Council Candidates on Leadership

Brent Finnegan -- October 9th, 2008

This is part on an ongoing Q&A series with City Council candidates. We’ll be emailing candidates questions and posting answers periodically throughout the month of October. All responses are listed unedited, in the order in which they were received.

Can you give a specific example of a relevant leadership decision you have made in the past?

Roger Baker: As City Manager the buck stops with you. There are many examples, but to name one specific one, I would offer the selection of the Assistant City Manager when I was named City Manager.
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Charles Chenault: Leadership has many components. One component that is seldom realized is the admission of a mistake and trying to correct it. I made a mistake when I initially voted to remove the trees from the front of the Cally’s building. The mistake was that I relied on an statement of fact that I did not self-investigate, and I unknowingly did not let a local commission finish its work. I immediately requested council’s permission to revisit the issue. The tree commission recommended keeping the trees (I individually apologized to each member of the tree commission). I served with a wonderful group of individuals, and I think we crafted a solution that saved the trees and at least met some of the needs of the merchants in the building. Another example is my role with my fellow council members and school board members in the construction of the joint school complex on Linda Lane in record time. Perhaps one thing that I am very proud of is any role that I might have in the recognition of bicycle, pedestrian and mass transit components as high interest items in our city’s government.
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Tracy Evans: I am on the Board of Directors of the Harrisonburg Association of Young Professionals and am a member of the Rockingham Rotary Club. In AYP I work collaboratively with other board members to make the best possible decisions for our organization. This collaborative process exemplifies my leadership style, and I look forward to using this same style on City Council and working with people of different political parties to make the best possible decisions for all residents of Harrisonburg.

Additionally, through my possession as an attorney I make leadership decisions every day. I am constantly presented with novel issues that require a decision be made on behalf of my client. Many times these decisions could carry severe consequences for my client. I am constantly looking at every problem that I am presented with from all possible angles and striving to think outside the box and come up with the best possible decision for my client. Attorney-Client privilege prevents me from giving specific examples.
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Richard Baugh: When you answer a question like this with a statement like, “Well, there was the R-3 ordinance change,” you can imagine people’s eyes starting to glaze over. Let me take a stab at explaining this, and making it at least a little interesting.

If you look at Harrisonburg’s plan for development, you will see that a great deal of time and effort went into looking at issues related to apartment growth, and in general a disturbing trend away from home ownership and toward more and more residents being renters. The plan goes on to talk about the negative long term implications of this, including everything from contribution to a declining tax base, to just the aesthetics and quality of life issues.

Among the tensions acknowledged in the plan were that apartment development has been historically attractive to developers, due to larger profit margins. At the same time, those involved in writing the plan noted that Harrisonburg still had plenty of undeveloped land that allowed apartment development “of right.” In plain English, that means the property owner can build apartments on the property without any additional permission. By the way, the zoning classification that allowed apartments is called R-3.

Those writing the plan attempted to balance these concerns. On the one hand, the plan called for the creation of four new zoning categories, to give developers the additional flexibility they said they needed in order to look at options beyond apartments. On the other, the plan called for changing the R-3 zoning to make apartments a “special use permit” item. In plain English, that means the property owner could only build apartments with permission from the City Council, determined on a case by case basis.

Attempting to get this R-3 change implemented became an arduous journey. No one seemed to have much problem with creating the four new categories. However, the attempt to balance all of this by limiting apartments in the R-3 zone turned out to be rather like trying to move a mountain with a table spoon. Suddenly, a development community that had indicated it could be ok with controlling apartment growth, if given other potentially profitable alternatives, decided that it would be unfair to limit their options under R-3 as part of a tradeoff.

After two rounds of lengthy public hearings, two joint meetings with Council and numerous work sessions over almost 3 years, Planning Commission presented an R-3 change to Council in the spring of 2007. However, this proposal called for less than what is called for in the City’s plan. Among the many issues discussed at great length was whether it was FAIR to developers to make this change, especially if a specific apartment development was in the works.

As a result, Planning Commission compromised. On the one hand, it affirmed the concerns that Harrisonburg needs to get a handle on apartment growth. On the other, it called for delaying the effective date of any change for THREE YEARS from the date of passage. I will add that two members of the Planning Commission voted against delaying this for three years. I am one. My fellow candidate, Dave Wiens, is the other.

Interestingly, when this went forward to Council, the Council members started falling all over themselves looking for reasons not to support this. Four Council members urged that it be sent back to Planning Commission for further work and consideration. On the face of it, we were specifically told to pick out some properties and owners for favorable treatment, namely to recommend changes so that THOSE owners could still build apartments without asking anyone’s permission. In fact, this issue had already been among the many fully reviewed by Planning Commission and rejected. In this case, the main reason was the difficulty in figuring out where to draw the line, once you are just handing out favors.

Frankly, it was not clear at Planning Commission what Council really wanted. The suspicion was that they really just wanted this to go away.

