Letter: Reflections on the Referendum Vote

November 10, 2011 by · 18 Comments 


November 10, 2011

I’d like to offer my congratulations to all of the referendum supporters. Though I opposed the referendum, I am very happy the question was brought to City residents to decide.

Though many are ready to now move on, I think we’ve really just begun.  November elections on local issues are completely new to Falls Church, there is a lot of work to be done and I hope the community will stay engaged.

Starting first with the election results, I am concerned to see that voter turnout for this first November vote on local issues was still only 30.7%.  As one of the biggest selling points for the change, moving to November didn’t magically improve turnout.  As a community, we need to keep thinking about how to keep everyone informed and engaged, and continue to improve turnout.  One idea that has been raised in the past is introducing vote by mail.  Perhaps we should think about acting on this or other ideas to get the vote out.

Second, I was really struck with what appeared to be a partisan vote. Consider:

– 1,738 votes to pass the referendum
– 1,730 votes for Democratic Candidate Saslaw (the only contested race on the ballot)

Perhaps it’s some anomaly or strange coincidence, but I suspect the local Democratic Committee’s support of the referendum through sample ballots, emails, etc. had some influence on those numbers being virtually identical.  To be clear, it is freedom of speech and well within their right to support anything they want to quite frankly, but in my view this is a slippery slope of political endorsements that will allow partisanship to become an integral part of our local elections.

Going forward, I hope the City Council will do everything in its power to limit partisanship in our elections.  This includes not only a charter change which Mr. Webb recently raised, but I would ask the Council to go further and pass a resolution, or intent statement, stating why this was put to a referendum to begin with, and declaring for future generations that they hope it will not enable partisanship at the polls. While not binding, my hope is it sets the tone for generations to come, and helps preserve the proud
non-partisan tradition that we have.

Second, and equally important, I hope the local Democratic and Republican Committees adopt similar resolutions or intent statements, and perhaps even a code of conduct that reaffirms their current public positions of not allowing partisanship to influence local elections.  Political endorsements of candidates, co-mingling political advertisements, canvassing door to door for state and local party candidates should all be declared off-limits.  I hope this will also help set the tone within their respective organizations to
prevent future partisanship.

While these actions would help, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think our City Council and the local political committees alone have the final say on whether or not our future elections become partisan.  It really will be up to each and every one of us as individuals to stand firm, stay vigilant and ensure it does not become a staple in our future. The diversity of candidates and opinions that we gain from staying non-partisan will benefit our City for generations to come.

Mike Novotny
Falls Church City

COMMUNITY COMMENT: Vote NO on the Election Change Referendum

November 1, 2011 by · 14 Comments 

November 4, 2011

A NO Vote on the referendum — which proposes switching Falls Church City Council and School Board elections from May to November — will keep those elections in May.

Preserving the nonpartisan election tradition.  Newcomers seem surprised when they hear that our May City Council and School Board elections are nonpartisan.  Voters who strongly favor keeping May politics nonpartisan wish to retain some diversity on City Council and School Board, where differences of opinion are valued.  November elections will most likely become partisan; May elections are nonpartisan.  If we were to lump City elections with state elections held in November, we could lose the nonpartisanship.  We are too small a City to allow divisiveness to replace diversity.

Attracting voters to the polls.  The referendum provides that City elections would occur in odd years.  Since presidential elections occur in even years, we would not be voting for local officials at elections with the highest voter turnout.  In elections for governor, in alternate odd years, voter turnout is higher than in elections for state offices.  In 2007, (not an election for governor but for state offices) turnout was 28%.  Consider past City elections.  From May 1974 through May 2010, five out of the 19 elections had unusually low voter turnout because of being un-contested (no more candidates than open seats).  In all other elections, with opposition candidates, turnout ranged from 24% to 55%.   Highest voter turnout occurred in contested elections (more candidates than seats) when major City issues were on the table.  The sometimes-silent majority becomes less silent when it is perceived that something valued is at stake and that voting will make a difference.

Focusing on state and local issues and candidates in separate elections.  The General Assembly of Virginia enacted a law which took effect July 1, 2000, which provided local option for Cities and Towns to switch to November elections.  Nineteen of the 39 Cities and 28 of the 190 Towns have switched their local elections to November.  Imagine combining the state and local contests.  If you campaign for a state senator and a delegate, and some City Council and School Board candidates, will you be campaigning for all of your choices at one time?  Will candidate forums be doubled?  Let’s preserve our City’s nonpartisan tradition of focusing on local issues and candidates by continuing our May City elections.

Vote NO on the Referendum!

Edie Smolinski is a member and past president of the Citizens for a Better City and the Falls Church chapter of the League of Women Voters.  The views expressed are her own.

