Thursday, April 19, 2012

About Last Night - Building a Relationship with Local Government

I am going to try to channel my father's time-tested and proven ability to be efficient in writing this post. Usually I go on with descriptions because I love to describe. My dad, however, is a writer, with at least four decades under his belt of being paid to write. He's got a solid following. He's a known person within his circles. He's interviewed and investigated sitting presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, union bosses, criminals, felons, sometimes convenience has combined a few of those into one person (we're from NY). Me? I'm hoping to raise senators and not felons. Me? cue harp music:  Oh, I write without payment, except for the glowing satisfaction that I leave a legacy for my children and anyone who dares to continue reading my stuff ever. cut harp music.


Still here? Good. Grab a chair. I'm going to tell you about last night. Last night, I became an official televised activist for a cause to slow down drivers on behalf of our world's greatest asset: Kids who still can't tie their own shoes. Kids who need help opening their chocolate milk. Kids who show you the toothless gaps in their smiles. 


Kids.  



Thing 2 was home sick so I had to stay home and miss out on lunch with a friend. While I was home, I decided to prepare for this event. I toiled all day putting together a PowerPoint presentation as part our address to the forum. The presentation was cohesive, it flowed, it had pictures. It was brief. It ultimately didn't matter. It didn't matter because the conversation we ended up having with the forum in response to the first speaker, whose comments were so woo-woo out there abstract "how does one define 'satisfaction'?" he asked, I dunno, by smoking a cigarette afterward? By holding up a "10" sign?, that we tried to refer to the presentation, but halfway through, we gave up and spoke off the cuff.  




We live in Fairfax County, Va. We pay a LOT of money to live here. We're something like the 3rd most affluent county in the country. And that makes us probably third in the free world (notice that I excluded Dubai). 


I took this picture at 8:00pm, eventide. We didn't leave until 12:02. 

My co-pro-anti-death-on-the-parkway activist neighbor and I drove together to the relatively new county government center to stake our claim on Rational Thinking. We pull up, park and walk in.  This place is lovely. (Although it's much bigger than that picture.) Oodles of free parking, mahogany, marble, brushed steel, milano glass, leather comfy chairs for all the peeps behind the mahogany and marble, super-quiet vacuums for people listening to the peeps in the chairs, HD jumbotrons, HD cameras, cable access, etc. It looked like Mission Control.  


Our mission was to speak on behalf a task force we're on to request that the county do something to slow down drivers who careen past our children's barely visible, above-grade, underground 30-year-old school at waaaay over the posted speed. In a six-month period in 2010, the Five-0 wrote some of Fairfax's coolest soccer moms 408 tickets for speeds averaging 57.8 mph on this road (that's just below reckless driving) at all times of day and I'm certain, during the AM and PM traffic shifts at our school. So for me, this is very simple: slow down. That's the bottom line.  My oldest who went to the "EduCave" as my brother calls it, is now in 8th grade, so I've been energized about this cause for nine years. So as parents of these students, the speed reduction is our claim on Rational Thinking. 


Believe it or not: there are people who oppose this "speed reduction" action. No one in the room last night opposed it; but the persons who were sent as minions of The Grand Opposer from FCPS were carefully thrown under the school bus because I bet even they couldn't really believe some of the words that were flying out of their mouths. I've met The Grand Opposer; I'm no longer vexed by his antics because Rational Thinking will prevail. 

Background: This task force is a great group. It was created about 16 months ago. For seven straight months we met for for 90 minutes every three weeks in a tiny room next to one of the neighborhood pools where we enviously craned out the window to vicariously enjoy the pool goers' mirth. While they were squirting and splashing we were talking about how to improve pedestrian and motorist safety around our school and greater neighborhood. After those initial months, we met monthly or so. 


The task force was spurred on the heels of a piece of activism prepared from photos a friend shot in the fall of 2010, accompanied by music we didn't create (lawyers tell me to say this). The pictures showed all sorts of pedestrian risks and driver disregard at the pick-up and dismissal times. The video, a letter, and copies of signed petitions were distributed amongst local and state-level legislators. Momentum continued. We didn't really know where to start or whose door to knock on but we had to start somewhere. An online petition for the same cause had more than 200 signatures in the fall of 2010 (when I was PTA president at the school). This tidy package of activism was so compelling that people literally could not ignore it anymore.  

