MAN ABOUT TOWN: Who’s in Charge Here?

November 8, 2010 by · 16 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

November 8, 2010

Who really runs this town? At the Falls Church Times, we’ve been asking ourselves that for a couple of years now. Of course we’ve never come up with a good answer, because there is no sole authority figure. But since the power brokers have shifted dramatically in the last few months, the question is worth reconsidering.

One person who used to be high on our list has taken a big fall. No, not our former mayor – she still has one vote on City Council, just as before. I’m talking about Carol Jackson, CEO of the Falls Church Housing Corporation. In the past, some of us wondered if Ms. Jackson, backed by former vice mayor Steve Rogers and developer Bob Young, might be the most powerful figure in the City. But with the failure of the Wilden seniors high-rise project, the FCHC has fallen on hard times, and the Jackson/Rogers influence on City planning has tumbled.

So who’s the big winner? I already noted that the City’s mayor only has one vote. A mayor is in a good position to advance policy, but there are no guarantees – especially when you don’t command a majority. The previous City Council saw five members voting in lockstep, but the new Council is all over the map. Mayor Baroukh has only two strong supporters – or is it three? I’m never sure. At any rate, it’s not an assured majority.

A weak City Council necessarily has less power over the City Manager, and Wyatt Shields appears to be in ascension. Last week he did a remarkable thing: By writing a “Guest Commentary” in the Falls Church News-Press, Shields crossed the line between serving the City and advocating policy. Although his submission ostensibly might be viewed as a “report to the taxpayers,” it can also be seen as an attempt to bolster the City Council’s position in its escalating spat with the School Board.

Perhaps the mayor asked Shields to write the article. If not, there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

At any rate, if I had to guess who’s the City’s most powerful figure I would have to say Shields. Even though he serves at the pleasure of City Council, he’s the one driving the bus. If the Council doesn’t like the way he drives, about the only thing they can do is replace him, which for a divided Council is tricky, and certainly treacherous when the bus is traveling 60 mph.

So Shields is in charge, and probably feeling pretty safe. Word on the street is that our former chief financial officer John Tuohy didn’t quit – Shields fired him. This is troubling to me, because from my perspective Tuohy had long warned the Council of an impending financial meltdown, whereas Shields likes to paint a rosier picture.

After what will be five months without a CFO, Shields has finally appointed Richard LaCondré. My first question was, given the City’s financial turmoil, who would want the job? And my next question is: why did Shields decide on LaCondré?

LaCondré was the finance commissioner for Sullivan County, New York, for seven years until he suddenly took early retirement in 2007, resulting in rumors that he had been forced out. During LaCondré’s tenure, an audit revealed that Sullivan County’s fund balance was $7 million less than reported. The problem was blamed on accounting errors within the County’s Division of Health and Family Services, and LaCondré appears not to have been faulted. But to suddenly see your fund balance cut in half is a major shock, as we in Falls Church well know.

According to a knowledgeable source, when LaCondré was at the height of his influence, Sullivan County made some very bad financial decisions concerning its landfill. The question is whether LaCondré should have prevailed upon the decision makers to take a wiser course. At any rate, he again was not blamed.

The only official black mark on LaCondré’s record dates back to 1997, when he was censured, reprimanded, and fined $500 by New York State’s Professional Misconduct Enforcement office for failing to return records to a client.

For the past two years, LaCondré has worked for the city of Tallahassee, including as interim personnel director. News reports featuring his name during this period mostly concern Tallahassee’s budget deficit and the resulting city employee buyout package that LaCondré oversaw.

So, our city manager has chosen a CFO who has experience with suddenly evaporating fund balances, with very bad decisions by elected officials (their landfill = our waterworks), and with coping with budget deficits through city employee buyouts. (Should we infer anything from that last clause?)

This is not a judgment on Mr. LaCondré. I’ll wait to see the tenor of his memos to City Council. If, like former CFO Tuohy, he provides some stark warnings, then well and good. But if his reports are all sweetness and light, we’ll have reason to suspect that a higher power figure is pulling the strings.

MAN ABOUT TOWN: First (and Last) Trip to BJ’s

November 1, 2010 by · 17 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

November 1, 2010

If you know the Man About Town, you’re not the least surprised that he’s down on BJ’s. After all, what does he like?

Oh, right – he likes the “village atmosphere” of Falls Church.

