BY THIS TIME next year, District voters registered with the Democratic, Republican and Statehood Green parties will have cast their ballots on primary day in one of the most critical elections in years. On Sept. 12 candidates for mayor, D.C. Council chairman, one at-large council seat, and council members for Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6 will be elected in party primaries. The winners, in turn, may face challenges from independent candidates in the November 2006 general election. Given the number of candidates poised to enter the upcoming races and the number of incumbents lining up to seek new offices, it is not far-fetched to imagine a major shake-up taking place in local elected leadership following next fall's election. That fact alone underscores the importance of voters starting now to familiarize themselves with key issues facing the city. We plan, starting today, to present some of those issues that we regard as critical to the District's future. How candidates respond to those challenges should help determine the response of voters at the polls.

Protecting the District's fiscal health

The years of unbalanced budgets, junk-bond ratings, congressionally assigned financial overseers and court-controlled agencies are not part of the distant past. Only a few years ago, the District's financial credibility was in shreds, a nightmare that no city official or resident should ever want to experience again. Maintaining the District's hard-won financial viability must be the first duty of citizens entrusted with leading the city. Eight consecutive years of fiscal recovery are no fluke. Achieving balanced budgets, positive fund balances, healthy emergency and contingency reserves, and favorable reviews from Wall Street required hard work, restraint and fiscal prudence on the part of city leaders. That performance must be maintained.

The days of electing people to office who bring little understanding of the financial implications of their proposals or the impact of their ideas on the budget should be over. Candidates will, of course, speak at great length about their plans to invest in programs and infrastructure to revive and rebuild neighborhoods, to reduce taxes, etc. Those ideas, however, should not be entertained by voters without accompanying plans to finance those program and infrastructure initiatives. Pursuing the former without the latter is a clear road map back to the days of fiscal calamity.

The city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, along with the city's elected leaders, rightly takes pride in the District's sound financial position and strong credit standing. It should not be squandered. Candidates unable or unwilling to give top priority to the preservation of the city's financial viability do not deserve to serve one day in office.