Civic groups often play an important role in the affairs of their communities. This is the first of several articles reporting on the activities of these groups. Today's report covers the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations.
When Fairfax voters approved $18.7 million in bonds to build a new county courthouse last winter, it marked a high point in the 36-year history of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations, which represents 105 neighborhood groups.
It also provided one of the clearer illustrations of the role the federation plays in the civic life of the county.
The Board of Supervisors originally called for a $21.7 million courthouse - a figure the federation felt was $5 million too high.
"We just didn't think $21.7 million would fly with the voters," said Orlando A. (Al) Riutort, who served as the federation's president this past year.
Riutort said so to County Board Chariman John F. Herrity, who was concerned enough about the federation's position to call a meeting in his office for the day after Thanksgiving.
At that meeting Herrity, Supervisor James M. Scoutt (D-Providence), Circiut Court judge Bernard F. Jennings, county staff and federation representatives pounded out the $18.7 million figure that subsequently received the Board's approval, the federation's blessing and the voters' go ahead at the polls Feb. 22.
"Without the federation's support, the bond issue might well not have passed," said Scott. "In 1972 we lost a $55 million school bond vote because of their opposition."
The federation also has supported, although not unanimously, the current $51 million parks and school bond proposals.
The position of the federation in county policymaking can be compared to that of the tigers in a zoo. They're only one species among the whole population, but they are imposing, and the management usually accommodates them well.
Most Supervisors rate the federation's performance over the past year as particulary effective, primarly because of Riutort's leadership. He was a planner with the county from 1968 to 1972 and understands the workings of the county government. He is also respected by officials as a cogent thinker and a persuasive advocate of the federation's position.
John Lynch, who succeeded Riutort as president, is an economist with the Department of Defense. For several years Lynch has provided much of the brainpower for federation studies of the county budget.
Lynch has a reputation as a sound man, although in the past there have been rifts in fiscal policy between county officials and the federation. The federation does not always get its way. Last fall, it lost a battle with the Board of Supervisors over sewerage treatment facilities and a voting student school board member.
However, on the credit side, the federation did win a fight to stop the county park authority from using $3.3 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for park land acquisition.
The organization has had its ups and downs, and the first half of this decade qualified as a down. In 1970, it had nearly 140 member associations. Then for the next five years, it steadily lost membership.
As one member put it, "The membership just wore down - mainly because the last board felt it knew what the citizen's views were and just didn't listen to us.
"The federation also lost credibility during the early part of the '70s because it became identified with one issue - sewers. Other important matters got little attention," the member added.
Now, the federation gets involved in just about any issue - major or minor - that comes before the County Board, from budgets to recreation programs. Basically, the organization provides a forum from which citizens can speak out on a board range of county policy. Federation actions take the form of resolutions, which are then forwarded to the Board - and, when the Virginia General Assembly is in session, to the Northern Virginia delegation.
During the last session of the state legislature, the federation hired two young lobbyists to push their case with the delegates.
Each of the federation's member associations is authorized to send four delegates to meetings. In addition, there are delegates from all the county's district councils. No one has figured out just how many voters the organization represents, sai Riutort, but the number is high enough to attract the attention of the Supervisors when the federation speaks.
"We have a lot of mutual respect for one another," said Board chairman Herrity, a former member of the federation. "We have our differences, but we listen to what they say."
Most of the federation's skull work is done by 10 study committees who develop the background out of which federation positions grow. The president appoints all committee chairmen.
"The secret of the federation is very strong committee chairmen, very strong committees. If you don't have strong committees across the board, then you don't cover all the issues," said Riutort, who has given committee chairs to strong, articulate people during his tenure as president.
"Al went outside and brought in some new blood," said Gary Hoffman, a lawyer who served as criminal justice committee chairman under Riutort. "Then he gave us a lot of autonomy. Anything you felt was important, you wanted to delve into, he was willing to have it brought to the federation."
This year the membership has grown from 80 to 105 associations.
Even though the federation is non-partisan it has been a breeding ground for politicians. In addition to Herrity, alumni of the organization include Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale) and Jean Parkard, former Board chairman. The most successful politician to have served in the federation is Congressman Herbert E. Harris (D-8th district), who was federation president in 1960-60.
"It's hard to call the federation a springboard into politics," said Harris. "It deals in too many controversial issues to be that. but my involvement in it directly motivated me to get involved in local government. It provides at tremendous mechanism for individual input into county policy."