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Marijuana was legalized in 2021, but Alexandria is hoping 2023 is the year the state finally settles the weird issues around selling weed.

Currently, it’s legal to possess small amounts of pot and grow them at home, but it’s still illegal to buy it commercially without a medical card.

Among the dozens of bills related to everything from historic preservation commission membership to laws around disability language, the status of marijuana is one that city leaders said could grow as the session goes on.

At a meeting of the City Council Legislative Subcommittee last week, Alexandria leaders took a look at House Bill 1464 from Del. Keith Hodges (R-98).

According to the state’s legislative information system, the bill:

Establishes a framework for the creation of a retail marijuana market in the Commonwealth, which would be administered by the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. The bill allows the Authority to begin issuing marijuana licenses on July 1, 2024. The bill allows, beginning July 1, 2023, certain pharmaceutical and industrial hemp processors, pending establishment of the retail market, to cultivate, manufacture, and sell cannabis products to persons 21 years of age or older.

Legislative Director Sarah Taylor said the Republican majority in the House of Delegates might address the retail sale of marijuana in a large bill or could push the responsibility away from the legislative side of government.

“Do you get the sense that there is the feeling from the house majority that they need to figure out marijuana this year?” Mayor Justin Wilson asked ‘bluntly’.

“Yes, but I think what ‘figure it out’ means could be two different ways,” Taylor said. “One would be cleaning up a full bill… it could be another big bill. The other thought is it could be a skinny bill that just kicks the whole thing to the regulatory environment. Instead of legislating it, [this would be] putting it all in code. It would provide some guardrails and kick it to the regulatory environment.”

The one legislation Taylor said seemed certain to move forward is legislation connected to restricting “youth access” to marijuana.

The topic of legalizing the retail sale of marijuana also touches on a long-festering issue dividing local and state leadership: the Dillon Rule, which says localities can only exercise authorities granted to them by the state.

Taylor said some localities have tried to use zoning to prohibit marijuana from being sold in their communities, which has rubbed some state leadership the wrong way.

“The one thing we should be thoughtful about is what this means for our zoning authority,” Taylor said. “My understanding is some of the folks involved in our negotiations last year are unhappy with localities that have used their authority to essentially redline cannabis retail out of parts of their community. Those localities have made some of those folks grumpy and the rest of us may have to suffer a little bit for that.”

Taylor said the discussion is likely to “grow and evolve” as the legislative session continues.

“I do agree they need to figure this out,” Wilson said. “I like the idea of them figuring this out sooner rather than later.”

Photo via Wesley Gibbs/Unsplash

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Among the many topics covered in the legislative package, Alexandria is sending to the state is a proposal that could make it easier for locals who are not citizens to join the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office.

At a meeting last week, Legislative Director Sarah Taylor told the City Council about a proposal she received from Alexandria’s Sheriff’s Office.

“We got a proposal from the Sheriff’s [Office] that has the support of the Police Department that would allow us to recruit and hire noncitizens who have been in the country for five years and are on the path to citizenship,” Taylor said. “Right now, you can receive a waiver if you want to hire someone who meets those criteria, but that’s a waiver. That means you have to go through the whole recruitment process before you get to the point of deciding to hire someone.”

Taylor said the lengthy recruitment process means it’s often cost-prohibitive for departments to invest in training non-citizens on the chance their waiver could be denied.

“The recruitment process is expensive,” Taylor said. “The idea of recruiting an individual with the fingers crossed that you’ll get that waiver is a challenge… It’s something that would make it easier to hire people who are of our community, are of the community that we are trying to reach on a more personal level through policing, and this would allow Sheriff’s [Office] and Police Department to do that in their community.”

The proposal, Taylor said, is part of a broader shift into community policing.

“It really is tied into that concept of community policing,” Taylor said.

While most waivers that are requested are granted, Taylor said the change eliminating the need for a waiver makes the recruitment process that much easier.

