Council Discusses Election Date Switch, Looks at Gateway

Falls Church Times Staff

October 5, 2010

Last night the Falls Church City Council held a sometimes contentious discussion on the issue of moving the date of local elections, long held in May but recently switched to November.  In January 2010 the Council voted, 5-2, to approve an ordinance which shifted the election to the fall, starting in 2011.  However, the majority of the current members yesterday voiced their support for a public referendum on the question and the possible repeal of the ordinance.

Councilwoman Robin Gardner, who voted for the change, was the sole voice in opposition.  The former mayor vigorously defended the previous Council’s decision to make the switch, citing the advantages of higher voter participation and lower administrative costs.  She stated that 32 Virginia jurisdictions had made such a change.  May turnout in Falls Church has declined in the last decade from percentages in the low 30s to 24 percent last spring.  It costs approximately $18,000 to hold the bi-annual election.

Ms. Gardner said that the City had already received approval for the change from the U.S. Deparment of Justice (DOJ) and would have to resubmit any subsequent change.  Vice Mayor Dave Snyder, who opposed the move, did not see this as a problem and saw no point in speculating as to how DOJ would react.

Undaunted, Ms. Gardner maintained that the Council had been elected specifically to make such decisions and that a reversal would “let down a whole group of constituents in the community.”  She later stated that the City had “done a bad job in communicating to minority voters” and asked, “Have you seen information in Vietnamese?  In Spanish?”       

Mr. Snyder countered, saying that the question was better decided via a referendum than by the Council and that the previous action had “usurped the right of the people.”   He saw no substance in suggestions that May elections had resulted in anyone being disenfranchised and stated, “I think democracy is worth $18,000.”

Mayor Nader Baroukh, who also voted against the change, dismissed Ms. Gardner’s charges of  disenfranchisement, calling them “a strawman or a red herring.” Newly elected members Johannah Barry, Ron Peppe, and Ira Kaylin leaned in favor of resolving the issue via referendum.  Councilman Lawrence Webb, who voted for the switch, was not present yesterday.

Ms. Barry advocated repealing the previous ordinance and rejected Ms. Gardner’s characterization of the DOJ as “the elephant in the room.”  Mr. Peppe said that he was surprised that Virginia law allowed the Council to change the date via ordinance.  He agreed with Ms. Barry and Mr. Kaylin that any referendum should be held in November.  Mr. Kaylin stated he did not believe voting rights issues should be delegated to elected officials. 

Any change in the date also would affect School Board elections.  The mayor asked City Manager Wyatt Shields to obtain feedback on the issue from the Board.  Mr. Peppe, who was its past chairman, said the School Board members had not been consulted during the previous change process.  

Two public hearings would be required before the Council could repeal the January 2010 ordinance.  A referendum on the issue could be held within a few months.  City attorney John Foster will determine if a November 2011 referendum could be scheduled nearly a year in advance.

Gateway Project

Prior to the election date discussion the Council held a joint work session with the Planning Commission on the Gateway mixed-use development.  An Akridge project first proposed in 2005, the Gateway would consist of two five-story structures at 500-520 N. Washington St., a 73-foot-tall office building and a 55-foot-tall condominium. 

The residential building will offer 200 units, about 140 studio/one-bedrooms and 60 two-bedrooms.  Akridge’s Michael Gill stated that the residential units likely will be sold in the $300,000-$400,000 range.  At an average of 825 square feet, the units will be considerably smaller than those in buildings such as the Byron (513 W. Broad St.), where the average residence is 1,600 square feet.  The lower price would not put the units in competition with single family homes and would be representative of the demographic expected to purchase in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

The project would have a 31 percent commercial, 69 percent residential ratio.  Parking would be below the entire site and contain 513 spaces.  The project would require a zoning change and approval of special exceptions for mixed use and building height.

The site currently generates $122,000 in annual tax revenue.  The Gateway is expected to provide net tax revenue of  $631,000 to $786,000 annually (inclusive of the current receipts).  According to Mr. Gill, the site would generate revenue sufficient to reduce the average City resident’s  property tax bill by $125.   

The question of affordable dwelling units (ADUs) versus a cash contribution remains at issue.  Members of both the Council and the Planning Commission stated they favored 13 ADUs over a cash contribution of $1.2 million.  In response to a question from Mr. Kaylin, the city manager stated that the cash could be used as part of a “buy-down program” which would enable people to buy the units at a reduced price.

