Election Wide Open as News-Press Endorses Mixed Slate

April 29, 2010 by · 44 Comments 

Falls Church Times Columnist

April 29, 2010

Falls Church voters face the most conflicting set of choices for City Council this Tuesday to confront them in this century – and maybe in the last century as well.

Eight candidates are running for four seats, and the usual powers that be have splintered. Of the four candidates endorsed today by the Falls Church News-Press, only two are running on the CBC (Citizens for a Better City) slate. Traditionally the News-Press and the CBC have operated in lock-step.

Even more intriguing is the break between News-Press owner-editor Nicholas Benton and Mayor Robin Gardner and her politically active husband, Mike, who recently began writing an opinion column in Benton’s newspaper. Today, Gardner’s entire column is devoted to reasons why Council incumbent Dave Snyder should not be re-elected. Yet in the same edition, Benton endorses Snyder, albeit not without reservation.

Why the big breakup? My own back-of-the-envelope reasoning is that Benton, who has followed City politics for 20 years and knows which way the wind is blowing, has determined that the CBC slate will not win big. Certainly not in entirety. Even the CBC members don’t have their heart in it. Just look around the City – there are a paucity of CBC campaign signs. It’s really quite amazing, considering how big a race this is.

The lack of enthusiasm for the CBC campaign may stem from the strange way they picked their slate this year. No smoke-filled back room for the CBC – to the contrary, you didn’t even have to be a CBC member to vote at their convention! Just show up.

The results were just as surprising as the unorthodox method of obtaining them. Incumbent Dan Sze, anointed by the CBC four years earlier, wasn’t even nominated. He wisely withdrew from the race a few days later.

But the big shocker was that former vice mayor and longtime CBC loyalist Lindy Hockenberry also failed to win nomination to the CBC slate. This was apparently too much for News-Press editor Benton to bear, as Hockenberry leads his list of endorsements.

The News-Press headline reads:

Hockenberry, Peppe,
Lippman, Snyder

That’s a little misleading, because the editorial itself indicates a slightly different order of preference. The two lead choices are actually Vice Mayor Hal Lippman and Hockenberry, but their combined names were too long to fit on one line. Current School Board Chair Ron Peppe, having the shortest name, was elevated to follow Hockenberry.

If the News-Press applied a litmus test for endorsements, it would seem to be the vote on lending $2 million to the Falls Church Housing Corporation to build the Wilden senior housing project on South Washington Street. Hockenberry (who sits on the Planning Commission) and Lippman were  enthusiastic supporters of the venture, and Snyder voted for it as well, breaking with his oft-time ally, Councilman Nader Baroukh. Meanwhile, Peppe cleverly tiptoed through the hot coals, remaining vague on the question but alienating no one.  Among the candidates who did not receive News-Press endorsement, three of them – Johannah Barry, Ira Kaylin, and John Lawrence, were strongly opposed to the City’s $2 million loan, with only Barry Buschow appearing to mildly favor it.

So – only two candidates have managed to win the imprimatur of both the CBC and the News-Press: Lippman and Peppe. But in a time of potential voter backlash, are these endorsements helpful?


OPINION: Lighten Up, George! Things WILL Get Better

March 16, 2010 by · 7 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

March 16, 2010

Our fellow Falls Church Times volunteer, George Southern, has written a series of “the sky is falling and we must cede to Arlington” posts in his Man About Town column.  This week’s was just downright depressing, perfect for a cold rainy Monday morning.  In Why Things Won’t Get Any Better, our school population has exploded and caused a budget crisis.  And on top of that, the City is broke.

Frankly, we think George is yanking our chains so that we will start thinking and talking about what’s going on with the City and its budget. Every community in the United States is facing hard economic times.  But going through hard times can be a good thing.  Now is the time that our community should identify what’s important, make decisions around those priorities, focus on why Falls Church City is a place people want to live.

