Falls Church Council Race Draws Few Candidates
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Few cities can trace their independence to a rebellion by parents determined to improve the quality of local schools. But that's how Falls Church came to be founded 58 years ago.
Activism has flourished since then -- on 22 volunteer boards and commissions and through a well-oiled good-government group whose name, Citizens for a Better City, conveys Falls Church's community spirit. But this year, local politics in the city with the highest voter turnout in state and presidential elections in Virginia has taken an unthinkable turn:
For the first time in 20 years, the ballot for the seven-member City Council in the May 2 election will list no contested races. And the mayor, vice mayor and another council member aren't running for reelection.
The prospect that four candidates will stride into office with no opposition has unnerved many residents of the city of 10,781 inside the Capital Beltway. Some blame the dominance of Citizens for a Better City, calling it a political machine that has squelched meaningful dissent. Others say there's little dissent to begin with, so few people are heeding the call to serve. But above all, the frenetic pace of life amid long commutes and two-income families is finally taking its toll on a job with significant time demands.
"It's a huge commitment of your own time and your family's," said Vice Mayor Martha R. "Marty" Meserve, 61, who is stepping down after five years. "Everyone's making such a fuss that there's only four candidates instead of saying, 'Thank you for running!' "
Meserve, a retired landscape designer, says "life is about other things," including her two grandchildren. Just one of the four incumbents up for reelection, David F. Snyder, is running again.
While six candidates are seeking four seats on the School Board, the small field for the council is prompting soul-searching by Citizens for a Better City, which devoted almost a year to combing the city for candidates. A first-ever search committee mined local boards and commissions for potential leaders, hosted neighborhood coffees and advertised in newspapers. Three candidates emerged: Harold Lippman, Daniel 'Dan' Maller and Daniel Sze. By all accounts, they're thoughtful and well-qualified. But people lament that there aren't more of them.
"We can only conclude that the 'system is broke' in Falls Church," a recent editorial in the Falls Church News-Press opined. ". . . When everyone thinks alike, no one thinks."
The City Council members technically serve part time. They're paid $184 and change a month. But the reality looks a lot like full time: a weekly meeting or work session, plus as many as three additional night meetings, constituent services, budget deliberations, ribbon-cuttings and more.
And although some might think small-town life translates into light duties in public office, current and prospective council members say the opposite is true when you represent a little city in a big county (Fairfax).
"We do everything with virtually no staff," said Snyder, a three-term council member and Washington lawyer who also serves on the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and on a coalition of regional emergency management experts.
"Sometimes, the smaller the community, the more issues have to be resolved by the local government," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), whose district includes Falls Church.