Letter to the Editor: Boards, Commissions and Power Politics

Alexandrian Kathryn Papp says the true purpose of city boards and commissions has become distorted and calls for the city manager to consider structural change.

To the Editor,

The City’s Boards and Commissions have grown to total 76 and were mostly established in the 1980’s. Recently, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley signaled the use of Boards and Commissions to press forward city projects, such as staffing the Beauregard Advisory Group, but this use is also apparent in pushing forward the waterfront plan. Exploited like this for tough issues creates the perception that these city-appointed groups are little more than power arms of City Hall.

In most cases, Boards’ and Commissions’ charters require them to make policy recommendations to City Council and to draw on city staff for support within reason. This is where violations of their charter are apparent. It has been noted that staff can even effectively instruct them not to weigh in, as happened in the case of the waterfront small area plan - the Environmental Policy Commission was told to be silent for fear their information could be used as “Trojan horses.” That EPC complied is in violation of their charter. Brownfields, stormwater runoff, and climate induced flooding should have been reflected in this plan, as potential costs are high for both developers and the city. Not a pretty pony, just fact of the matter.

Now, in its drive to keep the waterfront plan alive, the Board of Architectural Review was asked to hold a “Preliminary” review session on July 25 so that an incomplete application for a Certificate of Appropriateness can be used to present the architectural and site drawings for the proposed hotel of Carr Properties whose purchase agreement is due to expire on Dec. 31.

Short of hearing opinions on the aesthetics of the drawings, this is a meaningless exercise. Current zoning cannot support the certificate as submitted. However, the site pictures are well crafted in that they obscure how the total mass of the building when set against an 18th century backdrop, is out of character - a major objection of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But there is good news. The Board of Zoning Appeals not only honored its charter but also was one of the best examples of good governance to be found anywhere. From start to finish the BZA process, discussion, and measured and considered recommendations could serve as a case study for any well-respected school of government.  However, it is also an example of what happens if a Board or Commission fully complies with its charter and honorably and responsibly represents citizens but offers a recommendation that seriously questions city staff and council judgment. In this case, the Board’s recommendations were not only rejected but also assaulted.

It is difficult to believe after reading the city charters for these groups that they were intended as anything but legitimate ways to make superior public decisions, especially those of great consequence. As with the super majority vote, they were established to add legal consequence and weight to what a part-time city council can do. Any city that has grown as rapidly and relentlessly as the City of Alexandria must use all available resources – for their substantive contributions, not their power enhancing and public relations potential.

Cleaning up now would be a good idea. An annual review of Boards and Commissions is required of the city manager, and City Manager Rashad Young’s distinctive and relevant experience combining city management and a business degree means his first annual report and recommended changes could be the beginning of much needed structural change.

Kathryn Papp

Dennis Auld July 19, 2012 at 01:52 PM
John, hotels run in cycles annually and it is common for certain periods of time for them to run discounts. On the whole, the hotels in Alexandria perform better than most other areas. There is demand for more rooms, and they would not put them in unless they felt so.
doug redman July 19, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Say what "Mcbrinn"? Have no idea what you are trying to say. If you feel the need to respond at least make your comments intelligible. Thanks. "Doug"
Del Ray guy July 19, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Attacking fellow citizens who volunteer on the BZA is misguided. The members have rich background and expertise. Several are lawyers and every hearing they come in with open minds and thoughtful and painstaking deliberations whether it’s a homeowner with a small request for a variance or a more controversial issue. Jon and Dennis I was at that hearing as well and contrary of your assertions, the members of the BZA were facing far more significant pressure by the city as they have in other controversial cases. There was nothing foregone on the outcome of their vote that night, which was a close vote. More often than not the BZA has ruled in favor of city staff recommendations or their deliberations have helped homeowners and city staff explores acceptable win win alternatives. It’s a thankless job with hearings every month often going late into the evening. The BZA and its decision that night had nothing at all to do with being on one side or the other of the waterfront plan. They had a difficult job to do and they did it to the best of their ability followed the merits of their interpretation of the law. The City Council and city attorney largely holds the blame for poor drafting of city code, which they have had ample time to correct.
Del Ray guy July 19, 2012 at 07:02 PM
As to the commentary, it is a sound recommendation for periodical review of the board, commissions, and advisory committees. I frankly think 76 are too many and take up to much taxpayer money and staff time and likely are proving difficult to fill vacancies. It’s worth a full review of the ROI for each as well as reviewing charters, checks and balances, and possible streamlining or eliminating some committees.
Dennis Auld July 20, 2012 at 01:31 PM
Del Ray Guy, I have consistently supported, applaud and encourage citizens to join and serve on boards and committees. I agree with you that on average, well meaning experienced citizens join these groups. But members can bring agendas on specific issues being dealt with by the group. That can be observed on many occasions from various groups. My recollection of that particular meeting was that a specific line of questioning seemed clearly to be to find enough weakness in position to warrant a no vote. I did not see that it was accomplished, but the questioning was continued without (my opinion) success. While you are correct that that section of the code, 800, was poorly written is true. But my opinion is that the entire section lays out what the intent of text vs. map is. But the court will decide that. As to your assertion about an attack, I assume that you know of the pressure that you state city was applying to the board? If instead that is your opinion, isn’t that an attack on the integrity of the staff?


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »