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Controversy Roils as F.C. Council School Board Election is Tuesday

THE ISSUE OF the actions by more than a dozen local figures to write letters three years ago appealing for a shorter rather than longer term for convicted child sexual abuser Michael Gardner took the form of signs like this one on the eve of the City’s election next Tuesday (Photo: News-Press)
THE ISSUE OF the actions by more than a dozen local figures to write letters three years ago appealing for a shorter rather than longer term for convicted child sexual abuser Michael Gardner took the form of signs like this one on the eve of the City’s election next Tuesday (Photo: News-Press)

With the City of Falls Church election next Tuesday, the 13 candidates (five for three seats on the City Council and eight for three seats on the School Board) are expected to continue campaigning fervently in what has become to long-time observers, by far the most contentious race in the City’s history.

There were races in the 1950s, in particular, when fights over integration of the schools became very nasty, and in one case an entire School Board, appointed in those days, resigned en masse. Not since School Board positions became subject to general elections in 1994 have there been so many candidates and such division.

The theme for the City Council race – with five candidates seeking three posts, including incumbents Mayor David Tarter and Phil Duncan, former Council members coming back for another shot at the job, Johannah Barry and Sam Mabry, and newcomer Letty Hardi – has evolved to a choice between a moratorium on more mixed use development for the City and momentum to continue that growth for its wide benefits on the tax base and quality of life.

That is, it’s “moratorium versus momentum,” with Barry and Mabry coming out of veritable public service retirement to campaign for a moratorium, and Duncan, Hardi and Tarter pushing for continued momentum.

In the School Board race, two incumbents are on the ballot seeking re-election, current chair Justin Castillo and long-time member Kieran Sharpe. Also running and seeking a seat on the board for the first time are Erin Gill, Mark Kaye, Alison Kutchma, Jacob Radcliff, Philip Reitinger and Becky Smerdon.

Since Tuesday of last week, however, another element has muddied the waters in the campaign, the sudden release through a website associated with Mabry of redacted texts of more than a dozen letters written by prominent local figures, including Duncan, to the Arlington Circuit Court urging the judge in the case of the conviction on child sexual abuse charges of Michael Gardner, husband of the former mayor Robin Gardner, for relative leniency in the imposition of his penalty.

This has created a firestorm of controversy, as the Mabry-linked website obtained through the “freedom of information act” (FOIA) the entire mailing list for the City Schools’ announcements and began using it.

The anger that flowed from this has been palpable and the candidates reported beginning to feel it in their door-to-door campaigning.

Thus, at last Monday’s Falls Church City Council meeting, Duncan threw himself at the proverbial mercy of the Falls Church community, seeking forgiveness for “misjudging Michael Gardner’s character.”

Duncan’s apology followed one that Commissioner of the Revenue Tom Clinton brought to the podium for the same reason.

Their letters did not challenge the verdict but did seek a lesser rather than greater prison term for Gardner. In fact, in that case, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned Gardner’s conviction and it was when a new victim surfaced a year ago that a new arrest of Gardner occurred. A new trial was to begin last month and resulted in a guilty plea by Gardner at its outset.

The letters first hit the Mabry-linked website on Oct. 20 and the parent who was responsible for posting them revealed his name, thus exposing the identity of his daughter. In a subsequent televised interview on a D.C. television station this week, the mother of the victim, identified in the clip, said openly that she hoped the expose of Duncan’s letter would influence the outcome of next week’s election.

(In a related development, the parents of the victim joined their names as applicants of a petition filed by a group of parents, including by School Board candidate Smerdon, in the Arlington Circuit Court, against the Falls Church School System in a matter unrelated to the Gardner case. This was filed last month, before the parents released any information about the letters.)

In comments posted on the News-Press web page this week, the father of one of the victims defended the identification of his daughter. “Most of this community knew our daughter’s involvement, and she gave us her blessing to move forward and ask for change in this community. We need leaders with integrity,” he wrote.

Additionally, in a statement to the News-Press received yesterday, the father of another of the girl victims wrote, “The letters are a disgusting display of misplaced loyalty and demonstrate a concentration of improper, unchecked influence that remains a threat to the community.”

Citizens who came forward to speak at this Monday’s City Council meeting punctuated their criticisms of Duncan with calls for “mending the breach of the public trust” he allegedly caused by the Council’s collective effort to adopt a Code of Ethics.

Mayor Tarter, Vice Mayor David Snyder and Nader Baroukh spoke up in favor of such an effort.

Ken Currle of the City Sunoco spoke to offer $200 to help support the girl victims.

But counterveiling the harsh criticism directed against Duncan, civility emerged from an unexpected source when the venerable head of the City’s Republican Committee, Ken Feltman, wrote on Duncan’s Facebook page last week. Duncan is a Democrat, although the City elections are non-partisan.

Feltman wrote in part (with minor edits), “This ‘grim saga’ has become our community’s ‘ruins’ – so divisive that all of us, willing or not, are now part of it. Yes, a clever, conflicted, manipulative man, driven by urges that overcame his judgment and even his concern for his own family, has divided our community. Only the most insensitive would not have compassion for all those who have been touched by this selfishness, starting with the victims and their families and extending surely to Mr. Gardner’s family.

Feltman added, “Now, let’s rebuild. We can start by ignoring those who would search the ruins for stones to throw. Probably, those who now attack Duncan do not understand the purpose in the law of letters such as the ones he wrote to the court. Clearly, they do not understand him.

“Phil, I know you and most of the others who responded to the request for letters. Collectively, you represent a generation of leadership in Falls Church. We may differ politically, but all of us, individually and together, have a responsibility to learn from this community tragedy as we rebuild.
“The stones from these ruins should be used for rebuilding, not for throwing.”