Falls Church Times Columnist

December 13, 2010

The Man About Town’s first column in the Falls Church Times ran just shy of 18 months ago. It was about the author James Thurber and how in 1902 he was shot in the eye with an arrow on Maple Avenue. For his trouble, James Thurber Court is named after him.

That was the idea of the column – walk and bike around town and offer whimsical commentary. There followed articles on the duck tree on South Virginia Avenue and the skateboard park, but thereafter the Man About Town began to exhibit a critical bent. A list of the City’s Ugliest Buildings shocked one of our editors, who temporarily withheld it from publication for fear of upsetting people. Little could he imagine how many upsets were to come.

The Big Bang came September 21, 2009, with Why Falls Church Needs Arlington:

Falls Church City is no longer economically sustainable. You won’t read that anywhere else because other media have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. But despite the desperate measures being pursued by City officials, we are approaching an insoluble fiscal crisis. Ironically, to forestall the inevitable, the City has launched a massive residential/commercial development that would diminish the very village atmosphere that attracts residents to the City in the first place.

In October 2009, the Man About Town’s critique turned political, and the biggest target was then-mayor Robin Gardner, who told the Washington Post, “We’re not broke. It’s not affecting our bond rating, so it’s fine.”  While the  M.A.T. peppered the mayor and her City Council cabal with weekly fire, the entire FCT staff received retaliatory potshots via the mayor’s husband’s blog, who even suggested the threat of a lawsuit over our request to publish free of charge the FOCUS pages which the City was paying $55,000 a year to publish in the News-Press.

So, a year ago in November, it was open season when Mayor Gardner read into the record all the encouragement she had received from her Facebook friends about moving the date of City elections. The M.A.T. and others had a field day with that. I even signed up with Facebook and tried (unsuccessfully) to “friend” the mayor.

But that was only prelude to the most sensitive subject – the third rail – in the City, and it hit the fan on February 1 with It’s All About the Schools, Stupid.

Folks, read the handwriting on the whiteboard. It’s not going to get any better. Even with higher and higher taxes, Falls Church cannot provide the opportunities to students that exist next door in Arlington. It’s not a matter of bad management, it’s a matter of 1) a poor economy of scale, 2) a weak commercial tax base, and 3) an ever-increasing student/resident ratio.

Whew. That column got nearly 100 comments, a personal best (or worst). Even my fellow staffers publicly disagreed with me. I stood alone.

But while I got no traction on the schools, in May a lot of voters agreed that it was time to clean house at City Council. Bear with me, I wrote on election eve – this may be the most important column I ever write. I endorsed four new candidates, three of whom won.

There’s only room to mention one more column: September 27. What – Tear Down Our New School? I asked, referring to Mary Ellen Henderson. That got everyone’s attention, including a stinging rebuke from the chairman of the School Board. The only part I regret is that some people confused my opinion column with the factual reporting that others write in the FCT. I had to run a reprise noting what was fact and what was opinion.

And so it’s been quite a run. But as a friend once advised, “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”  And, frankly, it’s no fun to predict the Little City’s bleak future and ultimate demise. But if I’m writing a column about the City, how can I ignore it?

The record shows that our most prominent local commentator, Nick Benton, also once  recognized that the City is not sustainable. In an August 24, 2007, News-Press editorial, Benton wrote that “one of the City’s wisest and most respected administrators stated not that long ago that he doubted the City could sustain itself as an independent jurisdiction for the long haul in its current configuration due to its lack of capacity for expanding and diversifying its tax base.” But when Benton’s proposed scheme to expand the City’s borders met with ridicule, he dropped the subject.

Since the Man About Town has demonstrated an inability to drop the subject, I’m dropping the column. As some commenters have noted, I have visited this theme ad infinitum. There’s not much more to say, and I take no pleasure in the words “I told you so.”

So from now on I will try to keep my opinions to myself, thereby allowing me to return to reporting news of the Little City. There’s much to investigate. A year and a half after I reported the strange circumstances surrounding the Whittier Park townhouse fire, nothing has been rebuilt. Just one example.

Oh, and that first column I ever wrote – the one about James Thurber? Turns out to be my most successful effort. Google “James Thurber & arrow” and you’ll get 23,000 results. The Falls Church Times is #1; Wikipedia is #3.

Perhaps I should have quit while I was ahead!

