While there was the usual anemic voter turnout for a municipal election, the enthusiasm and hard work of the candidates leading up to the May 1 balloting was highly evident. Campaign yard signs sprang up everywhere replacing fading daffodils and tulips. Many of the candidates traversed the city for weeks, walking door to door seeking votes and more importantly hearing the concerns of the citizens.
While all of the candidates spoke to the fiscal and development challenges facing the city, on Election Day the voters decided unambiguously which ones to charge with the responsibility of enhancing the quality of municipal services and to maintain our excellent schools – by broadening the sources of tax revenues.
Over the last 15 years, demographics, political and fiscal conditions have changed the old ways and means of choosing those who govern Falls Church, which in the past was defined largely by intertwined political and social interests. One reason for its demise is that this process was not producing a majority Council membership that was capable of securing the future financial sustainability of the city and its schools. Using a candidate selection process that permitted 100 or so interested individuals to “nominate” Council members for near certain victory, as had been the practice, did not produce Councils that were capable of diversifying the tax base. We need to look no further than the lengths of Washington and Broad Streets to witness a singular failure of effective governance to sustain and enhance revenues with the result that each year more of the tax burden is shifted to the homeowner.
In short, the practice of these Councils was to increase the tax rate or ride the lucrative wave of assessment increases. Unlike Falls Church, every surrounding jurisdiction got it: Significantly enhance commercial development to earn more tax revenue and diversify its sources to reduce the impact on the homeowner and thus maintain their support for services and schools.
With this election, coupled with the results in 2010, the majority of the Council membership in 2012 – perhaps for the first time in 50 years – has not first gone through a pre-screening, winnowing nomination process by a few citizens. Instead all candidates now can cast their lot directly with the voters without filters.
In a very real way, this transformation, some of which has occurred by design and some by circumstance, is revolutionary and has enhanced the prospects of a broadly based government, open and accessible for participation by all citizens.
The election of Dave Tarter, the top vote getter, with his impressive resume as an experienced development attorney, speaks volumes with regard to how attentive the electorate is to the revenue needs of our city and schools. Dave understands that the City Council cannot be solely an instrument of tax and spend; it must also be willing to undertake those priorities which enable the city to enhance and diversify its revenue sources by attracting a variety of new businesses.
The reelection of Nader Baroukh underscores the voters’ desire for professional, businesslike conduct of the Council and by all the Council members. Under sometimes withering criticism, some personally directed, Nader has been a stalwart, developing and enacting the means to insure the financial integrity of our fund balance and reserves.
Phil Duncan and I have enjoyed a collegial relationship, but I have disagreed with him on development issues. I hope Phil will support an economic development paradigm that does not produce the burden of more student population growth in our schools by building more apartments and condominiums and then slapping a mixed use sign on them and calling it economic development.
Special recognition is due Councilmember Lawrence Webb, who did not win this time around. There is no question that Lawrence raised the bar on civility and candor during a very difficult time on the Council.
William Henneberg has all the attributes of a leader and needs to be part of the future of the City in the years ahead. I hope he will immediately aspire to service on one of the key City boards or commissions.
The new Council has some heavy lifting ahead. It won’t be easy and it will take time. For example, a few among many, if the water system is sold, how will it structure the sale to insure long term benefits for the community; when and how will it solve the problem of sewage flowing in the streets and into homeowners’ basements during very heavy storms; how will it financially insure that little children who are just entering the school system will have the same quality of education as those who will graduate this year from GMHS and how will it structure its economic development program to insure that it is product oriented rather than just another roller coaster ride of process? This past election suggests that the voters will spot the difference between those who support good policy choices and those who simply enjoy grandstanding. It is worth recalling that the next city election is only about 18 months away.
Sam Mabry is a former F.C. Vice Mayor and City Council member.