As most Alexandrians surely have heard by now, there are lots of potential candidates for the City Council election on May 6. With a field of nearly 20 already and more people likely to declare before the middle of the month, the feel of the race, at least in these opening weeks, is that of the wild, wild west.

To increase the drama, a new group started by veteran city activists has kicked up a little dust. Alexandrians for Sensible Growth has asked potential council candidates for detailed responses to a 17-question survey that group members believe will help them assess candidates' approaches to land use, relieving traffic congestion in the city and, of course, the Eisenhower-to-Duke connector. Responses to the questionnaire, which went out Christmas Eve, were due Monday.

The group plans to give candidates thumbs up or down tomorrow afternoon and then post results on its Web site, www.alex4sensiblegrowth.org. The site, however, won't be running until after Jan. 15.

"I like to think of ourselves as providing a service to the public," said group board member Ginny Hines Parry, a veteran civic activist who flirted briefly with a council run. "Like a retail business that sells pots and pans, we're giving out information to the public on the candidates."

But there is skepticism about whom the group speaks for and questions about whether it isn't just a narrowly constructed group of residents poised to push personal agendas. Many of the five board members were staunchly anti-Eisenhower Connector, and many have criticized the council over the years on its handling of land use plans, including the current construction of The Patent and Trademark Office.

For the record, the group's board says it comprises three Democrats and two Republicans from diverse neighborhoods around the city such as Seminary Hill, Rosemont and Cameron Station. But last week, two campaign managers asked rapid-fire questions, checking the veracity of the group's claims and requesting more information on whether the group was even qualified to gather information and assess attributes of candidates. So, as Alexandrians for Sensible Growth was checking out candidates, the candidates were checking out the group.

"Please provide information on ASG itself," wrote Peter Smeallie, campaign manager for Council Member Claire M. Eberwein (R), to Parry, " . . . [including] detailed biographical sketches of board members and how board members are qualified in the areas of planning, civic engineering, architecture, and development. . . ."

And this from Robert Scott Adams, who heads the campaign of Democratic council member Joyce Woodson: "Who do you represent? Your questionnaire will take considerable time and effort and in fairness to all candidates, you should identify who you actually represent."

Parry said she and the other board members, while not elected by a particular community, have their proverbial ear to the ground and the support of legions of Alexandrians concerned about affordable housing, in-fill development, open space and the Eisenhower Connector. True, she said, ASG has no membership and doesn't intend to have any. "We're proud that we know the community very well," Parry said.

In addition, the five have more than 70 years of civic experience, particularly because they organized around the connector and other large debates over the years, they said.

But to some observers and council members, there is no question about whom the group purports to represent.

"Well, they represent themselves," said outgoing council member David G. Speck (D), who added that he expected to see a long line of similar "interest groups" who hope to influence the campaign. He noted that even though ASG was founded by veteran activists, "anyone with a computer and a logo can create an organization and anoint themselves representatives of the public."

Tempest Over Rules

The regular band of dissidents who attend Arlington County Board meetings is fuming about new rules that govern citizen commentary during the forums.

John Antonelli, a regular irregular who jousts with the all-Democrat board on almost anything, said the rules are a slap to the so-called "Arlington Way" of civic participation.

"I think it's certainly a way to stifle dissent," he said.

But county officials said the board wants only to handle meetings more efficiently.

Board meetings have lasted as long as 12 hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and still spilled over to the board's carryover meeting on Tuesday, County Clerk Toni Copeland said.

"It's utterly insane," said Warren L. Nelson, a vice chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee. "We've had the problem with the public comment period becoming broadcast time for anybody who wants to throw a brickbat. So I understand."

The new rules, adopted at the board's organizational meeting on Jan. 1, further clarify a longstanding practice that speakers cannot sign up to address the board and then donate their allotted time to others.

But mostly, the new rules deal with the "Consent Agenda," a routine list of unrelated items lumped for nominal board consideration and action. Unless removed from the consent agenda for further discussion, these items are voted as a single package. In practice, the board approves them unanimously. Should a member object to any item, it is removed from the consent agenda.

The new rules also stipulate that in regard to the consent agenda, a speaker can talk no more than three minutes, regardless of whether the speaker has objected to one item on the consent agenda or many.

The rules also say that any citizen can, like board members, remove an item or number of items from the consent agenda for further discussion.

As an act of what he termed "civil disobedience," Antonelli, a Republican, promised that at this Saturday's meeting, he would ask to remove every item from the board's consent agenda.

The new rules do not affect the public comment period, which allows any citizen to speak on any topic before the board for as long as two minutes at the start of regular Saturday meetings. The rules also do not affect public testimony on items outside the consent agenda -- people can still sign up to speak for as long as three minutes, or five minutes for representatives of organizations.

Antonelli acknowledged that Arlington still offers citizens plenty of opportunities to speak out, maybe more than most jurisdictions. But not long ago, he said, everyone, individuals or group representatives, used to have the option of speaking for five minutes or two minutes, with the two-minute crowd speaking first. In 2001, the procedures were changed to three minutes for individuals and five minutes for organizations.

"They've really been eroding our rights under the Arlington Way," he said.