Echo Press Editorial: Council needs fresh start
It's not easy running a city.
There are tough decisions to make. You can't please everyone all the time. There are different personality types to deal with. A staff to oversee. You have to have a good understanding of budgets, zoning, long-range planning, transportation, tax incentives, legislative workings, open meeting laws, economic development, public relations, environmental threats and a myriad of other government-related issues that are constantly changing.
And if you're the Alexandria mayor or a city council member, you're expected to put in long hours and attend a constant flow of meetings to stay on top of all these issues for a whopping paycheck of around $7,000 a year for council members or $9,000 for mayor.
And you have to do all this under the scrutiny of the media, the public and social media users who are often quick to criticize.
The tension ratchets up a notch when council members can't get along or trust one another, which seems to be the case at Alexandria City Council meetings lately. The council has been dealing with a difficult issue — the possible censure of council member Virgil Batesole — for nearly three months. There are different sides to the issue, different interpretations.
Three council members, Todd Jensen, Bobbie Osterberg and Dave Benson, think that Batesole shirked his duties by not attending two Runestone Center Commission meetings, at least one of them deliberately. They're frustrated that instead of taking an active role in the commission meetings and sharing the discussions and recommendations with the full council, Batesole prefers to gather information on his own, taking up staff time in the process, and then vowing not to vote on the commission's recommendations. They believe that Batesole put a greater burden on the rest of the council because they couldn't trust the information he was bringing back from the commission since he wasn't at the meetings.
Batesole and council member Bob Kuhlman believe that Batesole is being singled out and that he has the right to investigate city matters on his own. At the last meeting, more dissension arose when Kuhlman and Batesole called for a special meeting to discuss allegations that Jensen threatened them after two previous council meetings.
Mayor Sara Carlson, who asked City Attorney Tom Jacobson to investigate the claims against Batesole, believed she probably had enough reasons to call for his censure. But she chose instead to take a higher road — asking the entire council to attend a session led by a team-building expert. The goal is to give the council the tools and ideas to deal with conflict and become better leaders. The council supported her idea on a 4-0 vote with Batesole abstaining.
Carlson said it was time to stop the distractions and concentrate on the important work of the council, which includes setting a budget in the next several months.
Alexandria residents should be heartened by Carlson's approach and the council's vote. It shows that the mayor and council realize there's room for improvement on how they've been conducting business.
Residents who have been quick to criticize council members for their in-fighting should let them try to make a new start. In a way, residents should be grateful that council members do not view every issue eye-to-eye. As Robert Kennedy Jr. once said, "Democracy is messy and it's hard." It should, however, be as respectful and open as possible.
We hope the council members keep an open mind during the team-building session. We hope they come away from it with a willingness to approach disagreements with a fresh perspective that's grounded in what is best, not for their own individual interests, but for all the Alexandria citizens they serve.