Commissioner Melissa Teates suggested that some above-ground parking be available for commercial use.  Commissioner Michael Kearney recommended that the garage be open after hours to allow for potential retail or theater parking.

Most of the officials were pleased with the changes made since the project’s inception. However, Ms. Barry stated that the revisions seemed more substantial on the side facing Gresham Place than the one facing E. Jefferson Street.  Mr. Gill noted that the latest version eliminated any egress onto Jefferson, but Ms. Barry maintained such an exit had never been a viable option.   

Engineering Issues 

After the joint session, City engineer Bill Hicks briefed the Council on a plan to install approximately 2,500 feet of fiber optic communication lines through the City from Arlington County, along Roosevelt Avenue to Wilson Boulevard, and into Fairfax County.  Once the contractors complete their work, ownership of the lines will transfer to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  

Falls Church will receive approximately $9,000 annually for five years for granting this license.  Mr. Foster advised that the amount the City can receive is limited by state law.  The conduit dedicated to Falls Church is expected to be used in the City’s traffic signal system currently under development.

Mr. Hicks also recommended adoption of a resolution to direct Washington Gas to relocate the gas utility in the eastern side of the 400 block of North Washington Street (between Columbia Street and Jefferson Street) in order to install streetscape.  This would be done at no cost to the City. 

Council Retreat Follow-up

The work session concluded with a brief review of the work plans developed at the recent retreat.  The mayor asked City staff to work with the appropriate Council committees on the plans and asked Mr. Shields to develop a schedule for discussions at future work sessions. 

Due to the observance of Columbus Day, the next Council meeting will be held Tuesday evening, October 12, in the Council Chamber at City Hall.

October 5, 2010 


9 Responses to “Council Discusses Election Date Switch, Looks at Gateway”

  1. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on October 6th, 2010 6:45 am

    I did not like that there was an election date change without a referendum. I equally do not like that the current Council is looking to repeal the decision that was already made.

    The decision was made, whether we liked it or not, by our elected Council. I do not want it to become a habit that a new Council might decide to look backward to make changes on things enacted previously through a consensus decision.

    There are more important issues in our City to deal with at this time.

  2. Charlie Anderson, City of Falls Church on October 6th, 2010 8:06 am

    This Akridge project is sounding better and better. Ms. Barry’s concerns need to be taken in context since she owns the house most affected by the development. Certainly, one would expect her to stand up for her street. Gresham place neighbors have been actively working with the developer from the beginning, so it is reasonable that most of the changes are visible there.

  3. Barry Buschow on October 6th, 2010 10:09 am

    Thanks George for your “give it to um straight reporting”. I know you had to sit in a 3+ hour meeting to condense the results…..

  4. Lou Mauro on October 6th, 2010 5:00 pm

    I am very disappointed by your remarks. In my opinion, you could not be more wrong or illogical. How can you believe that the January 11, 2010 ordinance was the result of a “consensus decision” when it was rammed through without adequate study and due diligence in total disregard of nearly unanimous opposition from a diverse citizenship who pleaded at least for a referendum on the subject? If you wanted a referendum then, why would you not want it now? Because a successor legislative body should never modify, change or reverse the actions of a prior body? What is wrong with that? It happens all the time. How else to modify or reverse past mistakes or bad decisions? Sometimes it is not possible to make corrections, as in the case of condo-mania, because the damage cannot be undone when the building is already constructed. But the election date change can be undone, and should be undone— to allow for proper consideration, study and deliberation. And repeal should occur first so that the slate is clean and the deliberations do not take place subject to a pre-existing bias one way or the other.

    You say also that there are more important issues to be dealt with. I strongly disagree. No issue is more important. The November election date is being pushed by partisans who want to politicize our Council and School Board elections so that they can perpetuate their control over City affairs without ever having to worry about dissenting or independent ideas. If they get their way, EVERY school and City action will be viewed through a partisan political lens. Think about it. We in the City of Falls Church have never experienced local government based on open and overt one-party partisan rule. Is that what you want? So there is no more important issue because if left uncorrected this issue will adversely affect ALL other issues by subjecting them to actions based on raw political partisanship.

