Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Realizing a Shared Vision in the City of Falls Church

My husband Dave, our son Cieran, and I moved to Falls Church 25 years ago. We bought a small house on East Jefferson Street and began to build our family life in this City.  Dave and I grew up moving around the world: new schools, new faces, new languages every few years.

For us, creating a home for Cieran, soon to be joined by his brother, Eamonn, was important. We wanted our children to feel a sense of community which had not been part of our childhood.

My desire to run for City Council is very much a part of wanting to sustain this community which has been so important to my family. In many conversations over the months with neighbors and in meetings with City Council and staff, I have seen the same concerns about sustainability repeated in the decisions facing Falls Church. We have a small geographic area, defined and attractive landscapes, valuable and recognizable resources, an uneasy relationship between development and essential character, and challenges to economic parity. These realities make more difficult the creation of a sustainable City. In both documents and deeds, we have defined what we value as a community; the question now before us is how do we achieve this vision?

In my profession, I focus on managing limited resources in a variable economic environment. While working in the non-profit sector suggests inspiration by larger social goals, it in fact demands market-driven discipline due to confronting the twin problems of limited resources and the need to maximize efficiencies. With those as constants, moving anything forward – programs, mission, dialogue – demands more than a mechanical re-arranging of variables (costs, opportunities, revenue, human resources, etc.) It requires a sense of optimism, a vision, and connection with the people and places that matter and inspire. I understand the need for balance between landscapes and people. I know the importance of maintaining essential character while providing meaningful economic benefit. And I know that as a steward of other people’s money, transparency is paramount.  Public trust cannot be violated.

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying: “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” And I certainly understand that everyone is talking about the economic situation of this City and how we will manage the next several years. Current economics will impact us, but not define us. My experience leads me to suggest some specific steps.

We need a clear understanding of how the City is planning its budget reductions over a multi-year period.

The recession worsened the financial condition of the City, but it was not the root cause of the deficit we are now experiencing or the shortfalls we will face over the next several years. We need immediate, short-term housekeeping: building back our reserves, restoring a capital budget to maintain and improve infrastructure, creating opportunities for new investments, instilling in our City staff a sense of urgency to implement a comprehensive, long-term development plan, a model which has worked well in our neighboring jurisdictions. We need a clear understanding of how the City is planning its budget reductions over a multi-year period. Any budget cuts need to leave the City positioned to move forward in a more favorable economy. Reductions must be made in the context of a coherent economic plan.

Sustainability at its core demands an overarching respect for a few, guiding principles. Falls Church has articulated those principles in its vision statement: environmental harmony, diversity, community life, world class schools and economic development. Why have we not fully implemented this vision? I believe that the answer is both the lack of political will and perspective. Moving this City forward to realize its own stated vision requires fiscal discipline and commitment to the long view. It requires a willingness to forego the immediate fix for a stronger, long-term benefit. It requires striving for a balance between adherence to proscribed guidelines and opportunistic movement. Implementing the vision of Falls Church is the essential task of its leadership and its citizens. It is in front of us. We need to take the first step.

Residents are understandably concerned about rising taxes and the prospect of suppressed property values. They are concerned about the City’s inability to grasp economic opportunities. They are concerned about the future of our schools. They are also clear in wanting to see public policy reflect and sustain core values.

Looking ahead, creating a sustainable City requires undertaking hard choices in the face of clear, undeniable data. Concurrently, we cannot lose sight of the vision we have for Falls Church. While the City’s economic situation is influenced by regional and national economics, its future will be determined by coherent decision making which recommits to the values articulated by our citizens and codified in our institutional documents. In many ways, we have already begun the hard work. We need to honor that work and move it forward.




Johannah Barry is a 25-year City of Falls Church resident. She is a career environmentalist, having worked in conservation for over 30 years. She is running as an independent in the May 4 F.C. City Council race.