We’re a long way from having to throw up our hands and give up our independent city status.  As the law stands today, if the City of Falls Church ceases to exist, we get folded back into Fairfax County, not Arlington.  A chat with a local realtor confirmed our suspicions that if the City of Falls Church becomes part of Fairfax County and its school system, property values in the city could fall by as much as a third.  So it benefits everyone, not just those with kids in City schools, to avoid George’s doomsday scenario.

We should be calling on the community—one that is filled with smart, dedicated citizens—to help find the solutions.   Already, hundreds of people are engaged in a discussion about the priorities of the City.  As the discussion continues, people will begin to identify what is important and how much they are willing to pay.

The May elections will continue the conversation, with the eight City Council candidates being asked to define their priorities and outline actions that the city can take in these tight budget years.  This year’s candidates bring a wealth of experience – both in public office and professionally – to the election.  And after all, aren’t elections the ultimate way for citizens to comment on the direction of public policy in their community?  If you believe in the electoral system, presumably Council members will be selected who want to go in the direction the majority of citizens prefer.

The school board has already held conversations about priorities.  The proposed school budget is 4.5 percent less than FY2010, and was created after a lengthy discussion with administrators, staff, and the public.  They looked at every line in their budget, and choosing to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, made some difficult decisions.

Now it’s time to examine the City budget for efficiencies and some out-of-the-box solutions to our current fiscal crisis.  And as the economy improves, the City should continue to identify its priorities and plan for the future with public input.

The fact that Falls Church City remains a place people want to live is a good thing.  The fact that our schools attract more students is a good problem to have.  Clearly, there are limits to the number of students the schools can serve, but better to live in a community where people are clamoring to get in than one where people want to leave.  Better to live in a community where people want to be part of the solution rather than give up and merge with another county.

OPINION: Stories I’d Like to See in the Falls Church Times

February 27, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 27, 2010

I’m really proud of the work the all-volunteer Falls Church Times team has done. What started out as a civic experiment has become a thriving, valuable enterprise. During the past two months our volunteers have been posting an average of four articles per day. Sometime this week someone on the team will prepare our 1,000th article. This is remarkable production.

That said, I can’t help but wish we were doing more. It would be great to have more volunteers and contributors to broaden and deepen our coverage.

Here’s a few examples of stories I would love to read in the Falls Church Times.


Big Games in the Little City. We have at least three games/comics stores nearby (Compleat Strategist, Anime Pavilion, and the just-opened Victory Comics). This seems like a lot of comics per-capita. Are we #1 in the nation? Do Falls Churchers really like games?  Are we kind of Silicon Valley for gaming?

2nd Hand Falls Church. We have a great set of used-stuff stores in town. We have used CDs (CD Cellar), books (Hole in the Wall Books), clothes (Second Chance, New to You, Rosalin’s Bridal Boutique), and bikes (Bike Club), not to mention antique stores including Falls Church Antique Annex and Olde Habits‎. What else should be on this list? Any particular treasures the community should know about? How can we make or save money (and waste less)?


Can GM Ladies Basketball Re-peat? The GM’s Girls Basketball team is in the regional play-offs. How are they doing? Who are they playing and when? And, most of all, can we get some action photos and video!

Falls Church Rec Basketball Celebrates XX Years. The Community Center’s annual recreational basketball leagues is one of the grand traditions of Falls Church. How many kids participate in it? How long has it been going on? Who are the personalities that keep it going?

City Hall

Budget, Budget, Budget. You may have heard that Falls Church is facing some budget difficulties. What’s more, this is a problem that won’t go away any time soon. We’ll be wrestling with budgets for years into the future. So what do we need to know to make intelligent choices about changing services, raising taxes, finding new revenue sources? Our budget has increased a lot over the last 5 years – where did we spend the money? How do other cities our size spend their money? Is our mix dramatically different? What tools should we have to do analysis and decision-making? Can the Falls Church Times help provide any of those tools?

