Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Candidates Did Well, But How About Issues Forum? do?

By Ken Feltman

November’s local elections will involve decisions not just on the leadership of our city, but also on the tone and temperament of the next few years. Judging from the demeanor and statements at Tuesday’s Community Issues Forum, these seven candidates are even-handed, intelligent and organized. Each has thought through what he or she wants to accomplish if elected.

They spoke about what they perceive as Falls Church’s strengths and opportunities as well as our weaknesses and problems. They did not dwell on fault-finding. Instead, they discussed possible solutions. Some of them gave us insight into how they would gather the information they would need for their decision-making. They seemed to realize that, upon election, they would need to confront the issues immediately before them before they could hope to get to their “wish list.”

As she left the meeting, a neighbor summed up what others probably felt. She said that all the candidates seemed to be “for something, not against something or somebody.” She laughed and continued, “We will need to wait till closer to the election for the fireworks.” She may be correct. These candidates – incumbents Dave Tarter and Phil Duncan and challenger Letty Hardi for City Council; and incumbent Justin Castillo and challengers Erin Gill, Jake Radcliff and Phil Reitinger for School Board – avoided the “blame game.”

In discussing the issues in constructive terms, the candidates may have set a tone for the rest of this campaign. James Baker III, former chief of staff and Treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan, once remarked that the first event of an election campaign sets the parameters for the whole campaign. He equated the opening event to the first shot fired in battle. Barring mistakes or intervening events, he said, the candidates who engaged the voters earliest had the advantage.

Whether that is true in Falls Church remains to be seen, but the candidates answering citizens’ questions Tuesday evening gave an impression that – no matter where they each stood on specific issues – they could and would work together for the City’s benefit.

In a sense, that is what the Community Issues Forum hopes to facilitate: Concentrating on solutions and getting people from across the political spectrum to work together. When Betty Coll of the Falls Church Democrats, Sally Ekfelt of Citizens for a Better City, Harry Shovlin of the American Legion and I sat down three years ago to discuss issues and candidate meetings, we recognized that many organizations conduct such meetings – but the complaint some residents were raising was that meetings were predictable and slanted to the sponsoring group’s point of view.

Well, yes! Groups do have a point of view. That is why they are formed in the first place. That is why they continue to exist.

Each of us was a member of one or more other civic groups: The Democrats, the Republicans, the Falls Church Chamber, CBC, VPIS, various neighborhood associations, Creative Cauldron, etc. We four agreed that sponsoring a civic meeting can be challenging for organizations in these days of busy families and fewer volunteers who can do the little things needed for a successful meeting – preparing the agenda, inviting the speakers, arranging for the publicity, securing a venue, setting up and cleaning up the room. Instead of seeing insoluble problems we saw an opportunity – an opportunity to provide value for Falls Church.

We discussed two of the several civic groups that get consistently high marks for worthwhile and well managed events: the League of Women Voters and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society. We knew there was no need to duplicate their work. But we saw value in a non-partisan approach to community discussions of issues and candidates. And what better way to insure non-partisanship that to make certain that the partisan groups were at the same table at the same time, organizing and conducting an event together?

Next, we explored whether we could work together and how we might combine forces to have enough volunteers to conduct top-quality meetings. We wanted to determine whether we could share the burden so that no one civic group would have to do too much.

Three of us from that original meeting were smiling Tuesday evening. We think the concept works – so far.

Have we made mistakes? Of course! Let us know what you think we have done wrong. If we can’t handle criticism, we need to bow out. Do you have ideas for programs or for improving what we are doing and how we are doing it? Please help make Falls Church better by letting us hear your criticisms, complaints and suggestions.

Please write us c/o Harry Shovlin, American Legion Post 130, 400 North Oak Street, Falls Church, Va. 22046 or e-mail at issuesforum@usa.com. We need the help!


Ken Feltman is the Chair of the Falls Church City Republican Committee.