This is the fourth and final Community Comment in our series regarding next week’s referendum on moving City elections from May to November.  The four commentaries have included two opponents of the change – Vice Mayor David Snyder, and Edie Smolinski, a private citizen active in local civic organizations – and two advocates of the change – City Councilman Lawrence Webb and Robert Loftur-Thun, also a private citizen active in local organizations.

Those interested in the referendum also are encouraged to watch the Town Hall programs on FCC-TV.  A link to the schedule is  available here.

COMMUNITY COMMENT: The Voting Date Referendum: Remain Independent or Fall Prey to State Party Politics?

November 1, 2011 by · 12 Comments 

November 1, 2011

The November 8th referendum on voting in Falls Church is about much more than deciding what date to hold local elections; it is about the very democratic system under which we live. Since its creation, the City of Falls Church has held independent, local issue-focused elections that are separate from state and federal elections. This has worked well for the City. Now, however, some people want to change this approach and make our independent-based local political system more like the party-controlled system in Richmond, and even Washington.

There is mounting pressure coming from political machine-dominated Richmond to force local elections and issues onto state or federal Election Days in November, virtually assuring that the two major parties will control the candidates for whom we have the opportunity to vote. So far, the pressure has been in the form of statutes and fines that dissuade localities from continuing to hold local elections in May. However, according to the Washington Post, there is now additional movement to make municipal elections partisan, just as state elections already are, leading to the dysfunctional government we have in Richmond. [See “Virginia Ballots Skimp on Party Affiliation,” Metro section, October 26, 2011.]

By moving local elections from May to November, the City would hasten the day when our system would resemble the one in Richmond where two well-heeled, special interest-driven machines determine who our candidates are and require those candidates to adhere to rigid orthodoxies, until one of the parties achieves total dominance. Then that one party effectively selects who is elected, as is the case in the majority of the state legislative districts in Virginia. [See the Washington Post editorial “RIP Democracy in Virginia,” October 26, 2011.]

By contrast, citizens in Falls Church currently have a wider selection of candidates for local offices, including a pool of talented federal civil servants who, as a result of the so-called Hatch Act, are prohibited from running for office in partisan elections. Indeed, any resident of Falls Church can run for City Council or School Board because we have independent local elections: just get a relatively small number of signatures of registered voters, and you’re on the ballot. Further, we are probably one of the last few jurisdictions in a major metropolitan area where you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to successfully run for political office or swear allegiance to a political machine and its beliefs. No, here you only need listen to voters, have good ideas, and work hard to be elected and to serve.

Some who argue for November elections would like to believe we can preserve our independence and switch to state or federal-based elections by amending the City’s charter to safeguard non-partisan elections. But such a charter change requires the vote of the General Assembly, the same body that is pushing for more partisanship in local elections. And, a non-partisan clause relies for sponsorship on our own likely new State Senator, Richard L. Saslaw, who as Senate Majority Leader clearly has done well in the Richmond political environment and equally clearly stated his support for November elections in Falls Church.

So the referendum isn’t about just May or November. This vote one week from today is about how we define democracy and opportunities for citizen involvement in our Falls Church local government. A vote for May (“No” to the referendum) will help preserve true independence, assuring that any of our citizens has a real chance to hold office. A vote for November (“Yes” to the referendum) is a vote that increases the risk of being swept into the machine-driven system in Richmond, where the party apparatus determines who you vote for and demands adherence to party dogma.

David F. Snyder is Vice Mayor of Falls Church City

This is the first in a series of four Community Comments regarding next week’s referendum on moving City elections from May to November. The four commentaries include two opponents of the change – Vice Mayor David Snyder, and Edie Smolenski, a private citizen active in local civic organizations – and two advocates of the change – City Councilman Lawrence Webb and Robert Loftur-Thun, also a private citizen active in local civic organizations.

Those interested in the referendum also are encouraged to watch the Town Hall programs on FCC-TV. A link to the schedule is available here.

COMMUNITY COMMENT: Fear of More Voters is the Issue

November 1, 2011 by · 31 Comments 

November 3, 2011

This November, citizens in Falls Church City have a choice that will have a major impact on the City for a long time to come. The choice is whether or not to have local elections in May or November. It is a choice that goes to the heart of who we are as Americans.

It is a fact that voter turnout in our City in May elections is very low—an average 27% but as low as 13%-and much higher in November—an average 71% in even years/48% in odd years, and even as high as 86%. Some say those who vote in May elections are “more engaged,” “better informed” and “more thoughtful.” I think this woefully underestimates the intelligence and capabilities of City residents, as well as all Americans who vote in national, state and local elections in November.

Others say new members of City Council and the School Board need time to get up to speed on the budget before voting on it. Currently, office holders elected in May take office July 1 and serve an entire year before a budget reflecting their decisions goes into effect. I think City voters would prefer newly elected leaders to make an impact right away rather than a year later.

