On September 2, 1997, the Arlington County Civic Federation (ACCF) sponsored Candidates Night Debates for the Arlington candidates running in the general election for Tuesday, November 4, 1997. For your information, Cable TV Arlington, Channel 33, has broadcast a videotape of these debates on Mondays, 10:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m., and Fridays, 10:30 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. These broadcasts began in October and are to continue throughout the month. For our members, who do not have cable TV, the following are the highlights of the ACCF candidate debates session for the Arlington County Board. This session included County Board candidates Jay Fisette (Democrat) and Amy Jones-Baskaran (Independent, Republican-endorsed). This race will fill the seat being vacated by Ellen Bozman's retirement.
The candidates were given up to two minutes for opening statements, followed by four questions from the Civic Federation delegates. The president of the Civic Federation, Bill Nolden, asked candidate Amy Jones-Baskaran to speak first on this panel. (This was based on a flip of a coin.)
Amy Jones-Baskaran (I): "Good evening. I'm running for the Arlington County Board because I want to make a positive difference for our community. I want to make sure that Arlington remains a place for families to put down their roots and grow, and participate in sharing community values and building on those values. I want to make sure that businesses come to Arlington, invest here, and create good jobs.
To achieve these goals in Arlington, the highest priorities must be quality education, public safety, and balance development. And I will be your independent voice on the Board and work with other reasonable voices on the Board to achieve these goals.
For too long the Board has neglected the basics in order to fund their pet programs. For example, the Department of Human Services budget has quadrupled since 1986 to $45 million today. Our population increased only 10% during that period. We have a plan to nearly double affordable housing by the year 2000, but where is the plan to deal with the impact on children and their families?
Where is the plan to deal with our understaffed fire and police departments, where there are dismal pension plans or for the fact that we have sky-rocketing juvenile arrests?
Please be clear: I'm not running to slash and burn the budget or to dismantle Human Services. You and I both believe in helping the neediest in our community. But the current course we are on is not sustainable. My priorities are good schools, safe neighborhoods, protecting our natural and human resources, and encouraging and retaining good businesses in Arlington.
For our Hispanic residents, quiero mejorar la comunidad y el sistema de educaion para todo. [(Translation: "I want to improve the community and the system of education for everyone.")]
Remember that I would hold the line on taxes. And on the Board, I will be a strong and independent voice to work with you in the community for an open process and for positive change to the long term health of our community. So a vote for Amy is a vote for a positive difference. Thank you."
Jay Fisette (D): "Good evening. I believe that public service is an honor, particularly here in Arlington, which is a community that I care very deeply of. In addition, for Arlington is one, grounded into core fundamental values, optimism not cynicism, collaboration, tolerance and respect, individual responsibility, and citizenship not selfishness. And learning, life long learning, not stagnation.
Since the beginning of this campaign, I have talked about four priorities for this community, my four priorities.
Fiscal responsibility: I believe the budget should be viewed as a living, breathing reflection of the values of our community. I bring years of experience as an auditor of the General Accounting Office. I am a member of the County's Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission and the Director of a large non-profit human services agency in Arlington.
Second is public safety. If we are to have a healthy community with, every person here wants to have some sense of personal safety. In addition, we need an increased focus on juvenile crime in our community.
Education as a product of the public school system, I believe that there is nothing more important to the future of our entire community than maintaining the excellence of our public schools.
And finally the environment, I am a life long environmentalist committed to protecting both our neighborhoods and our parks and open space. Elections are about choices.
In closing, I want to highlight some of the stark differences between my opponent and myself. I have extensive community involvement in Arlington. I have, depend on, management experience both fiscal and programmatic after GAO and through my non-profit Human Services Board. I support strong environmental policies. I worked for the park bond in 1996 and I have the endorsement of the Sierra Club. Four, I am committed to working with the School Board of our public schools.
And finally, I have earned the reputation in this community as a coalition builder and a consensus builder. You can count on strong democratic values and an independent leadership. I ask for your support on Tuesday, November 4th."