Well, if it takes a village, BJ’s comes up lacking. I’d call it the least village-y spot in our City.

Not that it’s hardly even part of our City – stuck out there east of Eden on 8.4 acres that no one short of City officials probably even realized fell inside City limits.

So it really doesn’t matter if the developer cut down over 100 mature hardwoods and paved the whole lot with impermeable asphalt. BJ’s neighbors, who formerly backed onto a forest, don’t even vote in the City.

But just for the sake of argument, what if BJ’s had tried to locate in the center of the City. Would we have welcomed it with open arms?

For two years I’ve heard nothing but hosannas for the new BJ’s – the savior of the Little City. It’s commercial development like this, we’re told, that will enable the City to survive.

As my daughter taught me to say, Gag me with a spoon.

Before you brand me as an elitist so-and-so — for the record, I shopped at BJ’s Landmark location for seven long years. At the time we were feeding and outfitting a family of six, and it was the cheapest place I could find. Many a miserable Sunday afternoon was spent in BJ’s, dragging two or even three massive carts to the checkout. So my prejudices come deeply ingrained. In the end the kids grew up, we moved to Europe and learned a different lifestyle, and upon our return chose a “village” to live in. We never looked back at BJ’s, and never dreamed that one day BJ’s would come looking for us.

At least the new BJ’s is more palatable than the concrete shell at Landmark. I noticed polished floors, and there’s less of a warehouse feel. But to me there will always be something unappetizing about putting a gallon of milk and a flat-panel TV in the same shopping cart.

If there’s one commercial establishment that epitomizes what we love about Falls Church, it is, of course, Brown’s Hardware. And BJ’s is the antithesis of Brown’s Hardware. I rest my case.

No, wait – there’s more. No story of BJ’s is complete without telling the part about the tax break. Because to attract BJ’s, the City agreed to pay the developer up to $3 million over 12 years. In turn, the developer would charge below-market rent to BJ’s, enabling BJ’s to offer below-market prices to its customers.

What’s not to like? Well — plenty, if you happen to be Giant Foods or any other City business impacted by BJ’s. It’s the fairness principle. Giant – and even Brown’s Hardware, for that matter – have to charge their customers enough to pay market rent on their places of business. And they’ve been supporting the City for decades. Now the City has enticed BJ’s with a $3 million tax break, effectively reducing BJ’s cost of doing business. Is that fair to the competition?

I felt so passionate about this that on October 27, 2008, I wrote the following letter to the Falls Church News-Press:


I, for one, have no objection to seeing BJ’s locate in Falls Church, and in fact probably would purchase some items there that I currently buy at Giant or Staples. Many other shoppers might do the same if BJ’s offers lower prices. But if I were a competitor of BJ’s I would be very upset by a City plan that effectively lowers BJ’s cost of doing business.

The key sentence in the City’s proposal is: “There is a significant delta between market rent that the owner can obtain for leasing the site and the rent that BJ’s can pay to make their ground lease economically feasible.” In other words, although on paper the $3 million tax subsidy goes to the developer, in reality it goes to BJ’s in the form of lower rent. Apparently it is only “economically feasible” for BJ’s to offer lower prices if they enjoy lower costs than their competition.

How can we be a business-friendly city if we award a tax break to a would-be competitor to existing city businesses?

The News-Press did not see fit to publish my letter. Frustrated, perhaps, I became involved in an upstart online publication called the Falls Church Times. But I held my peace on BJ’s – until now.

MAN ABOUT TOWN: Get Ready – It’s Coming to an End

October 25, 2010 by · 15 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 25, 2010

James Thurber (who as a boy spent the summer of 1902 in Falls Church) wrote about the “Get Ready Man”: – a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world. “Get ready! Get read-y,” he would bellow. “The worllld is coming to an End! “

And yes, I realize that, in Little Falls Church, I’m the modern-day “Get Ready Man.”  That wasn’t the plan when the Man About Town began his weekly musings more than a year ago. The column was intended to be light and whimsical, featuring such City phenomena as the duck tree and what-not, with political comment confined to the City’s ugliest buildings or the failed GEORGE bus.

But the introduction of the Falls Church Times dispelled my innocence (ignorance) of City politics. After only a short exposure to City Hall I was like Adam and Eve eating the apple: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.”