  5. J Bowman (City of Falls Church) on October 6th, 2010 5:35 pm

    Thanks George… good summery. The Akridge/Gateway redevelopment project is being discussed again. The plans are for 200 rental apartments which will be approximately 825 sq feet each. (One bedroom units = 700 sq feet; two bedroom units 1,000 sq ) These are small units compared to other FCC projects. (Byron=1620; WestLee= 1100; Crescent=1200)
    Akridge is asking for a reduction in parking spaces. How will this affect potential businesses? Does anyone know what “teaser parking” means?
    I know Akridge has a “great reputation” …..they built the Spectrum, and are helping on the National Mall project.
    The East end of Falls Church is close to the Metro and the new Silver Line. It is Prime Property. I am pleased that the Council and Planning Commission looking at the project with a critical eye knowing that this area is prime and can benefit the community…. if done right.

  6. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on October 7th, 2010 4:57 pm

    Oh Lou. I understand where you are coming from, and I knew there would be dissention from someone concerning my remark. I do not want partisan influence on our elections either (though it is already there bubbling beneath the surface, sadly), but I also want more people to pay attention to our City elections, even if for one day they either read the blurbs they’re handed or don’t and vote anyway. If they’re out there voting, it’s with purpose. Those who seriously don’t care, won’t vote anyway. You make very good points but you and I are just going to have to agree to disagree on this one (even if I moved to that awful Spectrum – emoticon smile).

  7. David Chavern on October 8th, 2010 8:24 am

    For what it is worth (likely not much) I just posted this comment on the FCNP site:

    “There is a slippery slope. Once government decides that maximizing the opportunity to vote isn’t an objective then you slide right into “who do we want to vote.” For a democratic government to have real legitimacy they have to be open to the idea that even the idiots have a say. The government reflects the people, not the other way around.

    As to the psychology of voters, I do think the very act of voting causing most people to think about the issues — however briefly — and try to determine some basis for which lever to pull (or button to push in our case). Given our extremely low voting in local elections (an established fact that no one seems to want to deal with), I think we would welcome more people being incentivized to get educated by voting.

    If we don’t move the election date to a time when more people would naturally vote, then I would be a very strong proponent of expanded voting perdiods (ie. you could go to City Hall and vote any time over a 2-3 week period — like many states), mail-in or internet voting. All of these ides are becoming more and more common across the United States (I think there is currently Congressional voting going on now, TODAY, in something like 20 or 30 states). The City Council needs to address the low voter turn-out problem one way or the other. Ignoring it is patently offensive and irresponsible.”

  8. Lou Mauro on October 8th, 2010 4:19 pm

    Assuming for the sake of argument that maximizing the vote is not deemed to be a legitimate and valid government objective, the next step on the slope is not “who do we want to vote,” but rather “here’s when the election is being held— it’s up to you, whoever you are, to come out and vote.” And there is nothing wrong with that.

    Your alternative suggestions, e.g., expanding voting periods, are all good ones for increasing voter turnout. Heck, I believe just keeping the polls open until 8:00pm or 9:00pm, as many States do, would significantly increase turnout. The problem is that municipalities cannot do that on their own. We would need to lobby Richmond to authorize such proposals.

    The real slippery slope, as we are witnessing now, is encountered when opponents of the repeal/referendum proposal resort to playing the race card when they lack substantive and persuasive arguments on the merits of the issue. We sure didn’t hear these ludicrous and offensive voter suppression and civil rights accusations when they had a Council majority and rammed the May to November change through last January. A false discrimination argument not only demeans the ones making the argument, as it should, but also those Falls Church citizens who have worked to maintain the City’s excellent modern-day civil rights record.

  9. Linda Neighborgall on October 9th, 2010 11:18 pm

    However you feel on the issue of the local election date, it is important to recognize that those who argue that changing the election date from May to December “enfranchised” citizens and, conversely, that changing it back would “disenfranchise” citizens, are engaged in demagogery, pure and simple.

    The dictionary definition of “enfranchise” is “to admit to citizenship, especially to the right to vote.” Thus, to “disenfranchise” is “to deprive of the rights of citizenship, especially the right to vote.” A change in an election date does neither. We have the right to vote, whether in May or November. It will take a change of heart by non-voters, not a change in the election calendar, to improve voter participation.

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