“[Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services] (DCJS) will tell you ‘they have not denied a waiver that has been requested’, that is lovely, but that does not mean that every DCJS will approve the same waivers,” Taylor said. “Rather than being held to the ebbs and flows of the politics of what might happen in Richmond, putting this in code and allowing it to be something that can be done in communities where this is of value is something our Sheriff’s Department brought to the table and our police are supportive of.”

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ACPS headquarters and clock (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated 4:15 p.m.) Are there too many Alexandria School Board Members? Should their terms be staggered and should districts be eliminated? The Board wants these questions answered by the time voters cast their ballots in November 2024.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the nine-person Board unanimously agreed to establish a process for asking the public these questions. The answers will inform a Board resolution that is expected to go before the Alexandria City Council next year and the Virginia General Assembly in 2024.

For years, the Board has weighed whether to restructure its composition and change the frequency of elections to try and reduce turnover. Last night, members tied Board turnover to a pattern of superintendent resignations and heightened anxiety among school staff.

“The impact that the Board turnover has on staff is extremely significant,” said Board Member Tammy Ignacio, who was an Alexandria City Public Schools administrator before retiring and running for office last year. “When you have a turnover of the board, you have a turnover of some staff and a turnover of leadership. It causes a lot of stress and anxiety on staff, and when that happens it impacts kids.”

For instance, six new members joined just three incumbents on the School Board after the November 2021 election. Board Members said school leadership suffers when more than half the Board is learning the ropes of the school system at one time.

“I can attest to the to the challenges that happen with with the high level of a learning curve that Board Members have to go through, the impact it has on staff, and in both of those cases we also had superintendents resign,” said Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz, who has served two non-concurrent terms.

There were also five new Board Members elected in the 2018 election, five new Members in the 2015 election and seven new Members in the 2012 election.

School Board terms, and their respective City Council/Boards of Supervisor terms, across the region. (via ACPS)

There have also been three ACPS superintendents in the last decade, with a fourth set to be hired this spring.

“On average in ACPS, Superintendents resign nine months after a new School Board takes office,” notes an ACPS staff report. “Since 1994, four of the five superintendents left when the School Board turnover was five or more members.”

Since their first election in 1994, the city’s nine School Board members have served three-year terms for (three apiece in Districts A, B and C) with their elections and City Council’s held on the same day.

Last night, the Board reviewed some preliminary alternatives to the current election cycle, suggested by ACPS staff. They include:

  • Three-year Board Member term options — The two members of one district would be up for election every year, starting in 2025, followed by the second district in 2026 and the third district in 2027
  • Four-year Board Member term options — One district would be up for election every year, starting in 2025, followed by the second district in 2026, the third district in 2027 and the fourth in 2028. There would be no election in 2029, and the rotation would begin in 2030
  • Four-year and only at-large positions — There would be five members up for election (selected randomly by the registrar) in 2026, no election in 2027, and the remaining four members up for election in 2028

Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D-45) says that the concept of staggered terms makes sense, but said the option of having more elections for individual districts could confuse voters.

“If a single district was up for election every year as opposed to one seat, that could potentially lead to voter and candidate confusion, as many individuals don’t necessarily know what districts they reside in,” Bennett-Parker advised the Board.

Bennett-Parker serves in the legislature’s County, Cities and Towns Committee, which would would send forward the amendment to the Virginia Charter for the General Assembly for approval.

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Alexandria Health Department at 4480 King Street

Alexandria is gunning for authority to run its own health department.

Every year, Alexandria sends representatives to Richmond to plead its case to the General Assembly. With the city under the yoke of the Dillon Rule — which says that local government can only exercise powers expressly granted by the state — often times those legislative priorities focus on areas where the city wants a little more wiggle room.

This year, as part of the ongoing Covid recovery efforts, the city is hoping for more authority to establish its own health department. There is an Alexandria Health Department, but it’s one of 33 health districts that are part of the state’s health department. Health department leadership is chosen by the state and answers to state leadership. Neighboring Fairfax and Arlington both have independent health departments.

“[Alexandria supports] legislation to provide the City of Alexandria with the authority to establish a locally administered health department, under contract with the Virginia Department of Health,” the draft legislative package says, “and ensure the City’s investment in its public health system is focused on and responsive to the needs of all Alexandrians.”