Mass Transit Planning and Falls Church. Okay, while we don’t exactly have a metro stop in the city, we do have two of them named after us. And Metro and other area mass transit matters to us. So what’s going on? What’s going to happen to budgets and fares? What about traffic and business opportunities from the new lines that are planned? Do we have the right bus routes? Should we jump on Arlington’s trolley? What about walkability – are we good and how can we get better?

Around Town

There’s Music in the Air. I enjoyed this week’s focus on music in the Falls Church News Press including the article about Sunday’s Wammies. Falls Church has wonderful music venues including The State, Bangkok Blues, and Claire and Don’s. We host amazing events like the Wammies but also the Tinner Hill Blues Festival and the summer music series at Cherry Hill Park. We have delightful school and community groups. There are great shows in town regularly. But what’s coming up? What did we miss? Where’s the Falls Church Times music reviewer to complement our amazing food reviewer?

Falls Church Makes a Difference. One of the many exciting things about this town is its reach -people in this city have local focus and national and international impact. Opportunities to contribute range from supporting the schools and the library to helping in Haiti. What are they? What have we accomplished? Who is leading the charge?

That’s the beginning of my list. What stories do you want to read? Please make suggestions in the comments below.  Which ones are you willing to write? Would you contribute photos or video of events you are attending?  How about reporting sports scores and results?  If you’d like to pitch-in, please let me know.

OPINION: Sharing the Budget Pie

February 22, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 22, 2010

For the last 10 years, the schools’ part of the budget pie has hovered around 40%, give or take a percent or two (if you include debt service, the piece of pie grows to 44-48%).  With the projected budget shortfall at $9 million, to keep the schools at 40% of the pie would mean a $3.6 million reduction in the school budget.  What will that mean to Falls Church City Schools?

With no target budget given to the schools by City Hall this year, Dr. Lois Berlin, at the request of the School Board, outlined four tiers of budget cuts at the beginning of the budget process.  Her four budget reductions ranged from 1.8% (accounting for all the federal and state budget cuts) to 8.6% (accounting for the almost $9 million budget shortfall experienced by the city).  The Tier 4 reductions came close, but only equal $3.1 million, and the public outcry against such draconian measures included at this tier such as moving to half-day kindergarten; eliminating elementary-level art, music, and foreign language; and increasing class size by as many as five students has indicated the improbability of that scenario.

Let’s face it.  The economy is not going to rebound in one year.  Unless something drastic happens, we’ll be facing, at the very least, a flat budget for FY2012.  Can the schools withstand these cuts this year, and then even identify new budget cuts for a second year?

Most people engaged in the current budget debate seem to agree that strong schools add value to our Little City (except for those who feel the City School System is doomed, doomed, doomed and we should sell out – quick – to our friendly neighbors).  The debate should now be how much more of the pie we give the schools to maintain the quality of the education for our children and retain the staff the school system has worked hard over the last few years to recruit.

The City budget work sessions have been structured to identify citizens’ priorities.  But groups at recent meetings have been given a list of 68 “lines of service” to prioritize.  By focusing on such a large number of options, it’s easy to focus on pet projects and harder to identify the core functions of the Little City that citizens value most.

With such a dramatic budget reduction, hard choices will be need to be made.  The questions we should be asking are:  Where can we let things slide a year or two?  What are luxuries and what are necessities?  Where can cuts be made, and where do we have to meet legal or moral obligations?  By looking at the major themes, it may make it a little easier to identify those areas:

  1. Community Outreach
  2. Development
  3. Education
  4. Environmental
  5. Human and Community Services
  6. Library
  7. Public Safety
  8. Recreation and Parks
  9. Transportation

And then we should ask the experts – the city staff who run these programs. Acknowledging that all decisions are difficult, where could there be cuts and how would those cuts realistically affect your program?  How easy would it be to rebound after suffering those cuts?  What would be your four tiers for reductions?

