The first sense that opinions had already formed in the Alexandria crowd at Tuesday night’s candidates forum came just a few minutes into the debate between mayoral candidates.
Mayor Bill Euille (D), who’s led the city for nine years and served a previous nine on the City Council, defended the council’s May 11 decision on development along the Beauregard Street corridor in the West End, citing years of community meetings.
“We’re the most transparent city government in the world,” he said.
The crowd responded with a combination of boos and exclamations.
Challenger Andrew Macdonald (I) who argued that “tons and tons of meetings do not mean anyone is listening,” said the city is on the wrong course. Too often, he said, the city planners listen harder to developers than to its citizens.
It’s the first time the two candidates have had a face-to-face debate . A second one is scheduled Oct. 15. Questions came from the five sponsors — the Alexandria League of Women Voters, the North Old Town Independent Citizens Civic Association, the Old Dominion Boat Club and Rosemont Citizens Association — as well as from neighborhood e-mail lists and audience members.
The dozen City Council candidates, who are competing for six seats, followed the mayoral forum (more on that later in this story).
Macdonald, a former council member and vice mayor who resigned part way through his term, had pushed hard for one-on-one debates with Euille. They had tussled throughout last year over the future of the city’s waterfront, with Macdonald leading the opposition to the city’s plan. He lost that battle but has taken his criticisms of developments like that one to the campaign trail.
The city faces a host of challenges as more people move into the area; affordable housing has shrunk dramatically, infrastructure aged, traffic worsened and public school quality questioned as enrollment booms. The transfer of more than 6,000 employees to a new building along Interstate 395, with little effective city government response, still riles residents.
“Development is only good if it improves the quality of lives of those who live and work in Alexandria,” Macdonald said. “Development in Alexandria should not be the cart that’s leading the horse.”
Euille argued that the city has made significant strides in stemming the loss of affordable housing by negotiating set-aside deals with developers, although he said there’s more to do. New schools, police and fire stations have been built, open space has been increased and the city has achieved a double AAA bond rating.
“We do it right,” Euille said. “We do it right despite what a few people may say ‘the sky is falling.’ ... I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve made. We’re a city that has a lot to be proud of.”
Alexandria may be a traditionally Democratic city, but during the last municipal election, two Republicans knocked two Democrats off the City Council. They are all back, as well as independents and a minor party candidate, running in a crowded 12-candidate race for six seats.
The most interesting moment in the two-hour council portion came when one of those former incumbents, Justin Wilson (D), challenged incumbents Frank Fannon (R) and Alicia Hughes (R), who he said were using national talking points about low taxes, but both proposed and voted for higher tax rates.
Fannon, who argued that the city had “gotten out of control” under an all-Democratic council, objected to a Wilson idea for the city to provide daycare during council meetings. Wilson countered that during the most recent budget year Fannon wanted to spend tax money on a fife and bugle corps.
Hughes called Wilson’s charges “vitriolic” and “disingenuous” and denied she supported higher tax rates.
“I think we just have to talk about the facts,” Wilson said later. “Their record on the council doesn’t support what they’re saying.”
The non-incumbent Republican candidate, Bob Wood, verbally slugged away at both Wilson and former council member Timothy Lovain, the top two primary votegetters, whom he disparaged as “transportation experts.”
Wood, a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, decried “the absence of leadership, the absence of vision” on the council. “I think the central problem we’re trying to wrestle with here is this city is run by city staff, not governed by city council,” he said. “I believe it’s a matter of leadership, integrity and trust.... based on respect for citizens.”
The other two incumbents, Paul Smedberg and Del Pepper, mostly stayed out of the sparring, although Smedberg said “It’s very easy to say you’re just going to cut taxes” but budgets are about priorities, including the services that residents say they want. “This city has been extremely responsible,” he said. Pepper touted her willingness to make tough decisions and follow through.
There’s much more. Several more debates are scheduled before the Nov. 6 election.