Other recovery priorities include increasing investment in workforce development initiatives to help workers acquire skills to fill childcare and healthcare jobs — both critically in need in Alexandria. The legislative package cites the Virginia Talent Accelerator Program, Virginia Jobs Investment Program and the G3 community college grant program as state-funded programs that benefit Alexandria’s workforce training.

Lastly, in pandemic recovery, the legislative package says investment is needed in programs to help recover from Covid-related learning loss.

“[Alexandria supports investing] in programs to mitigate and recover from COVID-19 related learning loss among Virginia students,” the legislative package says, “especially among students with higher level, more specialized needs, including special education students, English language learners, and students living in economically disadvantaged households.”

The legislative package is scheduled for review at the City Council meeting on Saturday, Dec. 17.

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Elizabeth Bennett-Parker casts her vote on primary day, June 8, 2021, at Matthew Maury Elementary School (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria Delegate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker is running for reelection for Virginia’s 45th District, she announced on Wednesday.

Bennett-Parker will kick off her campaign formally on Jan. 7.

“It’s been an honor to serve the people of Alexandria and I’m going to work hard for them this session and in the future,” Bennett-Parker told ALXnow. “Among other items, I’m working on bills to increase access to mental health services, enhance gun safety, improve voting access for individuals with disabilities, prevent evictions, protect consumers from deceptive practices, address inland flooding, and support working families.”

Bennett-Parker won her seat in November 2021 by defeating Republican Justin “J.D.” Maddox in the general election and incumbent Democrat Mark Levine in the June primary. She began her political career four years ago when she was elected Alexandria’s vice mayorship in her first-ever campaign for office.

Bennett-Parker is now a substitute teacher for Alexandria City Public Schools and is a former co-leader of Together We Bake, a non-profit job training and personal development program for underserved women.

In her announcement, Bennett-Parker listed a number of endorsements, which are listed below.

  • Congressman Don Beyer
  • State Senator Adam Ebbin
  • Delegate Charniele Herring
  • Mayor Justin Wilson
  • Vice Mayor Amy Jackson
  • Councilman Canek Aguirre
  • Councilmember Sarah Bagley
  • Councilman John Taylor Chapman
  • Councilwoman Alyia Gaskins
  • Councilman Kirk McPike
  • Sheriff Sean Casey
  • Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter
  • Clerk of Court Greg Parks
  • School Board Chair Meagan Alderton
  • School Board Vice Chair Jacinta Greene
  • School Board Member Ashley Simpson Baird
  • School Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz
  • School Board Member Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi
  • School Board Member Christopher Harris
  • School Board Member Michelle Rief
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Years before Alexandria would grapple with collective bargaining and the legacy of discrimination in schools, Virginia was ruled by a political faction dead-set on fighting unionization and integration.

Alexandria reporter Michael Lee Pope — a reporter with the Alexandria Gazette who has frequently covered Virginia’s state politics for WAMU — announced a new book last week that dives into the history of The Byrd Machine, a political operation led by Harry Byrd that dominated Virginia politics during the mid-20th century.

The Byrd Machine in Virginia charts the rise and fall of the eponymous political block, with both a look back at the history of the previous “machines” that made The Byrd Machine possible.

Pope said Byrd’s career started as a movement aimed primarily at eliminating debt.

“He got into this political debate when he was in the Senate about road building and not making debt. This is his whole thing, he’s very consistent, he doesn’t like debt.”

Pope said Byrd’s early campaign was about paying for projects as you go and he developed a name for himself as someone making the state government pay its debt. Byrd had a reputation as a penny pincher, going back to driving to Maryland every day to get cheaper rolls of paper for a failing Winchester newspaper he owned.

After being elected as governor in 1926, Byrd started to take measures to coalesce power and keep those in the Byrd Machine in power.

Two of the biggest legacies of Byrd, Pope said, is his opposition to unions and integration. In 1946, workers at VEPCO, the predecessor to Dominion Energy, attempted to form a strike and unionize. Governor William Tuck, a successor to Byrd and a part of his machine, drafted the workers into the state’s national guard and threatened to court martial them if they attempted to strike.