December 13, 2010 


26 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: I’ve Had My Say”

  1. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on December 13th, 2010 6:40 am

    I personally have enjoyed reading your opinions, whether or not I have agreed. I understood they were strictly your personal opinions. But, it’s true that some folks would become incensed, and comments would go haywire and completely off topic, if not just plain old nasty among commenters. Once nastiness set in, I’d stop reading the follow-up comments. I’ll welcome back your opinion columns in the future if you decide you’ve just got to get something out there!

  2. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on December 13th, 2010 8:34 am

    George, it will be interesting to see how smoothly you can transition from column-writer/reporter to just reporter. Since your stance on the City’s future is so well known I’m guessing some people will scrutinize your reporting to make sure it’s not being influenced by your personal feelings.

    I hope it works out – I really appreciate the news reporting done by the FCT.

  3. Jackie Droujinsky, Mechanicsville, VA on December 13th, 2010 8:41 am

    I agree with vlfrance. I, too, have enjoyed reading your opinions, recognizing them for what they were. Although I no longer live in FC, I still follow what’s happening in the “village.” Many of the best changes that took place in the city in the forty years that I lived there began with someone’s opinion. I’ll look forward to your out and about columns, but don’t ever hesitate to voice how you feel about things. It’s what makes good things happen because it sparks much needed discussion.

  4. Peggy Monahan on December 13th, 2010 9:06 am

    My dear neighbor, since I agree 100% with vlfrance and wouldn’t change a word, I copy it here in toto: “I personally have enjoyed reading your opinions, whether or not I have agreed. I understood they were strictly your personal opinions. But, it’s true that some folks would become incensed, and comments would go haywire and completely off topic, if not just plain old nasty among commenters. Once nastiness set in, I’d stop reading the follow-up comments. I’ll welcome back your opinion columns in the future if you decide you’ve just got to get something out there!”

  5. TFC on December 13th, 2010 9:14 am

    Say it isn’t so. Your opinions have sparked much discussion and I have enjoyed reading them…whether I agree or not. I agree that the responses often rolled down a wandering path over time but that’s part of the process.

  6. Susanna Schnably, Falls Church on December 13th, 2010 9:31 am

    Oh no! I had gotten into the habit of anticipating Monday mornings because I could open up The Falls Church Times to “Man About Town” for the pleasure of intelligent commentary, and now Mondays will be…just Mondays again!

    I really hope you’ll give some thought to doing an occasional column along the lines of “Man About Town”. You’ve said a lot of things that need to be kept alive in the discussions of Falls Church’s future and well-being. A sincere thanks to you for your thoughtful contributions, George.

  7. Johannah Barry, Falls Church on December 13th, 2010 9:44 am

    I will miss you George and hope you reconsider. The offer of a ride around town in the Stude still stands….

  8. Mike Smith, Falls Church on December 13th, 2010 9:55 am

    It is refreshing candor to have someone presenting their opinions as opinions and not unalloyed fact. Sometimes I have agreed with you, sometimes not and sometimes your opinions have had the salutary effect of getting my old ticker revving when it has run down a bit. So, feel free to change your mind and release the Man to roam about the Town.

  9. Cynthia Smith on December 13th, 2010 11:15 am

    What a shame! A lot of us are going to miss your column. It was a breath of fresh air in this city to have someone speaking out candidly about issues. You hit the nail on the head in most cases, especially on the prohibitive cost of having our own school system and the logic of investigating other options,such as joining with Arlington County.

    Please reconsider and at least do occasional columns. A voice like yours is sorely needed.

  10. Ralph McGehee, Charleston SC on December 13th, 2010 1:51 pm

    I hope you’ll reconsider. Your weekly columns offer balance to the lunacy from the Falls Church Toilet Paper, otherwise known as LaRouche Propaganda.

  11. Rob Kahr on December 13th, 2010 2:14 pm

    Congratulations on a fantastic run!

  12. Dave Phelps on December 13th, 2010 6:01 pm

    I hope you reconsider. Your analysis of the financial situation in the city was on target. It caused me to rethink my views and I now agree. It is time to take the City to Arlington before we start killing our own tax base and we become too much of a liability and Arlington decides we are not worth it to them. Dave Phelps

  13. Lou Mauro on December 13th, 2010 6:04 pm

    You’ve earned a break, George. Take the holidays off. We all look forward to your next MAT column in January!

  14. Robert Hughes on December 13th, 2010 6:51 pm

    I am saddened that your informed commentary on “. . .the state of the City of Falls Church. . .” will not bring a sound perspective to the closed-minded past and somewhat to the present “city leaders”. I have lived for seventeen years in the City of Falls Church. Please just take a short pause in your reporting and return during spring-tide 2011.

