Twelve years ago, I was honored to begin service on the Fall Church City council. I believed that I could truly make a difference, bring in new ideas, and represent the citizens in a way that reflected the beliefs that I thought most of our citizens held – strong schools, mixed use development, and help for those in our community who needed it most.
In some areas, I think the City has made great strides. But in all honesty, we are a community of debate, not do. It has been interesting watching new neighbors move into our community with lots of great ideas – many though had already been tried and put on the back burner. I’ll never forget the time that Barry Buschow reminded us of how many times we as a community came up with a design for the City Center – only to have them all now collecting dust on the shelves of City Hall. It’s like we keep waiting for the next best thing without making a commitment to move forward, fearful that by moving forward we will be leaving our Little City behind.
The debate continues. The pointing of fingers at people we believe destroyed the City, either by raising taxes, approving projects, or approving big school budgets, continues. Don’t get me wrong – the finger pointing goes both ways. And when someone speaks their mind and, either through the print media, electronic media, or verbally takes a stand that may be controversial, they are accused of stirring the pot and not doing things “the Falls Church way.” I, too, used to fall into the category of not understanding what these thinkers were trying to do – I mean, if our City government says something, doesn’t that automatically make it right? Looking back, clearly I was wrong. I applaud all of those who took the unpopular stand, challenging City Council, School Board, and government alike to take a closer look at how business was being conducted, what could be done differently, and where serious changes should be made. As a member of City Council and as Mayor for four years, I believed (for the most part) all that was presented by City government. I was sure that our hard working staff were at the top of their game, and that most of the complaints that we received were from citizens who either didn’t understand the process or didn’t like the decisions that were being made. I should have challenged the decision making process more. Even today, I am receiving calls regarding grading plans and planning documents that are causing problems in neighborhoods. How come we are wrestling with the same problems we were wrestling with 12 years ago?
Part of the problem has been the lack of guidance City Council has given to staff. We on Council have a serious problem with micromanagement. We want to do the fun things and get into the miasma of government without letting staff know exactly what we are looking for. Each year, we meet to put our ideas together and give direction to staff. We start off on our shiny new path of enlightenment, determined to do better than the year before. But when it comes to the rubber meeting the road, we flounder. We don’t commit to a decision without hashing, rehashing, debating, discussing, and maybe eventually putting forth a watered down version of we really should have done. And now eight months have passed and staff has spent countless hours trying to get us all of the miniscule data points that, in the end, just add to more debate and no policy.
As I look back, there are clearly some issues I would have addressed differently. I would have taken a stronger stand in favor of affordable housing (not even discussed any longer). I would have asked for deeper tax cuts over the past two years (I am always looking for consensus on Council – maybe I shouldn’t have). I would have engaged in conversation with our staff more – on a more casual basis so as to hear what the real challenges were in government. I would have questioned senior staff more. I would have challenged my fellow City Council members more. I would have pushed harder for revenue sharing with the Schools (an issue that has been debated for over four years now).
Those issues will all have to be addressed by the new Council, if they so choose. With that, I bid adieu. I wish the new City Council luck with the many endeavors they will be facing in the coming years. I hope that citizens not only continue to challenge our government, but do it more – do not believe that things are running as smoothly as they appear from the outside. Peel back the onion and make sure that City government is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing – serving you, the citizen.
Robin Gardner is a former Mayor of Falls Church and City of F.C. Councilmember. She will complete her term on the Council this weekend.