“So many people blame the Byrd machine for all manner of things,” Pope said. “This issue of collective bargaining… only recently given the legal ability to do collective bargaining. That was taken away in the 90s. It would be easy to blame Byrd and say ‘that’s the Byrd machine’ but that’s 1990s era politics.”

Still, Pope said the anti-unionization work in the 90s was still part of the legacy of Byrd’s politics.

“At the same time, don’t forget these people pioneered union-busting in a way that was visionary for its time,” Pope said, “There is an important part of collective bargaining as part of that legacy.”

The more well-known parts of Byrd’s legacy is arguably the machine’s opposition to integration. It was also the position that set the stage for the machine’s downfall. The Byrd Machine was instrumental in keeping schools segregated to the point of closing public schools rather than seeing them integrated in the late 1950s.

Though the machine had a “swan song” in the 1960s, Pope said the controversies around massive resistance ultimately led to the fracturing of The Byrd Machine as the Lyndon Johnson presidency divided the loyalties of racist southern Democrats.

Pope said he is planning to host a launch event for the book at The Athenaeum (201 Prince Street) on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m.

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Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin speaks at the Safeway at the Bradlee Shopping Center on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Photo via Eli Wilson)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin hasn’t always gotten the best reception in Alexandria, but recent comments about working with localities to establish better affordable housing zoning could help find some common ground with local leadership.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said a recent Washington Post article about a trip to Michigan included some promising comments about improving housing availability.

In the Washington Post interview, Youngkin said he’s interested in how the state and localities can work together to change zoning and regulatory practices that limit the building of high-density housing.

Alexandria’s been making moves in recent years to expand density options for developers in exchange for greater affordable housing funding, but as Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Alexandria’s ability to draft regulations on limits like allowable density and how much can be traded for housing is limited by state legislation.

While the generally liberal Alexandria has been frosty toward Alexandria’s Republican governor, it isn’t the first time there have been areas of overlapping interest. Shortly after Youngkin’s election, Wilson outlined several areas of shared interest, like holding Dominion accountable for outages and modernizing the tax structure.

Just one day after Youngkin was in the headlines for a spat at Safeway, staff from his Department of Transportation was in Alexandria with other local and state leaders to assess one of the crumbling Arlington-Alexandria bridges and show support for more infrastructure funding.

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Supreme Court (file photo)

The Alexandria City Council will vote on a resolution Tuesday night to protect access to abortions in the city.

The resolution, which was initially drafted by Councilman Kirk McPike, lays out several steps that the city will take.

“We call upon the General Assembly of Virginia and the United States Congress to take such actions as may be necessary to protect the right to abortion in Virginia,” the resolutions states. “We ask that the City Manager consider budgetary proposals for the FY 2024 budget to ensure accessibility of reproductive health services, safe abortion services, accessible maternal and child health services for low-income Alexandria residents.”

The resolution also calls on the City Attorney to join on-going or future lawsuits “to protect the availability of abortion services in Alexandria,” as well as land use protections for providers.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wadebanning abortion in 14 states and setting the stage for future legal challenges countrywide. Here in Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced that he wants to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The Alexandria Democratic Committee praised the resolution.

“The Alexandria Democratic Committee stands in solidarity with City Council as they present their resolution in response to the overturn of Roe v. Wade,” ADC said on Facebook. “Our public support of bold statements like these is crucial.”

Many of Alexandria’s elected officials expressed shock and dismay at the ruling.

Del. Charniele Herring, the Democratic Caucus Chair, tweeted that she was horrified and that she would continue to fight to keep abortion legal in Virginia.

The full resolution is below the jump. Read More

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Douglass Cemetery has been damaged in recent flooding, photo courtesy Michael Johnson

Alexandria has had a few promising starts so far in the 2022 legislative session, with preliminary funding and authority granted on some key issues.

In a legislative update to the City Council last night (Tuesday), Legislative Director Sarah Graham Taylor outlined some of the early successes.

