Candidates for Alexandria City Council continued Wednesday to sharpen their differences in front of an Old Town audience deeply interested in the city’s waterfront plan, which divided the city for most of last year.
At the candidates forum at the Lyle Crouch Traditional Academy, they also began challenging each other about their records, their understanding of issues and their willingness to exhibit leadership.
Twelve candidates are seeking election Nov. 6 to six seats on the council, including four incumbents who split evenly on the waterfront decision in January. Only two of the non-incumbents have sided with the current council’s decision, and both are past council members who lost re-election attempts three years ago.
The waterfront redevelopment will allow two new hotels (a compromise engineered from the dais by incumbent Democrat Del Pepper) and will add more than five acres of new parks along what is now a chopped-up river frontage that includes two industrial warehouses owned by a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co., a private boat club and marina, commercial and residential developments.
The plan is also supposed to address the frequent flooding that bedevils the foot of King Street. Opponents are attempting to get the courts to overturn the entire waterfront decision, and the Alexandria Circuit Court will hear that appeal in April 2013.
Democrat Timothy Lovain, while conceding the process that resulted in the council’s decision last January “could have been much better,” said he thought that in the end it was balanced plan. But he charged that incumbent Republicans Frank Fannon and Alicia Hughes, who both voted against the plan, failed to get involved or offer alternatives and simply voted no.
Hughes said alternatives should have been offered, although she didn’t say she should have made them. Fannon earlier defended his vote by saying the plan that passed had “too many moving parts and not enough agreement.”
Democrat Justin Wilson said the city could have done nothing, attempted to buy the waterfront property or do what it did in rezoning. He said he would have voted for plan that passed.
Republican Bob Wood, who was co-chair of a citizens’ advisory group on the waterfront plan and who opposed the final decision, charged that Wilson didn’t understand that the council had control of development by special use permit. Wilson immediately responded that Wood’s statement was “just false.”
The animosity between the candidates continued when Lovain called out Hughes during a discussion of connecting Arlington and Alexandria to the anticipated Potomac Yards Metro station. She estimated streetcars would cost $25 million, or $50 million a mile.
“I wish Ms. Hughes would stop throwing around these bad numbers as to what streetcars cost,” said Lovain, who is a transportation analyst. ”It’s actually a fifth of that and it pays for itself in the long term.”
Hughes responded that she got her numbers from a deputy city manager. “The bottom line is that Arlington has more money. They have Rolls Royce money compared to our Chevrolet money based upon the fact they have a commercial add-on tax that we don’t have, that our citizens don’t want.”
The two-hour candidates event also ranged beyond the waterfront into parking complaints, limitations on the number of restaurants allowed in Old Town, the tree canopy, the merits of an elected versus appointed School Board, and the change in the local election date from spring to fall.
Fannon, while supporting an elected School Board, noted that 34 percent of the city budget goes to schools and spoke of the necessity of strong schools. He also objected to the school superintendent making requests for funding rather than having the council set the budget on its own. He also objected to the city trying to pay for school employee pensions that the General Assembly had cut.
Lovain said that last budget season Fannon sent an e-mail to the head of the PTA association saying “you folks only represent 15 percent of households so you shouldn’t expect full funding of schools.”
Hughes, for her part, said she favored an appointed School Board because the council holds the budgetary power and board members are not accountable to the council.
Libertarian Robert Kraus, who has positioned himself as a budget cutter, swung back at Wilson’s idea for child care during public meetings. “We already pay for babysitting services in Alexandria, it’s called our public schools,” he said.
The election’s move from May to November was a “cynical move by those who lost” the last election, Wood said. Those Democrats — Lovain and Wilson — wanted to make local elections about national politics, he said.
Wood joined the incumbent Republicans and Kraus in calling for tougher spending scrutiny.
Hughes, who in the last budget sessions sought to add several new spending initiatives, called for a zero-based budget. “Our job is to educate children, pick up the trash and provide for public safety. Everything else is extra,” she said.
Incumbent council member Paul Smedberg (D) missed the event due to a long-scheduled work trip. Mayor Bill Euille (D) did not show up to debate independent Andrew Macdonald because of a previously scheduled meeting on the Potomac Yard Metro project. Macdonald answered the four questions submitted by the Old Town Civic Association in a brief appearance on stage at Lyle Crouch Traditional Academy.
Two more candidates nights are planned in Alexandria: Monday, Oct. 15 at George Washington Middle School, and Wednesday, Oct. 24 at Minnie Howard School.