Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Genuine Dialogue Matters: Listen, Don’t Just Hear

There are many, many things I absolutely love about the City of Falls Church, but my first thought when sitting down to write this piece was simple: I’m worried.

I’m worried about cuts to the schools with a son in 2nd grade. I’m worried about our financial solvency and long-term viability made worse by the compounding effect of the overall economy. I’m worried that a drumbeat of “merge with [fill in your county here]” will grow louder and gain support. I’m worried that Falls Church is going to stop being Falls Church, but will be that quaint old place that we talk about in years to come like those who lament the lost days of the skating rink.

I’ve lived that. My home town in Ohio was smaller than Falls Church and also had a “Mayberry” feel to it. We had a village green with a brick clocktower, farms all around, and a committed citizenry. By the time I was 30, however, that feel was gone. My parents stayed, but missed the village they’d known. I don’t want to get our son through school here and then say, “Well, this was a great place to raise a child, now where do we go?” I want to say, “This was a great place to raise a child…dibs on his room.”

I feel that although some people hear what is said they don’t listen to it because their minds are made up and they’re just going through the motions.

It doesn’t have to happen and we have a lot of people who will fight tooth-and-nail to keep it from happening, but if we continue with business as usual, we’re in trouble. Let’s be honest here: Our budgetary situation isn’t due simply to the global economy. We’ve had some Falls Church-specific financial and budgetary “whoopsies” that would have hammered us in any event. But the fact remains that we’re facing a deficit of more than 10% of our budget.

In the past few years, debates over issues have reminded me of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. She said “Sentence first – verdict afterward!” When Alice objected, she was told, “Hold your tongue.” It feels like we’re right there sometimes. Some will say, “Hold it, John. Didn’t you compare the Council to frustrated toddlers once?” All too true and that comparison wasn’t my finest hour, but the bottom line is that there is no one in the City (as far as I know) with whom I can’t have a reasonable conversation. But it is getting tougher because I feel that although some people hear what is said they don’t listen to it because their minds are made up and they’re just going through the motions. The election date change comes to mind.

Now, you’re thinking, “Does that just mean we should have a referendum on every issue?” No, but I also think if we had more genuine dialogue, we’d have fewer calls for referendums. I work in the election assistance field (for foreign countries, not domestically). I’ve learned that a strong complaints process is key because without that an electorate (in the countries where we work) can resort to violence when faced with a result they don’t like. Calls for referendums are like that – they’re a symptom. To me they represent a distrust of the process and the process matters. If you don’t have trust in how decisions are made, you can’t have trust in the decisions themselves.

Now for one example of why I love it here. One Wednesday night well over a year ago, I was walking home after a Library Board meeting and was greeted with a cheerful, “Hey, John!” out of the dark. It turned out to be Dave – aka, the red-haired guy from Brown’s. He told me that he had my son’s soccer ball and I could get it whenever I wanted. I had no idea what he was talking about. Two weeks earlier, my wife and son had gone to Brown’s and my son took his ball and forgot about it as he wandered through the store. The ball said “Evan” on it; they knew we’d be back; so they just kept it. Two weeks later, in the dark, Dave still remembered it.

Community. That is the City. The schools are a key part of it. The hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers are part of it. That’s why my family and I are here and that’s why most all of us are. But I’m still worried.

Because I’m worried about the City, I’ve decided – for better or worse – to run for City Council this May. I am also seeking CBC endorsement at their convention this Saturday. We need to change what we’re doing not just do the same thing, but “do it better” as I’m sure a management consultant would suggest. We can do better, but change is needed.

John D. Lawrence is in his second term as Chairman of Falls Church City’s Planning Commission and is also a Trustee of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library.