After that content went around, John Cook, our newly elected Board of Supervisors rep for our district, who also received the activism video package, held a community meeting about five months later because what this community endures on a daily basis is PLAIN WRONG. Cook has been on the job a short time, but he reminds me of one of those classic 1940s "this is your government" people in that he truly empowers the local citizenry to work together with appointed public service people to collaborate and create solutions. So far, it's working on the road outside the school: we've got some improved signage, we've won a federal grant to expand a median strip to 8' wide, they put in a sidewalk infront of the school and other things are on the docket. We all know we're no where near finished. Regarding the school though, we could be once we get the signs we're after.  


At this first long-ago meeting, we went round and round with the rhetoric ripe and juicy on both sides. At one point, a very dear friend of mine, a US Marine daughter, a USN wife, mother of 4, a totally efficient person with mad laser-like executive skills and an extremely fair head on her shoulders stood up during that meeting to say to Cook, "You agree with us? Then do something about it! Create a task force!" and so, here we are. This friend? She's not on the task force. She's no fool. But she's busier than a bee and has been instrumental in so many other ways for this community that she's allowed a pass on this one. Me? I'm in. I jumped on it and I've become That Person. I'm the bee that won't stop buzzing. The bee that hummmmmmmms and hummmmmmms around you and your paper plate at the picnic and wants to land in your can of soda, Mr. The Grand Opposer and sting you into accepting Rational Thinking.    


The task force has about eight regular citizens and about eight civil servants, including police officers and The Grand Opposer. 


So much for the best of intentions in being efficient and brief. But it just occurred to me: my father has copy editors. 


I'll cut closer to the chase. In the midst of these 16 months, we've had a changing of the guard at the school board which includes more tolerant, open-minded members, including members who actually have children enrolled in the school system (that's always a plus for me). The task force also had a major victory: vehicle and pedestrian traffic conditions outside the school at the intersection of its entrance and that of the shopping center across the street warranted a four-way red-yellow-green stoplight! An actual stoplight! We couldn't believe our luck and we thought: OK, well this is great. I was personally opposed to it, but it was a start or perhaps it would be the finish. 


We were told that Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) would convene with FCPS (uh-oh, yup) to determine next steps for installation and implementation (these lights costs about $350,000 each to install) and that we would hear results of yet another "feasibility study" by July. On September 14 we heard over e-mail: FCPS killed the stoplight. It was The Grand Opposer. The rationale: a new and improved kiss & ride design.


It's at this point that I determine that The Grand Opposer is treating us (the task force and now the community) like how a "drive thru" treats Leo Getz because just when you think you're done, or you have what you need, you realize later or when you get home (if you're Leo) that things are not as you'd been led to believe:



Thanks to The Grand Opposer, I can think of another phrase than "kiss & ride" that I'd use to describe what happened behind the scenes. 


The new kiss & ride design is part of a $16.6 million renovation process that recently began at the school. The kiss & ride lane design is so ambitious and downright kamikaze-inspired, that most people can't imagine it ever working or being safe. Because of this design, we found an opportunity to include the costs to install the reduced speed school zone signage as part of the renovation.


The first concept drawing for the new kiss & ride.






This is a more recent concept drawing for the kiss & ride.


Today, about 16 months later, we're getting somewhere. Nothing has happened with the renovation yet. No ground has been broken. We're still in the design and implementation stage. 


Two months ago, Cook held a required "County Land Use Meeting" to discuss the renovation with the community. This meeting was also an opportunity for us to make our request for the school zone reduced-speed light because at these County Land Use Meetings, no relevant proposal is absurd. The meeting was held and the request was taken into consideration and included in a staff report.  


About a week ago, the task force received the aforementioned staff report which details various concerns raised by residents at that land use meeting (and for a few weeks after during a comment period). These concerns are known as "conditions" and they must be discussed before the Fairfax County Planning Commission (PC) at a public hearing to authorize the work to begin. One of those conditions is "Condition 11" which speaks directly to our school zone reduced-speed light request.  