My first “Get Ready” proclamation came on September 21, 2009, when I wrote “Why Falls Church Needs Arlington.” I noted that Falls Church City’s tax rate, at $1.07, was “almost 25 percent higher” than Arlington’s. A year later, our rate is $1.24 and rising. But the tax rate is only a symptom of our City’s systemic problem.

When Hollywood Video filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the board of directors did what every board does in those circumstances: they fired the CEO and announced a restructuring plan. But it didn’t work, because Hollywood Video’s problems were not due to bad management — they were experiencing a “who moved my cheese” situation. The Internet and Netflix spelled the death of brick and mortar video rental stores, and the next to fall will be Blockbuster, which began bankruptcy proceedings last month — concurrent with firing its CEO and announcing a restructuring plan.

Falls Church City is little different. We’ve fired our CEO (mayor and City Council leadership) and begun a restructuring plan. The City’s been downsizing for more than a year, and recently began outsourcing garbage pickup. And if you believe what the ex-mayor’s husband writes (a risky proposition, but he does have a good source), our sheriff’s duties could be transferred to Arlington County and our Commissioner of the Revenue and Treasurer offices could be combined.

It won’t work. Downsize and outsource all you want – the City remains unsustainable.

People refuse to accept this, arguing that Falls Church is no different from hundreds or even thousands of other municipalities currently struggling to balance their books. But as I’ve been shouting through my megaphone, Falls Church is different – very different – from almost any other municipality in the country.  Creating that difference is the state of Virginia, which historically has required its cities to be independent of surrounding counties. That works, more or less, for larger cities like Alexandria, but the knockout punch for small cities came in 1987, when the General Assembly imposed a moratorium on city annexation of county land. (Not that it matters for Falls Church – our opportunity to grow was lost years earlier when Fairfax County developed sufficiently to offer competing services.)

The problem in a nutshell is this: no viable municipality can fund services primarily on the backs of its households. A commercial component – the larger the better – is required. Normally, a commercial sector grows naturally within a municipality. But little Falls Church’s 2.2 square miles are largely residential and becoming more so. We shop across our borders, in Fairfax and Arlington counties, and no “restructuring” can change that.

Unsolvable problems create stress. As our plumber commented upon our purchase of a 1923 beach house, “the fun is just beginning.”  Yes.  Or in the case of Falls Church, the fireworks are just beginning. The acrid smell of gunpowder will be particularly pungent during encounters between the City Council and the School Board. This is most unfortunate, because these are good people. But the School Board faces rising enrollment and a shrinking budget, while the City Council needs to raise the tax rate another 5 cents just to get us through the fiscal year.

And that’s just the beginning — there’s little provision for capital improvements, not to mention school expansion, and City pension contributions are running low as well. Add it all up and you need at least a $1.50 tax rate. Whoops, forgot about the pesky 12 percent fund balance requirement which is still running on empty. Better aim for $1.55.

Foreseeing this, and remembering the English Queen Mary’s marriage for political purposes to Prince Philip of Spain, the Man About Town urged that, to forestall a school war, the former School Board chairman be made the new mayor. Instead, my friend and neighbor Nader Baroukh was anointed – something I wouldn’t have wished on him. He’s doing a great job and I salute him, but, oh dear, the fun is just beginning.

Get readd-y.

MAN ABOUT TOWN: Shooting Down Some Local Myths

October 18, 2010 by · 15 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 18, 2010

My college newspaper’s slogan was, “All the news that gives you fits.” Years later I’m still trying to give folks fits.

If people hold a popular misconception, and the press does nothing to dispel it, who’s to blame? Isn’t it the fault of the press?

When I lived in Barbados, I heard over and over that it had a 99.9 percent literacy rate – the highest in the world. Everyone was told it, believed it, and repeated it, although it was merely a myth.

Coming closer to home, the Little City of Falls Church has some cherished myths of its own, and woe to anyone who would dare try to dispel them.

MYTH #1: Even though real estate tax rates are 30 percent higher in Falls Church than in Arlington, the Falls Church taxpayer is compensated by a commensurate higher property value.

This is easy to “prove” if you want – just compare apples and oranges. But I see no evidence that similar properties in similar neighborhoods are any cheaper in North Arlington than in Falls Church. In fact, in many instances North Arlington properties are more expensive than comparable Falls Church homes.

MYTH #2: Falls Church City Schools are the highest ranked in the region, and among the highest in the country.

