CANDIDATE Q&A: Ron Peppe
Peppe is currently Chairman of the Falls Church City School Board. Professionally, he is Vice President for Legal, HR and Compliance for Canam Steel Corporation.
Twenty-seven years ago, when we were first married, my wife, Beth, and I lived just outside the City of Falls Church. We would walk into town and visit the library (and notice things like the police driving Volvos), and talk about how we would like to live in the city someday. It turns out we had to wait 20 years – we moved to the city in 2004.
During those 20 years, I have spent a lot of time working on community and local government issues, including an advisory board for emergency services and a countywide board of education. I also served on the boards of three large homeowners associations, and on the board of directors of a state association of boards of education. I learned a lot about disaster preparedness and other emergency issues during several years on the board of the local chapter of the American Red Cross.
When I moved to Falls Church, I stayed involved in education, serving as President of the George Mason High School PTSA. I am now completing four years on the School Board of Falls Church City, including the past two years as the board chair.
My work has included significant involvement in municipal issues. As a bond lawyer, I handled financing for schools, health care facilities, water and sewer projects, transportation and other infrastructure projects. I currently manage all US legal and human resource matters for an international construction and manufacturing company.
1. Why do you want to be on City Council?
When I looked at the challenges facing our city, I decided that my experience in government, finance, human resources, education and emergency services would be helpful at the City Council level. I also offer a track record of helping facilitate decisions by diverse and sometimes diametrically opposed groups of people.
2. What has City government done well in the last 10 years? What has it done poorly?
During my tenure on the school board, we have worked hard to make information more easily available and to facilitate citizen participation. There is still room for improvement at the school and city level. Elected officials have to sometimes make hard decisions that some people will love and some people will hate. We need to make sure our elected officials work together better to make those decisions.
3. If you could determine the physical nature of Falls Church, what would the City look like in 20 years in terms of buildings, green space, transportation, and other physical aspects?
There is going to be growth and development, so we need to direct the growth so that we can preserve our neighborhoods and put the density in the right places. We need to keep improving walking access. When I was knocking on doors for the campaign, someone suggested that the city provide tax relief in return for easements to create pedestrian paths on private property. We need to explore ideas like that. We also need convenient and affordable parking so that residents and visitors can leave their car in one place and walk to stores and offices without worrying about being towed.
4. Aside from the physical nature of the City, what should change and what should remain the same?
We must retain and enhance the transparency of government and ease of citizen participation. Some people like to do things online. Some people like to show up for meetings. We need to make sure the information flows more easily in different formats to and from city hall so that we can make more informed decisions.
5. How would you propose to balance the city budget? Please identify any specific spending cuts or revenue increases you would suggest.
I participated in some hard budget decisions by the school board. Some people think the cuts are not enough, some think they go too far, but the overall budget decisions were based on priorities for our long-term objectives. We specifically wanted to: (i) preserve our independent school system; (ii) maintain the arts, music and physical education; and (iii) keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible. We cut staff hours, supplies and travel, and consolidated functions with the city, while increasing student learning time and minimizing layoffs that affect instruction. The city needs to take a similar approach, including longer-range planning and making sure that all spending is aligned with the top priorities.
6. When the City’s budget situation improves to allow capital improvement projects, which project would be your top priority?
My own experience is that a government investment in infrastructure can lead to more private investment. A good example is parking. In Frederick where I used to live, the city built parking decks, even though some people thought it was crazy because many businesses were leaving and moving to the malls. That parking helped spur more private investment in restaurants, stores and offices downtown. Here in Falls Church, we make each building put in parking, but you cannot park for dinner then walk around or you will get towed.
We need to spur this kind of commercial development so we can pay for the other capital projects we need, notably the schools and recreation. We don’t need palaces, but we do need adequate buildings configured for today’s educational needs. We need to agree on a long-range facilities plan, and identify what sort of public-private partnerships we can use to leverage some of our current prime school real estate.
7. What is your position on the proposed affordable housing project, “The Wilden”?
I swear that every time I try to figure out this project, it changes. I am glad that the project is evolving in response to public input, though a little more clarity about the dollars would be helpful. I still see very divergent views, with people I respect on both sides of the issue. What I hear from the public is (i) we generally support providing affordable senior housing for existing residents but (ii) we are concerned about the cost and timing of this particular project. I think the addition of public parking and commercial space are a critical improvement, but we need to monitor and keep asking questions to make sure we are getting what we have been promised.
8. What was your position on moving City Council and School Board elections from May to November?
I have the distinction of being the only person in this race who has run a non-partisan local campaign during national elections, so I know from experience how the move changes things. I was appointed to a school board in Maryland by the Governor, but, during my term, that board was changed to an elected board as a result of a local referendum. I then had to run for office to keep my seat, and the election took place along with the 2000 presidential election. Regardless of how you feel about the change, it does make things more partisan. Although the school board was a non-partisan office, the inclusion along with the presidential race meant that all the campaign events centered around and were overshadowed by the partisan races. I would have favored a referendum to make sure most people actually wanted the change, though I suspect we might have ended up with the same result given the potential cost savings and greater turnout.
9. What changes, if any, should the City make regarding its water system following the recent litigation with Fairfax County Water Authority?
If we cannot continue to draw a return on investment from owning the system, I am not sure our capital should be tied up in owning it. I have heard there are other benefits that remain if the system shares administration and space with the city, but I would like to see a more detailed accounting of the real cost of owning the system and the potential other uses for that capital. Can we work something out that factors into more land for our long-range school and facility planning or provides other benefits? I have not seen this kind of analysis. Could we have avoided this litigation in the first place? It is always important to analyze these things, regardless of the outcome, to help us make better decisions in the future.
10. Are there any practices or programs you have seen in other communities – nearby or far away – that should be adopted by the City of Falls Church?
I already mentioned parking. In my role on the school board, we have advocated exploring formulas for school funding like some other jurisdictions use, so that we can have better predictability and longer-range financial planning for both the city and the schools. Some other jurisdictions use multi-year budgeting as a tool. One of the things that surprised me about Falls Church was that we have a seven member School Board and a seven member City Council. Do we really need this many people? I have seen other towns, that are larger, function well with five-member boards. I would love to hear what people think about that idea, good or bad. Let me know at email@example.com.
By Falls Church Times Staff
March 31, 2010