OPINION: Who Runs Falls Church?
Who runs Falls Church? I’ve been asking myself that question since Monday night. Presumably one would think it’s the City Council, with the input of the City Manager. My epiphany on Monday night was, it isn’t them.
On Monday the Council considered a community task force proposal that the City should seek $25 million in federal stimulus money for a “Green Lab” demonstration project. Mind you, it could be a very good idea. The issue is not with the concept. The issue is the process.
Consider this: The proposal was first presented to the Council a week earlier, when only four members were present. On Monday night, six Council members were present. Of those six, four voiced serious concerns. Questions were raised about the ability of the City staff to administer the program, about why an outside consultant’s footer appeared at the bottom of the formal resolution from the City staff, about whether those who had served on the task force would be eligible for grant money themselves, about the possibility of violating federal guidelines by funding projects already planned, about the City’s liability, about the sheer size of the request. As Vice Mayor Hal Lippman noted during the discussion, “This is a third of our annual budget.”
Some questions were never answered. For example: The proponents said the program would result in $9.5 million in energy savings for the City and its residents. Would that be over the three year grant period, or between now and 2050, one Council Member asked. The proponents assiduously avoided answering the question.
One would think that the avoidance of a question like that would make legislators take more time and look into the proponents’ calculations. It didn’t. The process marched on, to the audible admonition of “Just Vote!” from the proponents in the chamber.
So what was the hurry? The proponents said the Council must approve the application Monday in order to get the paperwork to the U.S. Department of Energy by Tuesday, June 30. Was that a hard deadline? Well, no, the proponents said. There is no deadline, per se, but we have to get in the queue right away or risk falling behind other communities.
Ah. “If you don’t act now, you are voting to kill it.” The sky is falling. Delay means death. Anyone who has worked around legislative bodies knows the tactic. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But in Falls Church, it works. The only time in recent memory it hasn’t worked is last year when the Falls Church Planning Commission refused to approve the parking plan for the affordable housing project, Center City South Apartments. As a result, the Planning Commission took a beating. “You are killing this project,” they were told, ostensibly because of a short time line for filing financing paperwork. Somehow, the Planning Commission found the gumption not to buckle. Some were replaced at the end of the year, but they never gave in.
Subsequently, the Falls Church Housing Corporation, the City’s affordable housing group, quietly said, “Uh, never mind.” Turns out, their original plan couldn’t get financing anyway. After all the finger pointing at the Planning Commission, the deal wasn’t viable in the first place. Now it has been cut back dramatically, and they still don’t have the money. Someone should thank last year’s Planning Commission for saving us from a debacle.
But that’s the Planning Commission, a bunch of unelected, unaccountable appointees. The City Council, our elected body, is more responsive.
The pity, however, is that on Monday the Council could have had it both ways. They could have been responsive and still have shown they were boss. All they had to do was say, “You have one week to answer our questions. If you do, we’ll approve it NEXT Monday night — one day before your contrived deadline. Go ahead and prepare your paperwork, and –- if you answer our questions –- you’ll be ready to file the next morning.”
Hats off to Council Member Nader Baroukh for trying to do that with his motion to postpone the vote “until a date prior to June 30,” and to Council Members David Snyder and Lawrence Webb for supporting him. But that motion failed on a 3-3 tie. The “Just Vote!” refrain apparently was too strong, so they voted — before all the questions were answered. Now, having given up their leverage to work out the details on the front end, the Council must do what they pledged and, assuming we get the money, closely oversee this program.
It’s an important pledge. The Council must remember that these programs do not monitor themselves. The GEORGE bus service –- which also started with a federal grant for green technology –- was ignored until it nearly tanked earlier this year, and it is a LOT smaller than the Green Labs proposal.
But I digress. None of that answers the question of who runs Falls Church . It seems that maybe it’s a group of people. I would put the Falls Church Housing Corporation high on the list. It seems they normally get what they want. The developer community is very strong, too. Sometimes City staff is forceful, sometimes not.
The City Council and City Manager need to take greater control and ensure their decisions are based on facts and data. On the Green Labs vote, they went too fast, failing to demand answers before voting.
Clearly, having a Green Labs program of this type could be huge win for the City, and perhaps the country. Falls Church could be a great test bed for a program of this nature –- if the program is well run. We can only hope that any stimulus funds received get close oversight, and that future agenda items get greater scrutiny before approval.
By Stan Fendley, Falls Church City
June 25, 2009