“Rank” is a difficult word. I don’t care for it, except for its adjectival form, such as describing an overripe cheese. But with no malice toward our excellent schools, I think it’s important to make the point that our school “ranking” benefits enormously from the 1948 gerrymandered shrinking of City limits to exclude the economically less advantaged. Sure, our schools generate top test scores – but so do many other public schools in well-to-do neighborhoods. The difference is that Falls Church has no schools on the other side of the tracks to dilute the top scores.

For example, compare George Mason High School with Yorktown in Arlington, which has a similar socio-economic student base. Click on the links to see the “report cards” prepared by the Virginia Department of Education. The biggest difference I see is that Yorktown is twice the size of Mason. Looking at various statistical reports, the scores are quite similar, although, overall, Yorktown seems to come out on top. And in large print you can read that Yorktown “Made Adequate Yearly Progress,” whereas Mason “Did Not Make Adequate Yearly Progress.” I don’t remember reading that in any press release.

Then there are the “Adjusted Pass Rates.” In three out of four categories, Yorktown beats Mason: English, 97-95; Math, 94-93; History, 98-97; Science, 96-98. Significant? Not really – but where did we get the idea that Mason was the top-ranked high school in the region?

Oh, I remember – we read the Washington Post’s Challenge Index, compiled by education writer Jay Mathews. Falls Church City Schools ranks No. 1 with a 5.3 rating, followed by Arlington at 4.2, Montgomery at 3.2, and Fairfax at 2.9. Pretty impressive. Except – just what is the challenge index? As Mathews himself states, it is not a measure of school quality. Instead, it’s the number of advanced placement or IB tests a school gives, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post, uses the same formula to rank high schools nationwide. In 2010, Mason ranked 45th in the country. Again, pretty impressive – but there’s a catch: those advanced standardized tests are expensive to administer, and in most areas of the United States the students have to pay to take them. Locally, most school districts not only bear the cost but also require students to take the exams. Apples and oranges.

Oh, and by the way: the top Challenge Index locally was not George Mason but rather Arlington’s H.B. Woodlawn. But Falls Church City Schools earned the top ranking because it has only one high school, whereas Arlington’s Woodlawn score was “diluted” by Arlington’s other high schools.

My point? Merely that while our City has excellent schools, so do many surrounding areas, Arlington in particular. And as a parent who has sent children to Falls Church, Arlington, and Fairfax County schools, I would contend that our small schools have advantages and disadvantages. Yes, there’s a nice feel about a small school where everyone knows everyone else, but on the negative side, we have no crew team, no swimming pool, no industrial arts or other distributive education, and very limited foreign language selection, to mention a few. Size matters.

So, print this article and then burn it. Or wrap it around a rock and hurl it through my window. Or cancel your subscription. Or — if you really want to spite me — just refuse to let it give you fits.

MAN ABOUT TOWN: The Elephant in Council Chambers

October 11, 2010 by · 6 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 11, 2010

Caught on tape at last week’s City Council work session:

Ms. Gardner: One of the elephants in the room is that we’ve gone to the Justice Department, and they’ve approved [the election date change], and if we retract [it], I think the Justice Department will have an issue with that.

Ms. Barry: It wasn’t an elephant in the room, because an elephant in the room is something you don’t discuss, and we’ve already discussed going back and forth to the Department of Justice.

I submit that both the gentle ladies are wrong. There most certainly was an elephant in the room – it’s there yet – but it has nothing to do with the Justice Department.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the “elephant in the room” first appeared in the New York Times on June 20, 1959: “Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

Wow. Thank you, NYT, for seeing 50 years into the future and coining the perfect idiom for our City Council. And what irony – of all the elephants in all the rooms in all the world, the original school finance elephant walks into ours.

How big is this elephant? Here are its dimensions by way of Falls Church City Schools statistics and forecasts:

Total student capacity (all schools):           2,330
Total students as of Sept. 30, 2010:          2,052
Room  to grow:                                                  278

The school administration projected an increase this year of 41 students. They missed it by half – the actual increase is 61. Next year they’re projecting another 81 students. So those 278 spaces are going fast.

But it’s worse than that. You can’t split students equitably between buildings – some are going to be over capacity and others under. Mount Daniel Elementary has 39 extra spaces, TJ Elementary 40, ME Henderson Middle 122, and Mason High 55.