Some people say that by having local elections in November, elections will be more partisan. There is no reason that a particular month whether it is May or November will result in more partisan elections, and partisan elements have already been playing a part behind the scenes in the “non-partisan” elections in May. I believe in the City’s non-partisan tradition, but Falls Church can maintain non-partisan elections by a change to the City Charter, prohibiting partisan elections in the City of Falls Church, as other cities in Virginia have done. More voters participating in elections will result in greater scrutiny, transparency, and accountability.

We should not fear engaging a wider electorate, and should engage more voters and then let candidates make their case for different political philosophies. Elected officials decisions should reflect the will of the majority of voters – that’s what a democracy is all about. When such a small percentage of voters vote in May elections, how can we make sure elections don’t get hijacked by special interests and make sure our elected leaders understand the will of the people to build the consensus needed for action?

So for me the choice is clear – have the elections when the most people vote. Believe in the American people – we’ve done pretty well as a Republic so far.

Robert Loftur-Thun is a local businessman, member of the Falls Church City Planning Commission and past Chair of the City’s Environmental Services Council.

This is the third in a series of four Community Comments regarding next week’s referendum on moving City elections from May to November. The four commentaries include two opponents of the change – Vice Mayor David Snyder, and Edie Smolenski, a private citizen active in local civic organizations – and two advocates of the change – City Councilman Lawrence Webb and Robert Loftur-Thun, also a private citizen active in local organizations.

Those interested in the referendum also are encouraged to watch the Town Hall programs on this topic on FCC-TV. A link to the schedule is available here.


November 1, 2011 by · 14 Comments 

November 2, 2011

With Election Day fastly approaching the residents in the City of Falls Church will have to cast their vote to answer the Referendum question, “Shall the City of Falls Church hold its City Council elections in November”?

This is a topic of great importance and I began pondering the question after campaigning in 2008.  As I walked around the neighborhoods knocking on doors asking for   support  I noticed for every five doors visited   three of them had no idea that elections were taking place and thought  all the city’s elections happened in November.   As I explained to them the process in Virginia many still had questions but took the information and thanked me for coming by.

After being elected the elections process still resonated with me and I began inquiring about what if we decided to change our elections to November instead of May.  I received many different responses and reactions and in 2010 offered an ordinance to change the city elections from May to November of odd years.  My one and only motivation for following through with this was I wanted to make sure that every person in the city had an opportunity to take part in electing those who make important decisions in the city.  Later after conversing with several constituents I amended my proposal to a referendum that failed and ultimately I supported the date change.  When this topic resurfaced my feelings were still the same in that I wanted the maximum number of citizens to take part in our elections.  With this referendum we will have this issue settled.

I have been listening to all sides on this issue and the number one reason that most do not support changing the elections from May to November is the fear that partisanship will make its way into Falls Church City elections. Both parties have indicated that they have no desire to get involved with endorsing candidates in city elections.   I too strongly support our elections staying non-partisan and that no political parties get involved in city elections.  The first thing that I would propose is to add to our city charter provisions that address  persons running for election in the City of Falls Church shall  be independent and follow all laws to get on the ballot.  Currently the only candidates that can be listed on the ballot with party affiliation are federal and state candidates.  The second argument is when canvassing will candidates for city office and those running with a political party be canvassing will all material.  The answer is simple.  It is up to the candidates to make sure that when his/her folks knock on doors that they only have their materials and nothing involving a political party thus avoiding confusion. 

When asking other jurisdictions that moved their elections if the elections became more partisan the response was no.  When asked if it cost more for candidates to run in November versus May the response was no.  Finally when asked if there was an increase in the number of citizens that voted in elections the response was yes.

Our Little City is one of highly educated citizens with a strong since of civic activism.  By having our elections move to November gives our citizens even more of an opportunity to have their voices heard by the leaders of the community.

I urge you to get out and vote YES on The Election Referendum on Tuesday, November 8th.

Lawrence Webb is a member of the Falls Church City Council.

This is the second in a series of four Community Comments regarding next week’s referendum on moving City elections from May to November. The four commentaries include two opponents of the change – Vice Mayor David Snyder, and Edie Smolenski, a private citizen active in local civic organizations – and two advocates of the change – City Councilman Lawrence Webb and Robert Loftur-Thun, also a private citizen active in local civic organizations.

Those interested in the referendum also are encouraged to watch the Town Hall programs on this topic on FCC-TV. A link to the schedule is available here.

COMMUNITY COMMENT: Bullish on Falls Church

October 5, 2011 by · 34 Comments 


October 5, 2011

On October 29th, Falls Church Director of Planning James Snyder will host a Community Meeting regarding the “N. Washington Street Small Area Plan.”

There has been much discussion about the need for “Area Plans”, which are intended to promote economic development in a manner that represents community values and development priorities, while generating sufficient revenue to maintain the city’s fiscal independence.

