Local Commentary

Editorial: An Underwhelming Public Response

Now that the annual budget sweepstakes are underway, the horse race is underway toward the April 27 schools and city operating and capital projects budgeting deadline for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. With the School Board deciding what it needed to ask the City Council for, and the City Manager’s recommended budget hot off the presses as of last week, all done with dignity and dispatch, the next step was to engage the public.

That began to happen last weekend, on Saturday morning with a town hall and Monday night with a novel up-close-and-personal opportunity for citizens to meet and talk at length with leading City staff employees in every segment of the City government – from police to sheriff to storm water management, to planning, to economic development…you name it.

Everything that had gone so well to set up the parameters for the new budget deliberations culminating in the City Manager’s proposal last week suddenly fell apart.

That’s right, Mr. and Mrs. Citizen of Falls Church, the big “fail” in the budget process has already been exposed. It’s you.

The school and City staff did yeoman work, especially in the two months since the start of the new year, to lay down and articulate sets of rationales and supporting documents that were designed for a veritable public feast of intelligent public policy making. All for Mr. and Mrs. Citizen.
Except the intended guests of this feast failed to show up. Yep, a party was given and no one came.

At the Saturday town hall forum a dozen, no more, citizens came to the Community Center to air their opinions, a lot of which were, predictably, grievances. Then on Monday night it was even worse. The room was lined around its edges with tables upon which carefully designed graphs and visuals were placed, with plenty of handouts of plans and explanations. Each table was manned with two or three of the people who are actually carrying out the City’s operations every single day.

True, there were no “Whack a Mole” games, face painting, or lemonade stands, the entertainments that draw hundreds to similarly-designed events at the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School gym once or twice a year.

So here’s our conclusion: obviously everybody in town must be happy with what the City Manager submitted last week, so let’s just get it over with and adopt it now!

After all, what’s the best measure of public sentiment, the dozen people who show up for an event, or the 13,000 who don’t? The closest to a measure of true public sentiment in Falls Church was the school bond referendum last November, because that’s when the highest percentage of citizens came out to express themselves on a local issue that would cost them money.

Guess what. The bond referendum passed by a landslide! So, let that be the measure that guides the budget, not the tiny handful that show up at town halls.