  15. Robyn L. Roche, CIty of Falls Church on December 13th, 2010 8:23 pm

    …maybe you could “man about town” every other week. ?

  16. Mark Scardiglia on December 13th, 2010 9:33 pm

    What fun is that? You should keep sticking your thumb in folks’ eyes ?

  17. Jodi Nicholson Falls Church City on December 13th, 2010 9:46 pm

    Oh no ? As was suggested in another post – why not take a little time away and come back stronger.

    George, your column is much needed in this little city.
    A refreshing independent, knowledgable Citizen’s take.

    Please. please, please reconsider.

    “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”
    -Ralph Waldo Emerson

  18. Michael Irvine on December 13th, 2010 10:50 pm

    George – In my opinion, you’ve been doing a huge service to Falls Church City over the past few years with the Man About Town column. A democratic community must have an open exchange of ideas to maintain democracy, and you’ve provided a refreshing alternative to the editorials of the one newspaper we have here in the City.

    Nevertheless, I know that you’re doing what you are for the right reasons, and I look forward to seeing what you have to say in this column in the future!

  19. Louis Olom, Falls Church, VA. on December 13th, 2010 10:56 pm

    You should not stop your tough-minded views about the future of this little city. I do not agree with many of them but they challenge long held contrary views which may be better than the latter. At least they challenge our long held views about the progress that’s been made during the past 50 years. In a national contest for 100 cities, small and large, we were one of eleven winners. Reason: the judges agreed with or appreciated a statement of this city’s aspirations. Today we can point to accomplishments and they are substantial. We were separated from Fairfax County because it paid little if any attention to our schools which were flagging. We were and remain an education city. Commerce is basic for without it we couldn’t survive, but it’s not the primary reason for the creation of this city. Check out our deeds and appreciate them as most citizens do. Hang in! Nobody else to scare us.

  20. Greg Rasnake, Falls Church on December 13th, 2010 11:21 pm

    Nice run George. I will miss your columns but look forward to your reporting.

    I did notice that one of your readers noted, yet once again, that we should:

    “[T]ake the City to Arlington before we start killing our own tax base and we become too much of a liability and Arlington decides we are not worth it to them.”

    I have repeatedly warned in comments to your columns that: as I understand the law, we can not “take the City” to Arlington, but rather can only return to Fairfax County.

    In your first piece, I think it would make for some great reporting if you would clarify this issue. The FCT readership and the City as a whole would benefit from analysis of this issue. If you are truly convinced that the City is unsustainable, wouldn’t it be prudent to explore the options? In any event, while I have not always agreed with your columns, I do sincerely thank you for your contribution to the public debate.

  21. AJ, Falls Church on December 14th, 2010 1:31 pm

    I suspect your fact-based reporting and investigations may prove to be even more fun (and annoying to some) than your opinions. I look forward to them. Keep up the good work, whichever hat you’re wearing.

  22. Linda Neighborgall on December 14th, 2010 9:34 pm

    George, I add my name to the list of folks who have valued your MAT column and will miss it. You have provided copious quantities of food for thought, and I wouldn’t have chosen the coming diet. With respect for your decision and best wishes for a well-earned rest from your invaluable opinion column, I look forward to your continued reporting.

  23. Dale Walton on December 16th, 2010 10:47 am

    You keep folks “honest” and on their toes……you provide sort of a “check and balance” with what folks hear from other sources….continue to find a forum for doing that. All democracies need a bit of “tension” so different viewpoints can be expressed.

  24. J Bowman (City of Falls Church) on December 16th, 2010 4:22 pm

    George, Add my name to the list of folks who thank you for your informative columns .. and, urge you to continue writing them.

  25. Bill Brew Falls Church on December 17th, 2010 10:04 am

    I add my voice to Mr. Rasnake’s – regardless of one’s views on the viability of Falls Church as an independent city, any conversation about the future must be grounded in reality.

    If in fact Falls Church would revert to being part of Fairfax Country (and that is my impression, but I have not carried out significant research), that result would have to be part of any discussion about giving up status as a city.

  26. Hendrik A. Jasper, FCC on December 17th, 2010 12:14 pm

    George, sorry to see you go. Your columns have been great, and sadly your departure leaves a vacuum that empty windbags in the local press and on alternative (politically motivated) blogs will fill. Falls Church deserves better than that.


Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.