The meeting is important for a number of reasons.  It provides city residents an opportunity to discuss a small area plan (as compared to larger, more comprehensive plans), what it means, and why this approach is important to the city.  It will also demonstrate the city’s agility by taking advantage of smaller development opportunities, while continuing to press forward on the larger Area Plans.

It is my view that Falls Church is poised to take advantage of its physical assets; particularly its location, access to major transportation routes, and availability of underutilized land.  Though counter intuitive, the city may also benefit from current market instability.  Investment in the stock market, which reacts to everything all the time, is no longer an attractive place to warehouse liquid assets.  Alternative risk free investments yield practically nothing.  For those companies that have cash and are looking to put their money to work, Falls Church has much to offer, if we “set the table” properly.

The availability of underutilized land (defined as property where the land is more valuable than buildings) for a city as mature as Falls Church is relatively large, amounting to some 200 acres.  Current zoning restrictions that limit building density have encouraged “by right” development, which is often limited to relatively small projects that generate little revenue, and larger projects that are crammed into small parcels, making the city a less welcoming place to live.

As has been often stated, the city has to increase and diversify its revenue base if it is to survive.  In spite of the technically correct but misunderstood $4.1 million surplus, the city fundamentally is in no better fiscal shape than it was a year ago.  Almost half of the surplus is comprised of already approved Fund Balance restoration and legal costs that did not occur last year but may occur this year.  The remaining approximately $2.1 million is primarily the result of 1) delaying needed street and sidewalk improvements and, 2) the additional revenues created by increased real estate assessments and taxes as well as fee increases.  Unfortunately, the latter revenue generators do not reflect increased economic activity.  The only clear bright spot was an increase in sales tax revenues, but that did not materially impact the city’s finances.

Surpluses generated by delaying needed capital expenditures are much like increasing one’s savings by not making mortgage payments

Nonetheless, expenditure pressures continue to increase.  In addition to the above, there is evidence that contractor costs reductions have not only not ceased, but that going forward will increase.  In addition, school funding requests show projected increases of 4% to 6% per year for at least the next three years.  That increase does not include possible school capital expenditures, primarily school rehabilitation/construction resulting from enrollment that continues to trend upwards and restoration of aging buildings.

Given a national economy that is expected to remain in a slow growth environment until 2015-2017, it is inconceivable that real estate values will increase sufficiently to cover projected budget shortfalls

In spite of the above constraints, I am “bullish” on the future of Falls Church.  To promote the type of economic development that we need it is necessary to create an environment that attracts high quality developers.  One of the most important considerations will be to move proactively to rezone the city’s business districts in order to make underutilized land more attractive to development by promoting a reasonable level of higher density (and parcel consolidation).  In a city where all the business corridors are bordered by established neighborhoods this may not be simple.  Yet the fact is we have few, if any, alternatives.

Our location, the relatively good economic performance of the Washington area (compared to other metropolitan areas), combined with solid Area Plans, could attract and secure development sufficient not only for Falls Church to survive but to prosper.  Yes, the face of Falls Church will change, but it will change the way the citizens want.

Ira Kaylin is a member of the Falls Church City Council.

LETTER: City of Falls Church Fireworks on as Usual

June 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 


June 26, 2011

A variety of special events organized year-round by the Recreation and Parks Department are one feature that makes the City of Falls Church such a popular place to live and visit. All City departments, including Recreation and Parks, have had to make cuts in programs and staffing levels due to the economic challenges of the past two years. Recreation and Parks has responded to cuts in its budget by reducing some programs and by asking for donations and sponsors for special events and activities. To date, more than $4,000 has been donated to help defray some of the costs of special events. Additional donations are welcome and needed. Read more

To Our Readers: Why We Suspended Comments

June 24, 2011 by · 4 Comments 


June 24, 2011

Thursday morning the editors of the Falls Church Times reluctantly decided to suspend comments on a breaking story.  Since then we have received emails both praising and panning our decision.  We believe that we owe our readers a brief explanation for our action.

We normally do not monitor comments closely.  Civility usually prevails on our forum and only rarely have we deleted a comment or an exchange of comments.  However, one comment on Thursday morning’s story made a very serious and specific allegation regarding a criminal case.  As we could not quickly confirm the statement, we decided to suspend further comments and delete those already received.  Since then we have learned that the  allegation was consistent with the charges and have posted a follow-up story which we have opened to comments.

Abrupt as it was, we believe that yesterday’s action was necessary and prudent.   Readers previously have made statements which we could not confirm, but those comments did not involve possible defamation or pertain to a story involving serious criminal charges under active investigation. 

The Falls Church Times will continue to report on this story, recognizing that it is a tragedy for all concerned.  We trust that our readers will keep that foremost in mind when commenting.

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