Taylor said Delegate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker has been spearheading legislation that would allow localities to continue with greater virtual representation in public meetings even after the pandemic.

“[A bill to] increase opportunities for electronic participation in public meetings… passed out of the general laws subcommittee today unopposed,” Taylor said. “We’re eally excited to see that bill move forward. It’s something the city has been really focused on both as vice mayor and now as a delegate. [We’re] really pleased to be a part of that and see that move forward. It’s something that will be incredibly valuable to our boards and commissions; to be able to operate in a virtual environment even outside of a declared emergency or pandemic.”

Taylor said the pandemic has been a sort of pilot for virtual engagement.

“It’s really been an opportunity for us to learn how best to not only put our public engagement out into the universe but to create opportunities to create two-way engagement with our public bodies,” Taylor said. “This bill goes a long way to creating more opportunities.”

Another preliminary success has been funding to restore the Douglass Memorial Cemetery, a historic Black cemetery in Alexandria under threat of being washed away by recent flooding. The outgoing governor’s budget includes $500,000 for the restoration of the cemetery, and State Senator Adam Ebbin has put in a request for an additional $500,000.

“[The project cost is] estimated at $2 million, would put state investment at 50%,” Taylor said. “[We’re] discussing it not only as preservation of a historic African-American cemetery but also a flooding issue, which is something very front and center in the discussion this session.”

The outgoing budget also includes $40 million for the city’s combined sewer overhaul (CSO) project, but Taylor said there’s some concern that CSO funding could get more scarce as Richmond is pushed to move up its CSO timeline.

“The city’s name has come up quite a bit this week in relation to Richmond’s CSO project, and while it’s always lovely to hear Alexandria as an example of what a city can do when its feet are held to the fire, it’s been brought up in relation to Richmond’s CSO deadline,” Taylor said. “You might see Alexandria used as an example of why to push Richmond on their CSO deadline.”

But Taylor said the city’s concern is that if Richmond’s CSO timetable is moved up, it could put the two cities in a battle royale for a limited annual pot of funding.

“If Richmond is accelerated, that puts us in competition for resources,” Taylor said. “We want to a timeline [where] everyone can have access to resources, not all competing for a limited pot.”

Crossover, the last day for the legislative houses to act on legislation, is on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The last day for bill approval is March 10 and the Governor is required to take action on bills by April 11.

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A simulation of in-person schooling in Nov. 2020. (Photo via ACPS)

Alexandria City Public Schools is sticking with its proposed 10.25% salary increase for all employees, and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. says that number will not change based on potential guidance from Governor Glenn Youngkin.

“Regardless of what the governor says or does, we have positioned ourselves to continue to increase compensation for our staff,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said at a budget retreat last week. “This is the type of proactive intentional work that will, I think, makes us successful to be able to sustain what it is we’re trying to do right now.”

Last month, outgoing Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, proposed raising teacher pay by 10.25% in Virginia’s new two-year budget, all made possible by billions in federal Covid relief funds. Youngkin, a Republican who was sworn in earlier this month, said he wants raises for teachers.

Youngkin is under fire for ending the mask mandate in public schools, and Alexandria and neighboring Fairfax and Arlington Counties have rejected that order.

“Whether (Northam’s proposal) continues to move forward or not, we will still be proposing the actual market rate adjustment and step increases,” Hutchings told the Board.

Should Youngkin accept Northam’s plan, it’s likely that localities throughout the state will try to hit that 10.25% increase over the next two years or else risk losing significant state revenues, ACPS Chief Financial Officer Dominic Turner told the Board.

The fiscal year 2023 $345.8 million combined funds budget is comprised of the $316.2 million ACPS operating fund, $17.6 million from the grants and special projects fund, and a $12 million school nutrition fund.

ACPS will conduct a public hearing on the Combined Funds Budget on Jan. 21, followed by a joint City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting on Jan. 24. The School Board is expected to pass it (with revisions) on Feb. 18, and then go to City Council for deliberation until it passes the city’s budget in early May.

Image via ACPS

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