Not until Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. called City Council member Robert L. Calhoun "God" did things get rolling.
"This is a good debate," Moran said in the middle of a lengthy parking discussion at the City Council retreat last weekend. "We have God here on one side, and Patsy [council member Patricia S. Ticer] and the King Street merchants on the other."
At the overnight retreat near Warrenton, Calhoun was expounding philosophically on why all persons who park in downtown Alexandria should pay, and Ticer, an Old Town resident and voice of the downtown business community, said she already could hear the opposition to such a plan.
It was Moran's Sunday morning wisecrack that brought the first real laughter to the conference room filled with city officials, staff and news media. And at that instant, the 50 or so present knew that the retreat that began tensely -- with Moran eating dinner by himself as others chatted politely at nearby tables -- had worked.
Billed as a session for outlining long-range city plans, the Airlie House retreat was more an attempt to unite the council and soothe the wounds of the May election, city officials said.
"The election was a rough, tough, knock-down, dragged-out affair," said council member Lionel Hope, a Democrat. "A lot of feelings were hurt . . . . It was important that we become more cohesive than we were after the election.
"Some will scream and holler and say we shouldn't have spent that much money," Hope said about the conference that cost the city about $4,500. "But we needed to get that cohesiveness to accomplish anything."
To be sure, the council did discuss most of the important problems and issues Alexandria faces. Among them were:
*Parking: After learning that the city had issued 1,625 residential parking permits for 1,223 spaces in the Old Town area, the council spoke of possibly alleviating some of the on-street traffic by subsidizing the price of garage or lot parking.
The city staff was also directed to report to the council on new shapes and designs for parking meters that might look more appealing in architecturally conscious Old Town. Housing:
*The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has agreed to give Alexandria funding for 30 units of public housing for Cameron Valley, housing officials announced to the council. But federal cutbacks have made providing affordable housing one of the city's biggest problems. The council said it will continue to encourge developers to use tax-exempt financing for renovation and construction to ensure that some new units will be set aside for low- and moderate-income people.
*Public Safety: Former city manager Wayne Anderson told the council that he will begin reviewing data from the public safety department next month so that he can recommend the scope of an administrative review.
Sometime in the fall, council members said, they will decide whether to hire an outside consultant to determine if the new public safety department, a consolidation of the police, fire and code enforcement divisions since 1983, is functioning effectively and efficiently.
The four Democratic and three Republican council members -- each of whom is fiercely independent -- did seem to bristle less at each other's remarks and ideas toward the retreat's end, but the council still did not seem to have jelled into one body.
"There are no natural friends on council, only natural enemies," said one council member. "You can drink a glass of wine [with them], but once the party's over, the differences are still there."
Moran defeated Charles E. Beatley, who ran the city as mayor for 15 years. And at one time Moran was Beatley's protege. After a bitter feud with Beatley, Moran dropped his Democratic endorsement for a council seat and challenged Beatley as an independent mayoral candidate. Staunch party supporters blamed Moran for splitting the party, and the vestiges of Moran's convincing victory still seem to sting them.
After 15 hours of discussion ranging from the tax rate to towed cars, the seven-member council returned to Alexandria Sunday, full of ideas for the next three-year term.
For certain, having spent an entire weekend together, each council members found out how the others play the net in tennis and who really knows how to play bridge.
Uncertain, though, was how each will play together, as teammates or soloists, when the council reconvenes Tuesday, Sept. 10.