Delegate Questions of the Candidates for the County Board
Bill Nolden, president of the Civic Federation, drew the names of four Federation Delegates to ask the candidate questions. The names were Margo Holder, Lisa Nisenson, John De Paul, and Ernie Ragland. For your information, the delegate questions and candidate responses follow.
Margo Holder: "I'm Margo Holder, delegate from the Fairlington Civic Association. To both our candidates who are here tonight, experience is particularly significant in public service. Can I ask you what three qualifications you have to offer in running for this particular position?"
Bill Nolden: "Did you direct it to either of them?"
Margo Holder: "I directed it to both candidates."
Bill Nolden: "Do you want to start on that, became Amy went first the last time?"
Jay Fisette (D): "Sure. I've talked about my principles for the community and I think that I'm running in the area of fiscal responsibility some very good credentials. I was an auditor at the General Accounting Office, which is the federal agency that deals with waste, fraud, and abuse for many years. I think those skills will be very helpful because reviewing and dealing with the budgetary process is one of the key responsibilities of a Board member.
Along with that, as I mentioned earlier, I was a member of our Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission for four years and the director of a non-profit where I balanced a budget of over a million dollars, a million and a half. I have 25 staff and 400 volunteers.
Another thing I'll talk about is my work in the community. In my civic association, I started the Neighborhood Watch in my neighborhood. I think there is a real importance to that both in enhancing our safety but building community at the same time. I'm the director or the president, excuse me, of the Arlington Arts Center, which is a local non-profit organization committed to the arts, the visual arts in Arlington. And I'm very proud of the work we've done over the recent years in rebuilding that organization and creating a real future. That will be an asset not only to Arlington and the arts community, but to the entire region and our school children included. I am an active member of my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and I get a lot of pleasure out of that."
Amy Jones-Baskaran (I): "Thank you for that question. The most important thing I think is your degree of involvement and your degree of participation and encouraging participation of other people's diverse opinions and viewpoints.
For four years, I was the leader of the VIA [Volunteers for an Independent Arlington] Coalition and in fact helped build that group. As the leader of that organization, I took the initiative to spearhead programs to get Internet access to the Virginia General Assembly proceedings, the Virginia Code, as well as the Supreme Court and Appellate Court opinions onto the Internet. And we were successful. It was co-sponsored by Delegate Darner and we are very happy that this succeeded. So my involvement in that area has been to foster an environment where the community can participate, where the community has more information about public proceedings, their government, so that we can encourage more involvement, because I find that in our community, unlike you here this evening, there is a great deal of apathy. And I don't know whether that's because of our location, next to the District, where people are so involved with that. But I would like to engender more involvement in the local community.
My other qualifications: I am an attorney by training and profession. I've practiced for 10 years. I am used to study and analysis of complex issues. I think I can ask the tough questions on the Board. I am a product of public schools, so I am very committed to public schools. And I believe that how we treat our children is where we want our community to go in the future. So we have to build with our children and we have to get our faith communities involved, as Mr. Hager said [at the beginning of the ACCF Candidates Night Debates]. We have to get everyone involved to work together to bring these youth up with purpose and meaning and to get them involved into the community to become part of the community. Thank you.
Lisa Nisenson: "Hi, I'm Lisa Nisenson from the Lyon Park Civic Association. I'm a delegate. Also, I noticed when I was sitting in the back the sound didn't carry all the way. So, if you could put your mouth on the mike, please it would help. This is directed to both candidates. I'd like to know specifically what you like most about living in Arlington?"
Bill Nolden: "Amy, do you want to start on that one?"
Amy Jones-Baskaran (I): "I chose Arlington because it was a safe community. I've lived here for 15 years and I came to Arlington because it was beautiful. There were lots of parks. There were lots of beautiful mature trees and I felt it was a safe community. There were a lot of convenient stores. So, that's why I located here. And, as I've grown over the years to enjoy more of the parks here, my husband and I are tennis players. We have a garden where we grow roses.
