The 12 candidates for Alexandria City Council shared a stage for the first time Wednesday night at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, tackling questions in a forum organized by members of several citizens associations from the city’s West End.
Sitting in the shadow of the new location for the Washington Headquarters Service called BRAC-133, discussion of how it was decided in 2008 that the massive office complex would be built away from transit just off Interstate 395 became the biggest point of contention in a forum that aimed to help voters decide who will represent the city in 2013.
First-time candidate drew the earliest and one of the larger applauses of the evening when he called BRAC-133 “the biggest planning failure” in the history of Alexandria.
“The people responsible for that decision need to be held accountable,” Wood said later in the evening, calling it “an abdication of leadership.”
BRAC came up several times, but the lines were literally drawn when moderator Rebecca Cooper of ABC 7 asked the candidates who were not on council for the BRAC decision how such situations could be avoided and followed by asking the four Democratic candidates who were on council for the BRAC decision if they “didn’t understand” the implications of building “a terrorist target” in the West End that would clog the city’s roads. Cooper also asked why voters should re-elect them if they couldn’t stop it then (Cooper then reminded the sparse crowd she was reading questions provided to her by the organizers).
Incumbent blamed “a lack of leadership” on the 2008 city council for the BRAC outcome, saying the governing body was “asleep at the switch.”
“Two members of that council were transportation specialists,” he said, making a reference to Democratic opponents and .
Lovain, who stated his support for transit-oriented solutions earlier in the evening, said the city “advocated vociferously” to place BRAC in the Eisenhower Valley at the Victory Center. Incumbent said the 2008 council had been told throughout the process that it would end up on Eisenhower Avenue and that ultimately the federal government simply didn’t want to negotiate.
“We thought we had it in the bag and then they opened the bids… and it came in at $200 million less at the Mark Center,” Lovain said. “In retrospect, I have a regret: Staff suggested to do everything in executive session and it should have been more transparent.”
Incumbent agreed, adding: “If people heard our discussions in the open, we would have a different discussion here tonight.”
Smedberg said later he was frustrated with how the city communicates with residents and supported overhauling meeting formats and procedures and streamlining the city’s website.
Wilson was more defiant when faced with the BRAC question, saying that the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General decided on the location of the Mark Center “on the wrong data” and added that he felt none of the candidates at the forum offered good answers on how to avoid similar situations in the future.
“I find it disappointing that the candidates most opposed to BRAC are also opposed to the transportation solutions” proposed to alleviate the congestion, Wilson said.
Incumbent , who was critical of the 2008 council, said earlier in the forum that she was opposed to converting the Bus Rapid Transit systems planned for the city’s high capacity corridors to streetcar, citing cost. She later shot back at Wilson, saying that she understood what’s decided between local and federal governments.
First-time candidate called BRAC “a painful subject.”
“We need to know how it happened so it doesn’t happen again,” she said, citing lost tax revenue and a need for more transparency.
BRAC and transportation seemed to be the focus of many of the questions, but the forum did cover issues of affordable housing, open space and education.
Democrat , an administrator with Fairfax County Public Schools, said Alexandria’s public school system needs to be assessed and pushed “from the dais of city council” when asked about lagging math scores on standardized tests.
“It’s an issue of leadership,” he said. “Our schools have a problem with that. … What we need is rigor in our school curriculum. … It’s not throwing money at the problem, it’s making our students learn.”
The forum also offered an introduction to independents and and Libertarian Robert Kraus.
Kraus repeatedly mentioned the city’s “addiction to spending” and said he wanted to scale it back to 2007 levels to save taxpayers $1,400 a year. He said developers should pay and construct infrastructure before new structures go up.
Davis, a retired accountant who does some substitute teaching at ACPS, said she would like to give teachers the tools they need to succeed. She said she believed improving the English language skills of Alexandria’s non-native speaking student population would lift performance in all subjects.
Mincey reiterated throughout the forum that he plans on “being where the people are” in helping inform his decisions. He promised to be the candidate citizens “can talk to.”
Voters can select up to six council candidates on their ballots on Nov. 6.
Mayoral candidates and did not participate in Wednesday’s forum.