OPINION: In My Own Defense

By GEORGE SOUTHERN
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.

By
September 29, 2010 

Comments

23 Responses to “OPINION: In My Own Defense”

  1. Peggy Monahan on September 29th, 2010 6:30 am

    I too thought the whole point had been missed that it was an opinion piece. Keep them coming, George, and keep stirring the pot! I hope it was gratifying that you have such an impact on our community. I love reading your pieces, well-reasoned, well-written and without polemic, which is a refreshing contrast to that other newsPAPER.

  2. TFC on September 29th, 2010 7:28 am

    I agree with Peggy, I was clear that it was an opinion piece. Keep up the good work.

  3. Charlie Anderson, City of Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 7:37 am

    George, there may be a question of timing here. You made your source known to the public after Lindy posted her comment at 7:18PM on Monday. The School Board and City Council members who objected were all likely in City Council chambers by the time you responded to Lindy and not able to see your source/response until after they spoke.

    Don’t let Lindy’s disbelief bother you. It is much more intriguing to think that someone spilled the beans to you than that a City staffer made a simple error by failing to edit their own agenda. Lindy and others think that if they belittle the FCT long enough as a blog and shadow voice of those who seek to destroy the City that eventually it will become accepted as true. Paranoia reigns!

  4. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on September 29th, 2010 8:56 am

    I think one problem is the ratio of op-ed to news is a bit out of whack (compared to a newspaper) at the FCT. That’s not surprising since proper news reporting is pretty time consuming (not that writing editorials isn’t time consuming – I’m sure it is – but ultimately you can just run with what you have but for new reporting you have to track down facts, etc.). That said, it’s always clear to me that George’s stuff is opinion and not news.

    I think George is playing up the part about City officials worrying about a leak. Obviously he could have explained how he obtained the Hillwood Square info in the original article, and in some ways that explanation would have given his piece more weight, but by withholding it he was basically baiting folks into questioning the idea and/or questioning his sources.

  5. Rebecca Kahn, Falls Church City, 22046 on September 29th, 2010 8:58 am

    My, my. So you put two and two together, realized it might equal four (does depend on the base you’re using), and upset members our City Council, who failed to properly edit their own press release. Sorry for the mood, but I’m so tired of the petty polictics played out by the Council. The Council made a mistake and blames you for connecting that session with a related news item from March 2010 (how short are our memories supposed to be?) . One might call your piece good deductive reasoning, especially since you presented the information as opinion and not fact. Please, those of us who depend on you for unbiased reporting know what’s going on here. And so should/does the City Council.

  6. Dave Williams – City of Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 9:02 am

    Must have hit a cord with you if you feel as if you need to come to your “own defense”. Of course I can see why, as you never even alluded to the fact the information your were stating was hearsay. I believe changing the title of your little blog to “The Rumor Mill” should grant you a bit more creditability.

  7. Rich Butler on September 29th, 2010 9:16 am

    George, it is a pleasure to read your articles…..kind of like fresh air!! You see, I had been reading this other paper for years that in reality is filled with opinions and conjecture. I did not realize this at first. Consequently, my brain had begun to simply “believe everything written as fact”. I acquired this-if it is in the paper it must be true attitude. Then one day an article was written (I believe front page) that a new fabulous building was to be built on the very space where I rent my office, to include tearing down the Burger King. I immediately contact my landlord who informed me that no such deal was in place nor ever contemplated. Whew!!! I was fascinated by all the conversations among my citizen friends about the coming attractions to be built in the city where my office is located. Some of them even asked where I was moving to at the time!! So it’s kind of nice that so many people are fact checking the FCT as it helps me separate the truth around town.

  8. Mike Smith, Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 9:21 am

    The last two columns have certainly set off a mighty tempest in the Little City teapot. Good for you George. I learned a lot about the City’s history from Nikki Henderson’s comments and I have learned a great deal about paranoia and finger-pointing from – well – lots of other people.

  9. Charlie Anderson, City of Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 9:24 am

    Andy, if you think George is playing it up, take a look over on the News Press at the headline: F.C. School Board Chair Lashes Out at Leaks from Closed Sessions.

  10. William Henneberg, City of Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 9:38 am

    At the city council work session on 9/20, as a member of the planning commission was explaining why they were going into a closed session, he states “Land aquisition, Hillwood Square.” (at 26:35 on the video webcast on the city’s website, i tried to include it in this post)

    I dont know if this was just a slip up, but this should put to rest the idea of any “leak.”

  11. Susanna Schnably, Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 10:02 am

    George, even if you put “OPINION” over the title of your columns, there are any number of people who would slide right over that word and continue to fault you. I’ve enjoyed every one of your columns and find you to be one person in Falls Church who is not afraid to bring difficult ideas and subjects into the light for discussion-and who does so in a gentle, cordial manner.

  12. Manny Little on September 29th, 2010 10:47 am

    George – 1, Lindy – 0
    What if the new owners of the old high school land put up a big hotel next to the new middle school? Now that should start some talking.

  13. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 11:08 am

    George, as much as I like to criticize you, I thought your column was great. I do want to point out as I said yesterday that I never suggested MEH should be torn down immediately. However, in light of the huge waste of resources and value it is not outlandish to suggest it. Consider this: now we have a HS and MS with student capacity of maybe 1,500 and debt of $20M. What if we wound up with modern facilities having a capacity of 1,600+ and no debt?

    On the subject of closed meetings, I have never seen anything requiring participants to keep information confidential, although clearly it is customary and advisable to do so. Documents are always marked confidential and collected at the end of each meeting, which I always assumed was because there was no legal requirement not to share it. I think it is analogous to a grand jury where nobody can be compelled to disclose, but there is no preclusion. I am a little more qualified in the area of attorney-client information, where clearly the information is confidential, but as the CLIENT a member or other recipient would not violate any legal obligation if they chose to reveal the information. This does get to a fundamental principle: our government has no inherent authority or the right just to say so, but only based on duly enacted and proper legislation. Maybe I am off base here, but perhaps somebody can enlighten me.