To illustrate how fast a school can grow, the past five years have seen a 61-pupil increase at Mt. Daniel.

The elephant is hungry. It wants a new school building, but there’s no money to build it. We just built a new school five years ago, and don’t even have the debt capacity to borrow money for another one.

This year, the City Schools performed a miracle first done with loaves and fishes: Despite the 50 percent higher growth than expected, no additional personnel were hired. That’s a good trick, but can it be repeated? Can you keep an elephant under your hat?

City Manager Wyatt Shields has done a great job keeping the elephant at bay. He exudes a calm, competent confidence such that you don’t even smell the elephant, much less see it. So it’s not surprising that Shields doesn’t seem to care too much for the volunteer experts known as the Long Range Financial Planning Working Group. Led by Richard Sommerfeld, the LRFPWG regularly cries elephant. Sommerfeld, unfettered by concerns of job security or elected position, has been especially outspoken, and recently wrote in the Falls Church News-Press:

“City revenues, after just one month of the current fiscal year, are running $191,801 behind budget. Behind the $161,449 decline in expenditures are several staff vacancies, including a missing CFO for the City as our external auditor commences the FY10 audit. Despite the previous Council exhausting $15 million of fund balances over a three-year period, tough expense cutting decisions this year, and delivering the largest real estate tax increase in anybody’s memory (and the largest in the entire metro area), the fragility of The Little City’s financial health should be front and center with the City staff, Council, and the FCNP.”

And he didn’t even mention the schools.

Returning from an African safari, Groucho Marx  said, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

If Groucho were still around he could shoot the elephant. Otherwise, how we’ll get it out of Council chambers I’ll never know.

MAN ABOUT TOWN: Why Are School Plans Secret?

October 4, 2010 by · 10 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 4, 2010

Quite a little brouhaha in the Little City last week over my conjecture that officials were looking to build a new school in Hillwood Square. I led with the most shocking assumption – that the nearly new Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School would logically then be torn down. That got everyone’s attention, as well as a denial by School Board Chairman Joan Wodiska, who issued a statement that I had ”incorrectly suggested that City officials were discussing tearing down Mary Ellen Henderson.”

So now we know what they’re NOT going to do – but why no statement on what they ARE planning?


— The City Council, School Board, and Planning Commission have met several times in closed session to discuss purchase of the Hillwood Square property.

— Obviously, if the City bought the property it would build a school on it.

— There are four City schools. Are they planning a fifth? I don’t think so – it’s already strange enough to split the elementary years between two schools. So it seems almost certain that if the City builds a new school, it will sell some existing property.

— Which school would be sold? Well, which school building can the City afford to sell? Mt. Daniel and Thomas Jefferson both are in residential areas. The properties are desirable, but would hardly generate windfall profits.

— So, forgive me for having assumed that, rather than selling Mt. Daniel or TJ, the City would sell the fabulously desirable land adjoining the West Falls Church Metro – which former Councilman Dan Maller has suggested might bring enough money to cover the whole cost of a new school.

When Walt Disney decided to build a new theme park in Florida, he formed a number of “front” companies to buy up land in order to conceal the purpose and keep down the price. Nobody knew the swampland was being acquired to build Disney World, and that worked to Disney’s extreme advantage.

But what our City officials don’t seem to realize is that they’re not a private corporation. Their decisions are funded by taxpayers, who have a right not only to know what they’re deliberating, but to provide input.

The City’s excuse for holding closed meetings on the subject is, to cite Virginia Code, that “discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy.”

OK – I can understand that some portions of the discussion should be private, but certainly not everything. What we have right now is a major decision, with major consequences, under consideration with zero knowledge of — or input from — the public. That’s not right. That’s why we have sunshine laws: the public has a right to know. Read more

REPRISE: Separating Fact from Opinion

September 30, 2010 by · 10 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

September 30, 2010

I just read the following comment in the Falls Church News-Press by City Councilwoman and former mayor Robin Gardner:

Although Mr. Southern’s piece is an opinion piece, he does tend to make his comments sound like fact. That, in turn, riles people up. When he makes it sound like he has facts, folks then think he must have gotten his data from someone inside the closed meeting.

So as a service to Ms. Gardner, School Board Chair Joan Wodiska, and any other riled-up readers who may need assistance, there follows a reprint of my Monday MAN ABOUT TOWN column, this time clearly delineating FACT from OPINION:

MAN ABOUT TOWN: What? Tear Down Our New School?

