The 12 candidates for Alexandria City Council squared off in another debate Monday, touching on minority concerns, city finances and affordable housing.
The forum at the George Washington Middle School auditorium was sponsored by ACTion Alexandria, the Alexandria Chapter of the NAACP and the three Alexandria Patch sites. One of the more spirited portions of the debate came as each candidate posed a question to a randomly assigned opponent.
Democrat John Chapman asked Libertarian Robert Kraus if he would cut school funding and on what basis. Kraus responded that he would encourage school choice and competition in education. He also said he would like to move ninth-graders back from the Minnie Howard Campus to T.C. Williams High School.
“I think it’s time we reappropriated that space back and moved city offices out of expensive Old Town retail space into city-owned space,” Kraus said.
Democrat Tim Lovain, a former council member who is running again, asked Councilwoman Alicia Hughes, who is serving a term as an independent but is now running as a Republican, why she voted to reject federal funding for a housing program, calling it a partisan move.
Hughes didn’t answer the question directly, saying it was not specific enough.
“There’s several programs in the federal government for which money is offered,” she said. “Does that always mean the money or the program is best fit for Alexandria?” More important is keeping the tax rate low to preserve housing affordability, she said.
Republican Councilman Frank Fannon then asked Democrat Justin Wilson, a former council member running again, why he continued to push for streetcars regardless of cost. Wilson said he never specifically advocated for streetcars and has instead focused on promoting bus rapid transit in high-use corridors.
“My focus is on providing the right mode for the right amount of money and ensuring that we provide the mode for the most people possible for our dollars,” he said.
Independent candidate Glenda Davis asked Democratic Councilman Paul Smedberg what initiatives he would implement to encourage more Alexandria residents to take an active role in the policy-making process. Smedberg said he repeatedly pushed for more citizen involvement and advocated for city government to more clearly communicate with residents and businesses on city policies, “so we have clear objectives and an understanding from the very beginning as to what the policy questions are and what the tradeoffs are.”
Republican candidate Bob Wood asked Chapman how the city got itself into a situation in which infrastructure is underfunded and a fiscal shortfall is projected for the coming year.
Chapman answered that the city wants to retain current levels of service despite the recession and loss of outside funding. “The economic times have really sort of put us in that bind because a lot of what we used to do back in the early '90s and '80s was rely on grant funds for a lot of the places that we wanted to improve or be progressive on,” he said. “Those programs, and those dollars, have gone away.”
Next, Hughes asked Democratic Councilwoman Del Pepper to name her proudest achievement on council and what she could have been done better. Pepper said her biggest achievement was helping close the GenOn facility. “I wish that we could somehow or other done better in terms of affordable housing and, as I’ve said before, not just in terms of rental housing but with affordable housing for houses,” she said.
Kraus asked Democratic candidate Allison Silberberg if she would support his plan to cut $2 in spending for every $1 in new spending. Silberberg said she didn’t support that idea.
“I definitely believe in being fiscally responsible, fiscally conservative, maintaining the triple-A bond rating,” she said. She also said the city needs to bring its debt under control.
Pepper then asked Fannon why the city has produced multiple plans to redevelop Landmark Mall but nothing has happened.
Fannon said he would love to see the underperforming shopping center redeveloped into a flourishing retail center but that the city must work with the center’s three property owners, including Sears, which supports the status quo.
“It’s not even a decision of the city council,” Fannon said. “We can encourage and push people to develop and give incentives, and I’d like to get it done. But one of the things that made this country great is private property. … We have respect private property rights."
Silberberg asked independent candidate Jermaine Mincey for his opinion on Alexandria’s waterfront redevelopment. Mincey said it would be a waste of time and energy to review a council decision that’s already been approved. “I believe in talking to the community and reaching out and looking at ways that we can make the changes as we get through the already approved plan,” he said.
Smedberg asked Davis what her philosophy was on municipal budgeting and if she supported the city’s program to manage for results.
Davis noted she has 25 years of accounting experience. “You want to review the budget to look for any type of, any ways to transfer funds, any ways to transfer services that are not totally effective and maybe decrease the money for that particular service,” she said, promising to study the budget line by line.
Mincey, posing a question to Lovain, said many residents believe city government has done a poor job in seeking civic input and asked what he would do differently.
“I think we need to have a more interactive public participation process and not the sort of ‘speaking past each other,’ which is the way it’s been a lot of the time,” Lovain said.
Wilson asked Wood why, at a previous debate, he said requiring developers to pay for infrastructure should be a last resort, and who should pay. Wood said Wilson misunderstood his response and that beginning in the 1990s, city officials incorrectly assumed development could pay for services without the city investing in infrastructure.
“What we have is called the birds coming home to roost now,” Wood said. “We have infrastructure that hasn’t been built, schools that haven’t been built, and we are unable to accomplish that in our city budget because of faulty assumptions.”
Minority Community Needs
All of the candidates were asked what they considered the two biggest issues facing minority communities in Alexandria. Kraus took the opportunity to promote his proposed spending cuts and said the city needs to lower property taxes to help make Alexandria a more affordable place to live for everybody.
Mincey said minority communities face a lack of resources, which the city needs to bring to the people.
Wilson said too many children in the city start kindergarten without high-quality preschool. He also said the city has a “sacred obligation” to keep housing affordable.
Chapman said the two most pressing issues were education and housing. “How do we educate black males?” he asked. “And it’s something the school system needs to address.” The city has also lost 10,000 affordable housing units in past decade, he said.
Pepper also cited affordable housing and education. “For as long as I can remember, there have been people forever calling and saying, ‘You know, I can’t afford to live in Alexandria,’” she said. Making sure children are able to attend preschool is also dear to her heart, she said.
Hughes said the issues revolve around housing affordability, which includes lower or flat tax rates, and closing the minority achievement gap. She also said while on council, she has championed setting aside additional resources for pre-K education.
Wood named education and the opportunity to succeed in one’s profession of choice. “It’s so critically important that we allow our children an opportunity to grow and reach potential, to have pre-K and improved K through 12 (education), the ability to learn and understand this world we’re moving into.”
Smedberg named early education programs and shrinking the minority achievement gap. “We do hear more and more that afterschool programs are critically important to that piece of the puzzle as well,” he said. Smedberg also cited providing more opportunities for starting small businesses.
Davis called for the reinstatement of the a Virginia loan assistance program and for training and counseling for new homeowners. Also, many minority groups don’t feel totally included in policy-making priorities of the city, she said.
Fannon stressed the need to keep homeowners in Alexandria and promoted a homeowner tax-deferral program. Second, he said obesity is a major issue in the black community and said he is an avid supporter of supporter of Healthy Families Alexandria.
Silberberg referenced her work as chairwoman of Alexandria’s Economic Opportunities Commission and cited affordable housing and education. “As far as affordable housing, I’ve been advocating for quite a while now that we need to partner with nonprofits and foundations … in being able to preserve affordable housing and workforce housing,” she said.
Lovain also named affordable housing and the achievement gap. The city also needs to preserve its existing stock of affordable housing and team up with nonprofits to create synergy, he said. Parental involvement in schools, as well as tutoring and mentoring programs, is also key to closing the achievement gap, he said.
Del Ray Patch editor Drew Hansen served as a moderator alongside NAACP member Alexis Stackhouse. John Porter of ACTion Alexandria served as emcee.