Poll: Should Alexandria adopt a ward system for City Council elections?

The Alexandria City Council at it’s March 12, 2024 meeting (staff photo by James Cullum)

A new advocacy group called the Communities for Accountable City Council (CACC) is pushing for Alexandria to return to a wards/district system for City Council elections.

Currently, all members of Alexandria’s City Council are elected at-large. A ward or district system would, like the School Board, have City Council members elected from and represent certain neighborhoods.

CACC leader Tom Kopko said he formed the group after City Council voted to end single-family-only zoning last year. Kopko said his hope is a ward system would make city leaders more accountable to the residents of the city’s neighborhoods.

“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.”

Kopko said the at-large system makes it harder to get city leadership to focus on neighborhood-specific issues.

“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?”

The current City Council expressed unanimous opposition to the idea of wards last year, with some saying it would create more infighting as City Council members worked to secure funding for their neighborhoods at the cost of others and to city-wide programs.

“I would not be supportive of returning to wards,” said City Council member Kirk McPike. “Wards tend to foster competition and division between parts of our city. A lot of challenges we face need to be a whole city effort to address them, not one part or another bearing more of the weight. Under the current system, we can take a broad view on issues such as some of the flooding issues that affect a small geographic area but are incredibly expensive to address.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said wards could backfire on those hoping for better neighborhood representation given that representatives of one neighborhood could still easily be outvoted by the rest of the Council, which would have no incentive to cater to the needs of a neighborhood outside of their ward.

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