I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard the idea (FACT): tear down the still-unpaid $25 million Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School? (QUESTION) No way (OPINION)– it’s barely five years old! (FACT)

But after getting over the initial shock I began to rationalize that, indeed, it might make sense. (OPINION) And now it’s looking more and more like it actually might happen. (OPINION) The 60 acres that house MEH and George Mason High School, with their sports fields and parking lots adjacent to the West Falls Church Metro, constitute a gold mine. (FACT) You might as well build city schools there as in Times Square. (OPINION)

To visualize what that 60 acres could look like, hop the Metro to Vienna and just gaze: hundreds of apartments and condominiums. (FACT) If they like Vienna, wouldn’t they like West Falls Church even more? (OPINION) Not only is it two stops closer to the District, it’s also one stop from the junction with the upcoming Silver Line out to Tyson’s and Dulles. (FACT)

Sure, East Falls Church is desirable too – but with so many small property owners, it’s a developer’s nightmare. (OPINION) Whereas WFC offers the potential of obtaining 60 golden acres from a single owner. (FACT)

Should that owner sell?  Would that owner sell? Well — who needs money any worse than the Little (bankrupt) City of Falls Church? (QUESTIONS)

Maybe that’s why (OPINION) the City Council, the School Board, and the Planning Commission held a top-secret meeting last week to discuss land acquisition. (FACT) Because you can’t knock down the schools until new ones are built. (FACT)

Where to build? (QUESTION) The first criterion is that any new school has to be outside City limits – as bizarre as that sounds. (HISTORICAL FACT) We can’t afford to take any City land off the tax rolls. (IMPLICIT FACT)

The next requirement is for some serious acreage: enough for football and baseball fields, tennis courts, parking lots – all that. (FACT) But where in the world can you find that much land reasonably close to the City that could actually be purchased? (QUESTION)

There may be only one place – Hillwood Square, just behind Larry Graves Park and soccer field on Hillwood Avenue. (OPINION) The City already owns the soccer field [CORRECTION: See Barry Buschow’s comment below]. (CORRECTED INACCURACY) Combine that with Hillwood Square and you have a very nice piece of property – just about perfect for a middle and high school complex. (OPINION)

Hillwood Square Mutual Association is a cooperative of 160 families sitting on 19 acres. (FACT) The key word is “cooperative,” meaning that the residents don’t actually own their homes individually. (FACT) If they did, you could never get them all to agree to sell. (OPINION) But a majority of the cooperative could send the rest packing. (FACT)

Why would Hillwood Square residents want to sell? (QUESTION) They certainly didn’t back in 2002 when the City offered $4 million for 6 acres of undeveloped land. (FACT) And they still don’t, if you believe one website. (FACT) (Methinks they doth protest too much.) (OPINION) But maybe since the building boom fizzled, residents have decided to sell for a realistic price. (OPINION) The townhomes were built by the U.S. Navy in 1941 for workers at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, (FACT) so you can be pretty sure they don’t have granite counter tops. (OPINION) Any offer over $25 million should get their attention. (OPINION)

This is really a win-win-win situation. (OPINION) Hillwood Square owners win because they receive a far higher price for their aging properties than anyone else is likely to offer. (OPINION) The City wins by cashing in on the WFC land with proceeds to help build both a new middle and high school in a more suitable area than what we have now. (OPINION)

And most important is that Fairfax County wins big time, because without support from Fairfax the deal would never happen. (FACT) All that WFC school property is in Fairfax County, and right now it’s all tax exempt. (FACT) Selling it to private developers would generate windfall tax profits for the county, (FACT) so they should fall all over themselves to promote a Hillwood Square sale to the City in exchange. (OPINION)

What’s not to like? (QUESTION) Well, I still cringe at the thought of seeing bulldozers knocking down our brand new $25 million middle school. (FACT) In hindsight it was a bad idea to build MEH where they did. (OPINION) But at the time it seemed the best, if not the only, alternative. (OPINION) After all, the City already owned the land. (FACT)

Maybe they’ll decide to hang on to MEH and just sell the high school and sports fields. (OPINION) You’d lose the synergy of having the two schools together, but it might make economic sense. (OPINION)

On September 30 the City Schools will conduct their annual assessment of students – how many there are, and where they live. (FACT) Then they’ll update their estimates of how soon we have to build more school facilities. (FACT) Stay tuned. (OPINIONATED ADVICE)

OPINION: In My Own Defense

September 29, 2010 by · 23 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

September 29, 2010

Yes, I knew the MAN ABOUT TOWN column I wrote on Monday would be controversial, and also something of a “scoop.” And so it was. But I didn’t realize they would shoot the messenger.

