Local leaders sabotage regional cooperation

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 10, 2013

Just when the Washington area would be smart to set aside its internal differences and cooperate, local leaders have been going out of their way to undermine what little solidarity exists.

The most egregious example of regional self-sabotage began last month when a group of elected officials misused the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to try to score a purely symbolic point favoring gun control.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Representatives from Falls Church, the District and Prince George’s County led the misguided effort. It backfired, to no one’s surprise, when conservatives from Loudoun, Frederick and Prince William counties and Manassas retaliated with their own dose of political gamesmanship.

The upshot: A major peacemaking effort was required Wednesday to prevent a breakup of the Council of Governments, which, despite its limitations, produces tangible results.

In a separate incident, also in March, a top Fairfax County official gratuitously insulted Prince George’s.


Fairfax Economic Development Authority President Gerald Gordon, whose employer is competing with the Maryland county for a new FBI headquarters, was speaking at a business forum. He said sarcastically that it would make sense to place the FBI in Prince George’s because the G-men would be close to the criminals and crooked politicians they target. (Fairfax County Economic Development Authority/FCEDA)

Fairfax Economic Development Authority President Gerald Gordon, whose employer is competing with the Maryland county for a new FBI headquarters, was speaking at a business forum. He said sarcastically that it would make sense to place the FBI in Prince George’s because the G-men would be close to the criminals and crooked politicians they target.

The comment prompted Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) to apologize. But it reflected the disdain and sharp rivalry that many in the region feel toward their neighbors.

Such backbiting is never welcome. Today it comes at a particularly unfortunate time.

Federal spending cuts under sequestration threaten the area’s growth. Sensible politicians, and business and civic leaders, say greater cooperation is a way to minimize the damage.

There’s also a risk of missed opportunities. Virginia and Maryland have just approved major new funds for roads and mass transit that, if spent wisely, could reduce traffic. The region should also be thinking about how to take advantage of the District’s emergence as a hot destination for ambitious young people.

One obvious goal for regional cooperation is securing long-term funding for the Metro transit system. Another is to spread jobs and low-cost housing more evenly throughout the region.

The Urban Land Institute’s Washington office just urged the area to pursue such goals by developing a common business plan similar to ones in Atlanta and Chicago. “If we don’t act, we will stagnate and may even decline,” it said.

But it’s hard to envision strategic collaboration after the COG dust-up. Although its power is limited, the council is the most important organization that brings together representatives of the area’s 22 county and municipal governments.

Politically, the council’s members range from very liberal Democrats to tea party Republicans. It’s able to get things done by sticking to non-controversial issues. Those include collecting traffic data and improving communications among emergency personnel after shortcomings were revealed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The squabble after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings threatened the council’s existence.

Gun control supporters — led by Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder (R), D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Prince George’s County Council member Karen Toles (D-District 7) — pushed through a resolution backing an assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole.

I agree with their position, but the issue is too sensitive for COG. Also, gun regulation is primarily the job of states and the federal government.

Predictably, conservative politicians rose to the bait. Loudoun and Frederick counties voted to stop paying their council dues, at least until the gun control decision is reversed. Prince William and Manassas made noises about doing the same.

Those are some of the region’s fastest growing jurisdictions. Fear of losing them prompted a compromise Wednesday, when a substitute resolution was passed and sent to a committee. The council promptly announced the controversy was resolved, but it’s too soon to be sure.

Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason) generally supports gun control but opposed the original resolution.

“At the local level, we don’t declare war. We don’t take positions on abortion or issues like gun control,” Gross said. “We have a unique kind of fabric here, and this starts to pull away at the threads of that fabric.”

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce and Washington Business Journal are sponsoring a forum Thursday morning where District Mayor Vincent Gray and other top politicians will address the question, “Greater Washington: Can This Region Cooperate?”

Recent events suggest the answer is no.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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