As Dr. Berlin constructed her four tiers of budget scenarios, she worked closely with the school administrators and staff to identify cuts and how those reductions would affect the education given to the city students, the staff, the infrastructure of the school system, etc.  The process was a painful one for staff and administrators alike.  Departments were pitted against department; staff continue to feel vulnerable and that many of these budget reductions rest on their backs.

Last week, School Board Chair Ron Peppe stated, “We want to keep any budget reductions as far removed from the classroom as possible,” and indicated that the School Board budget request to the City Manager would be in the neighborhood of a $1.1 million reduction.  Those cuts fall within the Tier 2 range, and the principals’ assessments on how those cuts will affect their schools are available online on the Falls Church City Schools budget page (http://www.fccps.org/board/budget/fy11/index.html).

I can only assume that the City Manager is going through the same process with his staff as he formulates the City’s FY2011 budget scheduled to be released on March 8th.  Clearly a tax increase is in the Little City’s future.  The question now is how large and where will the increased revenue be spent?  Citizens will be more supportive if they know what the funds will be used for, and how City Hall and the School Board arrived at those priorities.  I am hopeful that the city budget presentation will be as transparent as the school budget debate has been. Read more

OPINION: A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words (Part II)

February 20, 2010 by · 5 Comments 


Falls Church Times Staff

February 21, 2010

Once again, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Or, in this case, two pictures, taken at the same time and at the same location.

The first photo shows the west side of South West Street, immediately south of Broad Street. Ten days after the last snow storm, 14 days after the end of the big storm, about a week after the City belatedly began issuing warnings and tickets, and three days after significant melting began, the sidewalk on the commercial side of the street remains impassable.

The reason it’s impassable is because Rite Aid and Broad Street Realty Trust, which owns the building housing the now-defunct Falls Church Cabinetry, have declined to clear the sidewalks abutting their respective properties, as required by Falls Church City ordinance.

As a result, people must walk into busy West Street to get to school, buses, trains, and stores. On Friday afternoon, teenagers on their way home from George Mason High School were walking in the thoroughfare while automobile traffic whizzed by, mere inches away. It would be a terrible tragedy — and a large lawsuit — if one of the kids were hit because a business chose not to clear its sidewalk.

One cannot blame ignorance this time. They know. We know they know because they did eventually clear their Broad Street sidewalks. But they decided half a loaf was sufficient, leaving West Street untouched, even though it falls far short of what is required.

The ordinance requires snow to be removed from sidewalks within six hours after a storm’s conclusion. The prodigious amount of snow that fell might reasonably cause some delays, but 168 hours, the number of hours in a week, seems beyond generous.

In contrast, right across the street from the business-neglected West Street sidewalk, there are no businesses, just typical Falls Church City mid-century Cape Cod-style residences. As this photo shows, the homeowners have done fine work there. Maybe Rite Aid and Broad Street Realty Trust could hire the homeowners next winter.

Update, February 22: Rite Aid saw this story and asked its contractors to finish the job. As of 12 noon, they have cleared West Street, as well as Ellison Street, which runs behind the rear of their property.

OPINION: CBC’s Convention – The Place to Be Saturday

February 18, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 18, 2010

National political conventions aren’t what they used to be.  The quadrennial conclaves once provided real drama and inspired plays and films, such as Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.  Those of us of a certain age recall when the alphabet networks promised “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the proceedings.  Our parents’ generation often listened via radio to tumultuous conventions where nominees were selected only after several ballots.

Today the national conventions are largely staged events, their nominees chosen months earlier.  Now most television coverage is limited to the evening sessions, hours which the networks surrender only grudgingly.  Public interest largely has been reduced to “what will he say” or, more recently, “what will she wear?”