As Planning Commission Chair, I started polling the members informally. I came to believe there was a majority that could agree to send the proposal back to Council with no changes. There was perhaps a general sense that Council was free to reject our proposal if they wanted, but there was some irritation that Council members who had spent a fraction of the time on this we had found it so easy to tell themselves that they were thinking of problems we had not. To assist them, we prepared a 9 page memo that attempted to address the concern we had not considered various issues that we in fact had.

Planning Commission reviewed the memo and affirmed by a 5-1 vote that the memo and our unchanged R-3 recommendation should go back to Council. By the way, the one vote against is a Planning Commission member who is also currently running for Council. His name is neither Baugh nor Wiens.

Council then approved the R-3 change by a 4-1 vote. By the way, know who the one vote against was? He is also a candidate for City Council. He happens to be the Mayor. He said that there is no need to do anything about apartment growth in Harrisonburg, beyond the status quo. As you might guess, he and I have an honest difference of opinion on this subject.

Was my role in this as Chair of the Planning Commission an example of leadership? My main reason for going on at such length is that I hope to give you enough information to decide this for yourself. Certainly, I did not do this alone and could not have done this alone. I do suspect that the effort to compile a majority and a proposal to send back to Council was something that would not have been done had I not taken the lead.

And again, is listening to people and trying to develop effective consensus that can be turned into policy leadership? That is something for the voters to decide. But it is certainly an example of how I intend to conduct business, if I am privileged enough to be elected to City Council.
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Rodney Eagle: City Council works as a team. We are like any other family, in that we do not always agree on certain matters. We are able to put that aside and continue as a team. I have been involved in decision making pertaining to downtown re-vitalization, cooperation with JMU and Rockingham County, school issues including building, ongoing issues with transportation and traffic, public safety, growth and economic development, just to list a few. As city council member and Mayor I have been involved in most decision making events and projects for 8 plus years.
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Kai Degner: I am the founder of The OrangeBand Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting conversation about issues people feel are important. It’s pretty simple on the surface: offer orange strips of fabric for people to tie somewhere and use as conversation starters about any issue important to them. Under my leadership, this idea went from a lunch conversation to reality, and resulted in over 300 disucssion events in this community alone – and 25,000 OrangeBand-wearers and chapters in ten states across the country. This experience demonstrated to me the power of dialogue, and the yearning we have for meaningful conversation about things that matter, relationship-building opportunities such conversations afford, and having our voices be heard and considered in descisions that impact our lives.

Also, as Executive Director of the Arts Council of the Valley, I’m proud to have championed a review of the re-granting program to make it more accessible to local applicants. The new application has encouraged more first-time applicants, and the more frequent deadlines serve people throughout the year.

Lastly, I’ve made a commitment that, if elected, I will create a new working condition for myself that will allow me to first focus on the work of serving Harrisonburg residents on city council. I will make this role my top priority here in Harrisonburg.

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Dave Wiens: Throughout my life, I have been in positions to make decisions that affect people’s lives. While working with families, I was constantly making decisions about how best to improve conditions for the individuals in the family which, in some cases, meant removing various members of the family. As a director or owner of agencies or businesses, I successfully made not only administrative and business decisions, but also employment decisions. In my government service, however, I feel the decision that will have the most impact on the city and its citizens has to do with a zoning issue. As a result of the city’s comprehensive plan development process, we determined that the R-3 zoning classification was no longer adequate. It was too all inclusive. While working with others, especially Richard Baugh and the planning staff, and sometimes against the wishes of the present city council, we were able to move a plan through the proper channels and get a revision passed that now protects neighborhoods from massive and inappropriate development at their doorstep.
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We did not receive a response to this question from J.M. Snell. A total of eight candidates are running for three available seats on City Council.

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8 Responses to “Council Candidates on Leadership”

  1. finnegan says:

    I hope people are reading these. Some of this is pretty pertinent:

    … we were specifically told to pick out some properties and owners for favorable treatment, namely to recommend changes so that THOSE owners could still build apartments without asking anyone’s permission. In fact, this issue had already been among the many fully reviewed by Planning Commission and rejected. In this case, the main reason was the difficulty in figuring out where to draw the line, once you are just handing out favors…

    Next week, the questions will be focusing on budget, then growth the following week. I expect those two topics will be of particular interest to hburgnews readers.

  2. Tina says:

    Charlie Chenault was also very honest with the committee of business people and city organizations about City Council’s “mistake” (voting to determine the fate of the trees in front of Cally’s before getting the final recommendation from the tree committee). He admitted that, and worked with the group to find a solution that kept the trees intact, but met at least some of the needs of The Marketplace businesses. I respect him for that.

  3. finnegan says:

    In my experience, Charlie has been very responsive and helpful. When I’ve emailed him with a question, he’ll usually look into it and email or call me back within a few hours. I appreciate that.

  4. finnegan says:

    Post updated with Wiens’s response.

  5. Renee says:

    I think it’s good that for the most part, the candidates are giving thorough, thoughtful answers.

  6. David Miller says:

    I’d love to see a followup response by the candidates that included their interpretation of the R-3 zoning events that Richard Baugh discussed.

  7. finnegan says:

    Or, since the candidates will be answering questions on growth and zoning the week after next, maybe they could weigh in on it it then?

  8. David Miller says:

    Perfect

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