So, we like the fact that we can be so close to an urban setting and yet be in a suburban area, where we can enjoy a more rural life style and still be connected with a lot of the cultural events that are happening here in Arlington or in the District. And so, that's why we've chosen to stay here and build our lives together. And, its the quality of life in terms of our peaceful enjoyment of our environment and having an opportunity to grow and see the community grow together."
Jay Fisette (D): "There's a lot I like about Arlington. I like the parks and the bike trails. I'm a cyclist. I think our public school system deserves a lot of credit and that appeals to me and a lot of businesses and people that choose to live here. I like the urban yet suburban feel of our community. And I think, however, that is something we need to protect. I think that is the real focus of our future is making sure that we keep that suburban feel while really having all the wonders of living in a more urban environment.
I like the ride along system with the police department. I did that recently. It's a part of our community that not necessarily everyone knows about. You can call the police department and ride along and learn about what the police do.
And, I guess if I had to summarize it, I really like in this day and age when there is much disenchantment with government, I like it's been through the Arlington Way. It's not a perfect system by any means, but there's a lot very good about it. And, I like the opportunity to participate in it, something that I'm absolutely committed to is ensuring that this community continues with the maximum participation. And, let me define that does not mean agreement in every case, but it means listening and having an opportunity to participate at all different levels of our government. To me that is a real gem of what Arlington stands for."
John De Paul: "Good evening. I'm John DePaul, delegate from East Falls Church. And, I noticed that we've talked about program, most candidates have talked about program. But I'm interested as a voter in specifics, and I wondered if both candidates would care to comment on what they would do specifically in their program on three issues that I think are of importance to Arlington. First, is business development in Arlington. What would they do to bring more business revenue? Secondly, safety in our neighborhoods, what would they do to stem rising or seemingly rising assaults and crime in all of our neighborhoods? And, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, what would they do to encourage and instill in their program the achievement of academic excellence in our Arlington schools? Thank you."
Bill Nolden: "Jay, I think you win that one."
Jay Fisette (D): "Sure. That's 30 seconds on each is what I get. Business development was the first and I believe that Arlington needs very much, and I will promote sound business and economic development. Yet, we need to recognize that we need to protect the neighborhoods, that border some of those like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, to protect the character and integrity. We have a marketing plan put in place and I'm very supportive of implementing that marketing plan. I understand another issue of concern to the business community is the sign ordinance; and, I'm willing to look at that to see what flexibility we can allow in terms of the sign ordinance in Arlington County. But essentially our location is excellent. We have low vacancy rates. But we cannot count on our location forever. And, we need to be very aggressive, as our neighboring jurisdictions, in both retaining and soliciting new business.
Second, safety, I already mentioned the Neighborhood Watch, which is a fairly cost-free but very effective prevention program. I believe strongly in community policing and we've had an increase in the number of community police in Arlington in recent years. Also, we've had an issue lately on the bike trail, and clearly one of the things you can do there is continue to ensure that we have a rotation of police patrols on the bike trails. And, we can look at the issues of lighting and physical changes that can be made to the trails.
And, lastly, was academic achievement. Here, the School Board is primarily responsible. To respond to that question, I look forward to having a very good working relationship with the School Board in meeting the needs of the school system. Though I will say that we also have to look at ways of fiscal restraint and consolidation of some of the administrative services between the school side, which is about a third of the budget, and the County side, which is two- thirds."
Amy Jones-Baskaran (I): "Thank you, John. I think first of all we should look at safety in our neighborhoods, because I think we have to have a safe community before businesses are going to want to locate here or to keep businesses from leaving to go to other jurisdictions. And, I think first of all, we need to increase our police department personnel numbers. We are understaffed according to national measures by the Justice Department, and I think that has to be remedied.
So, in addition to under staffing, we also have a problem in that our pension plan for the police and the fire department is abysmal. I mean they use it as an example of one of the poorest pension plans in the nation. It wouldn't cost the County one cent to change it. And, we need to do right by these hardest working members in our community. So, when we create an environment where safety is paramount, where we treat our police and fire fighters correctly, where we give them the pensions they need to keep the seasoned officers here in Arlington so that they don't leave after two or three years to somewhere more attractive, that's the first thing to do.