But ultimately, as Tip O’Neill famously observed, all politics is local.  We have our own convention, right here in The Little City, and it’s less than 48 hours away.  Saturday’s convention of the Citizens for a Better City will offer two things national conventions do not:  a genuine contest and a chance for everyone to both participate and even vote for nominees.  Although the CBC often is thought of as an elite organization, it’s actually open to anyone in Falls Church and its bi-annual convention offers residents true participatory democracy.

The convention will nominate candidates for both City Council and School Board who will represent CBC in the municipal election on May 4.  Citizens concerned with the state of the City and conversant with the issues should seriously consider both attending and voting.  Residents unfamiliar with the candidates or the issues will have an opportunity both to catch up on local affairs and experience democracy in action.

Convention details are available at the CBC website.  Proposed rules for the session are available here.  Additional background information is available in the Falls Church News Press and via this excellent primer on the six announced Council candidates.

Yesterday, School Board member Kieran Sharpe proposed a new organization he’s calling “Renaissance Falls Church” to compete with the CBC to create a situation where “each team strengthens the other.”  We think that could be a healthy development, and if indeed that organization comes to be, we  would hope that it also opens its doors to the public in a similar fashion, but  this weekend, the CBC convention is the place to be.

The Little City is a special place, seldom more so than on this coming Saturday afternoon.  Come to George Mason High School at 2pm and see for yourself.

Snowbound Musings

February 11, 2010 by · Comments Off on Snowbound Musings 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 11, 2010

What’s caught your attention?  Thirty-plus inches of snow are certainly hard to miss, but it’s the impact – and occasional lack thereof – of all that precipitation that is so striking.  The last time the City of Falls Church recorded this much snow, the Alaska Klondike gold rush was in full swing, Mark Twain was writing new material, and the actor Humphrey Bogart was three weeks old.

Should a significant event, a “haven’t seen this for fifty, maybe a hundred years” occurrence, influence people’s behavior and give them pause as they consider whether or not to press ahead with their daily routines?  I guess it depends.  Throughout these recent snowstorms, we have all witnessed acts of humanity, generosity, and perseverance.  I’m certainly no Man About Town, but some of what I’ve observed over these past five days leaves me awestruck at the good fortune that accompanies the oblivious as they endeavor to achieve the unremarkable.

Writing by the fireside

He Got All the Parenting Moments Right but One

You’ve been there; the image is seared forever in your snowstorm memory files.  The weather forecast finally confirms that snow is headed for the D.C. metro area and within minutes, every checkout line at every grocery store has 10 people waiting with various assortments of things you just can’t do without in a snowstorm.

I was in just such a line at Giant, self checkout number 3 to be specific, and forward progress was slow at best due to either operator error or scanner anomalies.  Thankfully, the five-year-old boy and his father who were just in front of me in line were only purchasing two bags of candy.

I’m a pleasant enough fellow when waiting in line: a smile, casual eye contact, and minimal inclination towards chattiness.  As a customer struggled with the scanner, the father turned to me and introduced his son.  Let’s call him Eddie.

Eddie had helped shovel snow at home and had earned some spending money.  That money, all in coins – mainly in pennies – was in a glass jar and Eddie had decided to spend his windfall on his favorite candy.

This was to be a shopping experience imminently satisfying on two different levels, however.  Not only was Eddie going to walk out of the Giant with two bags of candy, he was going to get to feed all the coins into the slot of the self checkout kiosk.  The prospect of those coins disappearing one by one into the slot was a matter of great anticipation for Eddie.

I suddenly realized why the father had sparked up a conversation with me over what in so many ways was a true feel good story.  He wanted to get some feel for what would happen when Eddie started feeding pennies into the coin slot.  Would I suddenly teach Eddie some words he had probably never heard before?  Did I have the kind of cold, black eyes that would convince most people to use a debit card and sort out the change later?

where to buy cigarettes

I elected to remain reticent.  It seemed an honorable thing to do and it allowed me to position myself to see how the 12 people behind me in line were going to react when $4.46 was due, to be paid with approximately 400 individual coins.

