Getting Things Done in Mount Vernon
How a group of citizens successfully fought to get a sidewalk built at West Potomac High School.
We hear a lot about the evils of “pork barrel projects”, those infamous “earmarks” that members of Congress used to insert into federal appropriations bills to fund a specific project back in their district. This practice is now prohibited. But did you know that there are some opportunities for “pork” on the county level that are there for the taking if you get organized?
Years ago, as a staff person for Supervisor Gerry Hyland, I was driving to a meeting at West Potomac High School and noticed a number of students walking on the west side of Quander Road on their way home. They were actually in the street, walking so close to the line of school buses that they could touch them by just extending their arms. I thought it was a very dangerous situation, especially if the roads were slippery. On the east side of the road was a worn asphalt walk but hardly anyone was using it. The west side had no sidewalk at all. Once I got to the meeting I asked if anyone had ever thought of putting in a sidewalk on the west side and they all laughed. “We’ve been trying to do that for years,” said one parent, “but we’ve gotten nowhere.”
The next day I talked to Supervisor Hyland about a sidewalk and he rolled his eyes, adding that the students could be using the asphalt walkway on the east side and that he was not going to condemn the neighbor’s property and force a sidewalk on them. Still, he gave me his reluctant approval to check out the possibility.
Two nights later, on a frigid February evening, I walked up and down Quander Road knocking on the doors of the residents in that historically black neighborhood. The first person I talked to was Al Stokes and he was straight with me. “You can put a sidewalk in front of my house but I also want curbs and gutters. They put them in those other neighborhoods, why can’t we get them here?” The other neighbors all agreed with Al. The next morning I talked to county staff and learned that the project would cost several hundred thousand dollars. While Hyland had a small “Sidewalk Fund,” he didn’t have that kind of money so I was stuck.
A few months later, Hyland hosted his annual Town Meeting and his guest was then-Chairman Gerry Connolly. Before the meeting, I may have crossed a line a little when I privately urged West Potomac Principal Rima Vesiland to ask Hyland for his thoughts on the dangerous situation on Quander Road. At the appropriate moment, she publicly asked the question and Hyland mentioned how costly it would be and how he would not condemn anyone’s land against their will. Then, suddenly, the other Gerry ran to the microphone and assured Rima and the audience that he would make sure the sidewalk got built. He got the biggest round of applause for the entire day (because Rima had stacked the audience).
The next morning, I was on the phone to Connolly’s chief of staff telling him that his boss had just made a very public promise on a very important. He hadn’t heard about it and thanked me. Over the next several months, as Gerry Connolly has said, I was “on their butt” to make sure the project got done. Then, at some point, Supervisor Hyland agreed to cough up a portion of the money from a sidewalk account that he had. Connolly ultimately paid the rest. I recall the ultimate price was almost $400,000.
The key, though, was Al Stokes and Rima Vesiland got their communities organized. It was a true grassroots effort. And today, there is a beautiful sidewalk on Quander Road that the kids use all the time. They are no longer walking next to the buses and cars. And the neighbors have a nice sidewalk and curbs and gutters. It’s the classic win-win.
I guess my point is that this community has a lot of influence if you are willing to devote some time to the effort. You also need leaders, like Rima and Al, who will be willing to get out there and be tenacious. If you want the county and/or your Supervisor to do something that you think is important, get organized and don’t let go. And it doesn’t hurt to find a sympathetic staff person on the inside!