I broke the news that the City Council, School Board, and Planning Commission were considering purchasing property in Hillwood Square for a new school. And I hypothesized that the plan might be to build a new high school and middle school there and sell the existing facilities adjacent to the West Falls Church Metro to developers. Implicit in such action is that the school buildings would be razed.

For my efforts, I’ve been maligned by several of the City’s leading citizens. Barry Buschow, whom I respect, opined that I fabricated the whole thing. Lindy Hockenberry, who has doubted me before (but ultimately conceded that I was correct about the City’s former segregation policy), stated in so many words that she doesn’t believe the explanation she asked for and received from me.

School Board Chair Joan Wodiska delivered a statement to City Council Monday night and then circulated it widely as a press release. It begins:

On September 27th, the Falls Church Times ran a story entitled, “What? Tear Down Our New School?”  Among a number of inaccuracies, the story incorrectly suggested that City officials were discussing tearing down Mary Ellen Henderson.

And so now I rise to speak in my own defense.

First, Ms. Wodiska incorrectly characterizes my column in the Falls Church Times as a “story.” That suggests a news report, whereas I was writing an opinion column, also known as an “op-ed piece.” When the Falls Church Times runs a “story,” it is reporting the news. How to tell the difference? A news story would never have a headline that reads “MAN ABOUT TOWN,” which is in fact how all my column headlines begin. The School Board statement left that off my headline and so concealed what otherwise would be obvious: this was not a “story” but rather an opinion column.

Ms. Wodiska refers to “a number of inaccuracies” in my column but specifies only one: “the story incorrectly suggested that City officials were discussing tearing down Mary Ellen Henderson.”

Here’s what I said: “Maybe that’s why the City Council, the School Board, and the Planning Commission held a top-secret meeting last week to discuss land acquisition. Because you can’t knock down the schools until new ones are built.”

That statement begins with a conjecture, clearly labeled as such. The rest of the sentence is fact: those City officials certainly did hold a “top-secret” meeting last week to discuss land acquisition.

Now, where in the world did I get the idea that “City officials” might be discussing the possibility of selling the high school and middle school property? Did I fabricate it out of whole cloth? No, I read a “guest commentary” last March in the Falls Church News-Press by then City Councilman Dan Maller, who wrote:

“Our high school (and middle school) sit on the most valuable piece of property in the area. The development potential of 30 acres at the West Falls Church Metro is enormous. The natural response is: where would we put our high school? My answer is that we could not find a more expensive piece of property, so we would find property somewhere in or around the City, and the money earned from the endeavor would finance not only the acquisition of alternative property, but likely a significant portion of the construction cost of new facilities as well, and provide for a far more orderly transition.”

And that, written by a prominent member of City Council, appearing prominently in the News-Press, is my justification for beginning my column with the words: I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard the idea: tear down the still-unpaid $25 million Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School? No way – it’s barely five years old!

That leaves only one more indignity to address: the insinuation that a member of City Council, the School Board, or the Planning Commission betrayed their confidence by leaking the news to me about Hillwood Square. Ms. Wodiska’s press release, in apparent reference to the “leak,” states:

A violation of closed meeting law is serious and grounds for censuring or other punishment of a public official.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Baroukh followed up on this, charging the City Attorney to send out a “reminder” to all members of boards. Were I a board member receiving such a “reminder,” I would consider it an insult to my integrity.

So, amid the finger pointing, insinuations, character assassination, and threats of recrimination, just how did the Man About Town learn that a possible purchase of Hillwood Square property was discussed in closed session? I already gave the answer to Lindy Hockenberry, and it is so simple that she refused to believe me. But believe it or not, I simply read the online agenda item:

Closed Session pursuant to Section 2.2-3711 (A)(3) of the Code of Virginia for the “[d]iscussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose, or of the disposition of publicly held real property, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.” [Hillwood Square]

The defense rests.

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