous said that the City should consider creating special taxing districts where a higher tax burden is absorbed by those benefiting from it, and Maller said that more needs to be done to offer “generous tax deferrals” to help people be able to stay in their homes as they age.
Each candidate was asked how they felt themselves to be different from their opponents. Sze said the better question would be “how am I like the others?” He cited the shared desire to improve the community, “to make it a better place than we found it,” adding, “We all think that way.”
Connelly said that when she became a mom, everything changed for her in terms “of the way I went about my life.”
Litkenhous said “I totally believe in the community of the future that is here.” Snyder said he focuses on listening to all, taking everyone seriously and being respectful. Maller said the City is stronger when citizens stand up even when they are in a minority.