Local organization forms to push Alexandria back to district/ward elections

Anti-Zoning for Housing sign in Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

A new advocacy group has formed in hopes of returning Alexandria to a district/wards election system.

The Communities for Accountable City Council (CACC) describes itself as a non-partisan group of Alexandria residents “exasperated with the intransigent Alexandria City Council that is unaccountable to communities and neighborhoods because of Alexandria’s At-Large election system.”

While the group is non-partisan, leader Tom Kopko said the origins of the group are in the contentious decision last year to end single-family-only zoning as part of a new plan called Zoning for Housing.

“We’re a group of people who are totally frustrated with the obvious intransigence and lack of accountability of City Council,” Kopko said. “There’s a long list of grievances, the latest is Zoning for Housing. They betrayed homeowners and, against massive opposition, passed [Zoning for Housing] unanimously.”

Zoning for Housing faced opposition from local homeowners, but also garnered support from others who say greater density is the only path to building enough housing to make Alexandria affordable.

Kopko said the feeling among residents he’s spoken to is that the City Council is unaccountable because they’re elected at large.

“Citizens have no recourse against seven elected officials and staff, all because they’re elected at large,” Kopko said. “Who is the person who cares about your neighborhood?”

Kopko pointed to a federal judge’s ruling that Virginia Beach’s at-large voting system is illegal as an example of at-large voting being struck down elsewhere in the state.

“Rejection of district elections is a rejection of every other electoral system that we all know and expect,” Kopko said. “The smaller the district, the more responsive the elected representative. That principle applies to anybody, no matter where they live.”

While Kopko said the group was formed in response to opposition to Zoning for Housing, Kopko said he believes the change could also benefit those who live in apartments or supported Zoning for Housing.

Regardless of where people are on Zoning for Housing: nobody had a representative for their community. Everyone had to try and lobby seven different people. That is totally unfair. The Zoning for Housing decision didn’t allow, for example, Del Ray — which was completely betrayed by Zoning for Housing — to hold any particular person accountable. Now they have to try and hold seven people accountable? That’s not the American way, no matter what their community of interest is.

A change to the district or ward system would require changing the city charter, Kopko said.

CACC said the district/ward system is a relic of segregation:

For its first 150 years, Alexandrians elected their city government by district/ward, until 1950 when segregationists installed at-large elections to suppress minority voices. Today, at-large elections similarly insulate the centrally-elected City Council from all voices, even betraying their core supporters.

This is far from the first time wards have been discussed for Alexandria’s City Council. A Washington Post article in 1992 highlighted similar back-and-forth arguments over wards. Reporter and historian Michael Lee Pope wrote that there was a similar battle between Del Ray and Old Town in 1932.

Last year, all current City Council members expressed unanimous opposition to a ward system in Alexandria.

Mayor Justin Wilson said he has mixed feelings on wards; saying that while he isn’t opposed to them in general, he doesn’t think they’d solve problems in Alexandria.

“I’m not categorically opposed to wards, but I generally don’t think they would solve the issues those who advocate for them believe they would,” Wilson said.

Wilson said most advocates for wards are either opposed to a specific land-use decision and believe the result would be different with specific neighborhood representation — as is the case with CACC — or are Republicans and other political groups who believe they could get more representation if the city had wards — as was the case in 1992.

But Wilson said having one member out of seven opposing a project with a citywide benefit won’t derail a project.

“If anything, it could make the Council less likely to incorporate the concerns of localized opposition,” Wilson said.

For those Republicans hoping to get a seat on Council via wards, Wilson said there’s further bad news.

“There is really no way you could draw wards in Alexandria to result in ‘Republican’ districts,” Wilson said. “Our lowest Democratic-performance precincts are still 50+%.”

Still, Kopko said the current at-large system is a relic of a bygone era that needs removal.

Pope wrote that advocates of the at-large system argued the removal of “sectorial interests” would create better candidates to lead the city. Meanwhile, opponents of the at-large system argue, as Kopko does, that the at-large system allows the City Council to overlook the interests of parts of the city without facing consequences.

Alexandria Living Magazine reported that the vote for an at-large system in 1950 intentionally limited minority voices.

“The origins of the at-large system are quite ugly, from the segregationist period — from the TC Williams era,” Kopko said. “I don’t know how anyone reading the history of a large system being based on a segregationist system could be in favor of it. How could you?”