Fred Flintstone-feet your car to last night. We're in the room at the big mahogany and marble building before the 14-member all-white mostly male PC on the public hearing for the school's upcoming renovation. 


It turns out that "Condition 11" is so vague, so ambiguous that it's basically untenable. I personally have decided that any proposal made by anyone I know that doesn't make sense will be heretofore known as a "Condition 11." 


Here's an example: "Hey Mom, I was wondering if you could give me money so I can buy a laptop that I won't give you access to so I can watch Harry Potter Puppet Pals videos on YouTube all the time and when you want to take it away or use it for something, I'll run up to my room, slam my door, demand money and then give you a computer I made out of Legos." That's a Condition 11.   

"Condition 11" was so What the What and "we are at war with Eurasia / we are no longer at war with Eurasia" that The Grand Opposer's poor minion could not speak from his heart. Suddenly, he was like a woebegone Looney Toons character. You pick... I'm out of gas. If he were able to speak from his heart (because he has one), he woulda said this, "Your Excellencies, Fine People of The Mahogany Desk and Marble Fixtures, give these people what they deserve, what is right and what is Rational. Give them the reduced speed zone and flashing lights. Save me from being heckled and pelted as I leave This Place." 


But that's not what happened. Instead, he was trying to say the words The Grand Opposer taught him; but his Cyerano was nowhere to be found. The devil on his shoulder was asleep because it was five minutes to tomorrow (today) when we wrapped up. The minion could not get it together. His tie was a mess; his shirt was rumpled; his hair was frenzied; his verbal pace was inconsistent and his mannerisms were random and jagged. If there were an open bar in that auditorium, I'd swear he had hit it while no one was looking. He could not answer common sense inquiries and he could not articulately explain his motivations his opposition BECAUSE THEY WEREN'T HIS OPPOSITIONS. No one knows why The Grand Opposer opposes... 


We were all yawning and I think the chairman of the PC said, "Let's get going on this, I want to go to bed." So a great thing happened: our area representative from the planning commission said, "I propose a resolution to adjourn and resolve at the May 3 meeting..." HOORAY! 


But I feel confident we will win. The May 3 meeting is not public so we're off the hook there. But we're preparing documentation and doing what we can to rally the team and I know Just What to Say on my documents now. . . stay tuned. 


thank you.  

6 comments:

  1. Fab--great job!! Love the drive-thru scene!! I am Joe Pesci?

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    1. thanks, el. sadly, we are all joe pesci's "Leo Getz." :)

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  2. Since I got a hybrid in September, I have been driving much, much, much slower than I used to. In part because the car trains you to conserve gasoline, which, in turn, means driving much, much, much slower. I used to be a lead foot, and proud of it, because I could get places "faster". The irony is, it takes me about the same amount of time to get anywhere, driving much, much, much, slower. And I actually enjoy driving more than I used to. I'm totally on your side in this fight. And I'll go further, I think speed limits can be lower and should be enforced by cameras. It is safer for everyone and better for the planet. If my experience is any indication, it won't even cost us much time. It traffic moves smoother, at the lower speeds, it will even save time. I wish you great luck and all success at the next meeting.

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    1. thanks tim! it'll happen i surely hope. i think driving slower is great too and it is more restful. i don't sweat traffic, i know i'm where i'm meant to be. can't say i drive a hybrid (yet), but i drive almost little enough to equate to one i think. thanks for stopping by! -m

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    1. thanks, man. i just plugged in concepts of the K&R. i wanted to keep it all light and fun like i did this morning but i realized after i read it that i wrote it when i was punchy and still processing. it was so charged for us last night. once i stepped away and came back i realized that i had NO chronology really and that it was flip and fun but sorta scattered. i just heard from nell and we don't need to go to that may 3 meeting; in fact we're not allowed to as it's not public. so now we have to really get on bill and chris and anyone else who's rational and reasonable to meet and revise that Condition 11. let's talk about this ... i'll call bill tomorrow. meant to today but too close still to last night.

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