The second step, then this makes it an attractive business environment, because businesses know they can come here. They know that the residents are not going to be leaving because of crime. They know that their businesses will be safe and they know that they will be protected.
One of the other things that we can do to encourage business development is to focus on high tech industries that are environmentally friendly. They don't require a lot of space necessarily. There are a few areas that can still be built out within the existing General Land Use Plan without violating densities, a BPOL tax revision, a few things. Thank you. My time is up, sorry."
Bill Nolden: "Ernie."
Ernie Ragland: "Thank you, Bill. My name is Ernie Ragland, I'm a delegate from the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association. In 1996, there were several articles written in the Arlington Journal, the Arlington County Taxpayers Association's [ACTA] Watchdog, and the BVSCA Newsletter, concerning the Stuart Park land transaction in which the County Board paid $3 million for property across from Ballston Common [mall] at the Stuart Park site and sold that property five or six years later for only $300,000. There was no competition on the sale: (1) what would you do to prevent that kind of situation from happening again, that kind of transaction; and (2) would you support an independent and non-partisan Office of Inspector General to help Arlington County ferret our waste, fraud, and abuse?"
Amy Jones-Baskaran (I): "Stuart Park, yeah, that's an interesting saga. And, I think the way the Board went about doing it was completely wrong. The process was closed. There was no competition for the sale of the property. And, I think if we're going to purchase resources, we need to make sure that we get the best price for them.
The problem with that property began actually a few years earlier when the property was supposed to be condemned for road widening purposes for Wilson Boulevard. That was never done. And, then it was flipped to a favorite developer friend of the County Board, the same people who did the development at Buckingham, Paradigm Corporation, at a tremendous loss to the taxpayers.
And, I think it was just a horrible situation; and, in the future, what I would do is to make certain that any County transaction where we are selling property is publicly advertised so we have competition for the price. Now there are certain things that are restricted to executive session, but I would read that very narrowly. In fact, because I think the more competition we have, the better off the voters are, the taxpayers are, and everything. That's what I would do to prevent that from happening again.
Would I support an Inspector General? Yes, absolutely. I think it is very important. Many times I've met with all of the County department heads and I have sensed from many of them that they are reluctant to be utterly frank about the budget priorities that they have, what their programs are, or where they want to go, or challenges they see ahead. And, I'm being honest, I think they're a bit reluctant to speak frankly. I think that the Office of Inspector General, like Montgomery County has just adopted, would be useful to maybe ferret out some problems that we won't see on the surface."
Jay Fisette (D): "Ernie, I will tell you we've talked about this before I think. I will tell you that I know that this has been an issue for ACTA, the Taypayers Association, and the Republican Party, as well. I've looked into this and I have seen different sides of the story. There are different pieces of information out there. I know the building was purchased for about $3 million and to date about $2.5 [million] has been recovered through a developer contribution on a neighborhood piece of property. We did get the rights to expand the road. We were looking to expand and we did sell off the remainder of that building.
My commitment is to once I'm on the Board to watch this process carefully and to ensure that there is no "developer friend." I don't know about that relationship you were alluding to but you can be assured that with the eyes of a person, who came from an agency that was committed to waste, fraud, and abuse, that that will be something I will be keeping my eyes focused on. But I also don't think it is fair to over-simplify this particular transaction that spans the period of about 10 years.
As far as an Inspector General, I will tell you that I am open to that. I'm not supportive of it at the current time, but I am open to that. I think my time on the Board I would watch and make the determination as to whether that's appropriate. I have not seen a pattern of fiscal mismanagement. We have a Double-Triple-A Bond rating. Only a hand full of communities in the country have that. So, I don't see a pattern of abuse, but if I get there and I feel its true then I won't hesitate. Right now, I don't think it's a good expenditure, a good use of taxpayer money. So, we also get an external professional audit on an annual basis. Time, thank you."
This concluded the ACCF candidate debates session for the Arlington County Board.