I must be vague about what came next as this is a family oriented publication.  Let’s just say the father probably wishes he had grabbed hold of that last parenting moment, the one where Eddie comes to understand that putting the coins in the slot can wait until another day.  There’s snow on the horizon, after all, and if all those customers in self checkout line number 3 don’t get out to the parking lot with their bread, bottled water, and batteries posthaste, there won’t be time for a Starbucks before hitting the gridlock en route to their snow bunkers.

A Shovel Ready Project Every Day

There is immediate gratification associated with shoveling snow, provided you monitor the progress of the snowplows to preclude revisiting some stretch of your property again and again.  With a snow blower and a shovel, you can achieve incredible feats of snow engineering.  Shoveling also puts one front-and-center to observe those who are out and about, braving the elements for pleasure, curiosity, or necessity.

“Thanks for clearing your sidewalks,” a purple Michelin man (or woman) wearing a black stocking cap said.  “Of course,” I replied, watching as he or she advanced through the flurries down the street.  My wife and I had not yet completed that round of shoveling so our purple overly-bundled neighbor could not take advantage of our handiwork.

A few moments later, what had been silence except for the rhythmic crunch of snow shovels, was interrupted by the whoosh of tires on ice and the whine of a four-cylinder engine.  As the rear wheel drive car fishtailed down the street, I wondered whether the driver, clearly in over his head, would meet up with my neighbor, trudging along and no doubt sensory limited due to a hat and scarf.

I turned to my wife and said, “What do you think?  Did we just witness someone driving to begin his shift at a fire station or emergency room, someone delivering prescription medication to the homebound, or someone who elected to venture out into the storm?  I just hope there isn’t a big purple mess down at the end of the block.”  My wife encouraged me to quit pondering and get back to shoveling.

My time shoveling also let me witness the fact that although social media like Facebook may be pervasive our youth still yearn for actual human interaction, preferably with individuals to whom they are not related and have not been cooped up with for the previous 48-hours.  The snowfall would slow and they would trudge past our house in groups of two to five, their bare fingers texting away, no doubt publicizing their temporary furlough.  And following the kids down the street or turning the corner and trying to maintain traction were more drivers undoubtedly hurrying to deliver babies or repair natural gas leaks.

Until we hunker down again, I wish you safe passage through the snowy streets of our little city.


Winter Heat Pump Advisory: Get Out and Shovel!

February 10, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 10, 2010

So there I was, gazing out at the near-blizzard, enjoying the beauty of the morning — no place I had to be other than in my bay window, laptop at hand, not a care in the world (well, except a nagging fear of losing power) – when I chanced to look out the side window at our heat pump.

Oh-oh. It was buried in a snow drift. Only the top vent was uncovered, which the continuously operating fan blew free. I knew the air was supposed to be coming through the sides of the unit and exiting at the top, but with the whole enclosure buried in snow, that was impossible.

How could I relax while my best winter friend was suffocating? There was nothing to be done but to bundle up and venture outside to rescue the heat pump. With a few minutes’ work it was dug out – and then I could see that the entire radiator was encased in solid ice.

looks betterThat’s because every 30 minutes or so a heat pump will cycle in reverse to defrost its coils.  You can recognize the defrost cycle when you see steam rising from the pump. But with snow packed around the pump, it could never defrost. Every try resulted in thicker ice.

There’s so much ice that I’m not sure it will melt, but since I did what I could, at least now I can relax.

Some technically challenged readers may be wondering whether they have a heat pump or not. Here’s the answer: Almost everyone has an outdoor unit that looks similar to mine. Take a look at it. If the fan is running, it’s a heat pump, and it wouldn’t hurt to dig it out. But if it’s shut down, completely buried, and deathly quiet, then don’t worry – that’s just an air conditioner in hibernation.

You won’t be needing to disturb it for a long, long time.

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