  14. Dudley McDonald, Mechanicsville, VA on September 29th, 2010 11:56 am

    History from afar:

    FCC (the Little City) late 1970s – mid-to-late 1980s:

    There was, in fact, much discussion (open and private) about ‘moving’ GMM&HS to the City (then a FxC school site – Whittier JHS on Hillwood) but was also met with huge resistance and a barrage of concerns — mostly environmental and safety? The outcome is GMHS and MEHMS and the twice/thrice? re-done athletic fields complex. See the history of the Jack Gambill Fields? Ask Mr. Benton, Lindy Hockenberry and many other remaining citizens about it.

    IMHO, it should have been done ‘back in the day’ when it was much more ‘feasible’! But, FCC lives with this past decision. “All politics REMAINS local!”

    What goes around comes around?? George, continue on toward the future. Ask Mr. Benton about the “Technology Triangle’ while you’re at it. That made some fiscal sense, too.

  15. Hillel Weinberg on September 29th, 2010 12:37 pm

    It would be regrettable NOT to pursue the redevelopment of city-owned land so close to the metro as long as a suitable site could be found for the school complex. Schools and fields are clearly not the “highest and best use” of land so close to the Metro. (The City would have to receive some sort of compensation for the negative spill-over effects of development across the street from our border.) The only real “reason” not to proceed with an economically appropriate change would be to allow the powers-that-be to avoid have their past decisions questioned at this time. Sorry, not good enough.

    Why not locate schools and fields somewhere else? (And why spread buildings out? There are high-quality, high-density (multi-story) schools all over the country — one of the best high schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School, which has produced 4 Nobel prize winners, is 9 stories tall. There is no reason why school buildings need to be “ranch-style”. (Reasonable athletic fields need to be provided, of course.))

  16. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on September 29th, 2010 3:18 pm

    I think fairly dense commercial and residential development on the site (in Fairfax County) would have a decently positive impact on the City in terms of revenue. That would be a lot of people close by who would likely shop in the City. Traffic might be an issue but overall I think the City would benefit (and so I can’t imagine getting any kind of compensation as a result of the development).

  17. Lou Mauro on September 29th, 2010 5:17 pm

    Well done, George.

    This is rare indeed—- I find myself in agreement with both Charlie and Dan on the same day! As far as I can tell, Dan is right: there is no legal obligation not to reveal information discussed in a “closed meeting.” The State law in question, Code of Virginia Sec. 2.2 – 3711, merely authorizes public bodies to hold closed meetings in certain limited circumstances. It says nothing about the participants being bound to an obligation of confidentiality or penalties for violating any obligation of confidentiality. If anyone is aware of a law imposing such a legal
    obligation, as Dan says, please enlighten us.

    And Charlie is right on when he says that there are those who “think that if they belittle the FCT long enough as a…voice of those who seek to destroy the City…eventually it will become accepted as true. Paranoia reigns!” This is known as the Big Lie, used historically of course by murderous regimes worldwide, but also practiced for far too long right here in Falls Church City by the elitist autocrats who rage at occasionally losing their ruling status because of the vagaries of the democratic electoral process. These are the folks who will castigate a real journalist like George for the slightest perceived inaccuracy and yet say nothing about the lies, half-truths, biased misstatements and distortions that regularly spew from the pages of the City’s other “news”paper.

  18. KC McAlpin on September 29th, 2010 5:37 pm

    I can’t help recalling the time when I went to the CBC-dominated City Council in the mid-1990s and protested the Council’s plan to sell the Hillwood properties to a developer and the Marriott Corp. I stated at the time the City was making a grave mistake because that property could be used as park until such time as it might be needed for a school or some other critical need, but that once it was gone it was gone for all time. But the CBC-led Council, cheered on by Nick Benton and eager to close a budget gap without raising taxes, blew all such objections aside and proceeded to sell. And the City’s forecast of the number of students that the townhouse development would generate in order to make it look like a paying proposition, turned out to be ridiculously low.

  19. Robert Thomas, Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 9:19 pm

    But KC, the people that live on the Whittier site are so nice. How can you say such things? Seriously, you are spot on, and the refrain has been heard over and over and over. Pearson Square anyone?

  20. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on September 30th, 2010 7:35 am

    William H:

    My reading of “Hillwood Square” as I read the motion for the Planning Commission wasn’t a slip up. It was printed on the motion I’d been told we needed to read and pass. I asked about it as well because I found it odd and was told that other senior City staff had asked as well before the meeting and had been told to put that on the motion. The motion — and the vote on it — was obviously going to be a public document. Even if I’d decided that I didn’t want to include that in my motion, the agenda for the meeting has “Hillwood Square” as well (http://fallschurch-va.granicus.com/GeneratedAgendaViewer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=186), so it wouldn’t have made a difference.

  21. William Henneberg, City of Falls Church on September 30th, 2010 8:51 am

    John L:

    I didnt mean to try to call you out or say that you made a mistake. I apologize and thanks for the clarification. I appreciate all the work that you all put in to help the city!

  22. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on September 30th, 2010 11:01 am

    Don’t worry. I didn’t feel like I was getting singled out. No need for an apology.

  23. Hillel Weinberg on September 30th, 2010 2:48 pm

    KC, maybe someone can aggregate on a website the various projections for different projects with respect to impact on schools, taxes, and so forth, and the reality as experienced over time. That way we can discount (in the appropriate directions) the estimates currently being generated …

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