A looming conundrum ahead of the City Council’s fall election was averted Wednesday evening, when one prospective Falls Church School Board candidate decided to run for Council instead.
Caroline S. Lian, the only one of the four hopefuls eyeing a school board seat who had the required 125 signatures to qualify, opted to enter this November’s City Council race over the school board’s.
It sidestepped a problem the City had to address in the next two weeks before the June 8 filing deadline: there were currently fewer candidates than seats to fill on the Falls Church City Council.
That stunning development came about earlier this week when first-term Council member Ross Litkenhous made the surprise announcement that he will not be seeking re-election to a second term.
It left incumbent Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, veteran council member David Snyder and the winner of last fall’s special election to fill a vacant seat, Debbie Schantz-Hiscott, as the only citizens so far who’ve submitted documents intending to run with the City’s Voter Registrar, David Bjerke.
Lian’s late entry erases what would have been a harried final stretch to the qualification process.
Previously, Litkenhous’ announcement came with precious little time for City leaders to scramble to find a qualified substitute. The requirements to qualify for the ballot, including 125 valid signatures of registered City of Falls Church voters filed with Bjerke’s office by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8, are not prohibitive, but would have proved arduous for anyone starting at this late date just because of the lack of time.
An effort to find Litkenhous’ replacement was already underway ever since he made his announcement last weekend. Lian joining the race helped avoid some of the unconventional possibilities for determining the final council member.
For instance, if no more candidates qualify for the ballot by June 8, the only recourse would have been a write-in campaign for the November election. In that case, a candidate with a mere handful of write-in votes could win a four-year term on the City Council.
Otherwise, it would have been a rare situation if after the November election, there were insufficient candidates to fill the seven seats on the Council, four of which are due to be contested this November.
Officials were unsure about what contributed to the dearth of candidates in 2021. There is always the factor that voters are simply satisfied with the job being done by the current Council, and with the 3.5 cent cut in the real estate tax rate engineered by this Council this spring, that is a legitimate factor.
But then there is the unprecedented time lapse between the deadline to qualify for the ballot on June 8 and the November 2 election day, a lapse of almost five months. People’s heads simply aren’t fully locked into the importance of the election at such an early stage.
A lot of civic engagement is still in a rather lackadaisical mode this spring. A combination of the nearing end to the state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdown conditions have freed people from quarantine restrictions. Days are spent walking their dogs outside in unseasonably warm weather to the buzz of singing cicadas, with school graduations and summer travel plans swimming around in their heads.
Litkenhous, who along with Council member Letty Hardi unofficially represented something of a youth movement on the Council, has been a very active and vocal member. He was most recently at odds with most of his colleagues for pushing to relax the decibel limits on outdoor live music in a desire to help struggling local businesses attract customers.
Litkenhous and Hardi have been among the most aggressive seeking the approvals for large scale mixed use projects in the City’s commercial corridors, which can be credited with causing this spring’s robust tax rate cut, the largest for any jurisdiction in the region this year.
In a statement he shared with the News-Press and some others this Monday, Litkenhous explained his decision not to seek re-election this way:
“I won’t be running this year. I’ve been fortunate to have accomplished with my fellow council members everything I set out to do when I ran the first time. Building a new high school, negotiating a great deal on the West Falls Church site, lowering the tax rate.
“This has been the most purposeful job I’ve ever held and I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to accomplish so much in four years. More importantly though, I recently launched a new company and I simply can’t build that company, keep a family and serve on Council, and do all of them well in the near term. I will never commit to doing anything unless I have the time and ability to do it well and do it right. It’s just not in my DNA.
“I’m not leaving public service however. I plan on applying for the Economic Development Authority or Planning Commission after my term is up, and then evaluating another run in two years. Finally, I am also considering running for something at the state level in the next few years and beginning that next chapter of my political career.”
Litkenhous, in launching his first bid to run for the City Council in 2017, wrote a guest commentary in the News-Press then where he touted the need for a brand new high school (and not a patchwork renovation) claiming it could be accomplished without a tax rate increase. His commentary helped win passage of a $120 million school bond referendum by a 63-36 percent margin that year, and moreover his prediction about the tax impact proved correct.
Prior to Lian’s decision to switch races, Registrar Bjerke said that the Falls Church School Board had met the minimum number of candidates to fill the four of seven seats that will be contested in November.
With Lian dropping out, that leaves Ilya Shapiro, Lori K Silverman and Adam D. Riedel as the three who have submitted a certificate of qualifications to the Registrar’s office so far — or one short of the four needed this fall.
Though Bjerke did say he’s “heard it on the grapevine” that there is one more person who may be circulating petitions.
No incumbents have filed to run, including current chair Shannon Litton, immediate past chair Greg Anderson and two appointed in the last six months to temporarily fill vacancies on the board, Sonia Ruiz-Bolanos and Edwin Henderson II.
(It has been a particularly rough year for the School Board, with contentious issues surrounding school closures due to the pandemic and the national racial justice mandate leading to the renaming of two of the City’s schools.)
Having all qualified to run unopposed for four-year terms in November are the City’s three incumbent constitutional officers, City Treasurer Jody Acosta, Commissioner of the Revenue Tom Clinton and Sheriff Met Kaye. Kaye was appointed to fill the post by the late Sheriff Steve Bittle shortly before Bittle’s death last fall.
In addition to the deadline for filing in the Falls Church City elections, June 8 will also mark the state’s Democratic Party primary election, culminating provisions for voting that are already underway. Bjerke told the News-Press that some 150 ballots have already been submitted by mail or by in-person voting at City Hall.
“There is a lot more early voting than four years ago. It’s proving very popular,” he said. For that reason, he said, he does not expect a lot of voting on the June 8 election day because “most of the action is in early voting.”