As I and others have written, both the School Board and the City Council approved the release of the RFP for the George Mason/Mary Ellen Henderson expansion last night, the School Board 6-0 and the City Council 6-1. The Falls Church News Press story summary of the meeting is a good one, noting that the two main points of discussion were first about ensuring that a public referendum would be held before signing any contract, and second what the RFP should say about commercial versus mixed commercial-residential development. http://fcnp.com/2015/07/27/f-c-council-school-board-reach-consensus-on-rfp-for-annexed-land/ Letty Hardi also provided a great description of the recommendation discussion. Here are my thoughts on the debate.
The public referendum discussion was very important, not just because City residents need a direct say in a project that will significantly affect them for decades, but also because City staff made clear that public participation in the RFP process, until any referendum, will be minimal. The controlling Virginia statute, and the guidelines adopted by the City and Schools, provide not only that “trade secrets” and financial information be kept confidential, but also that virtually anything that a company responding to the RFP thinks might be unhelpful to its bid be kept confidential as well, protecting: “other information submitted by the private entity, where, if the records were made public … the financial interest or bargaining position of the public or private entity would be adversely affected.” There may be some discretion for City and School staff to deny a request for confidentiality, but based on what was said during the meeting last night and general Virginia guidelines, that is unlikely to lead to disclosure of information over the objection of the company submitting the information. So, while there will be periods for public comment and a public hearing, the public may only see the executive summaries of the proposals. The real decisions, except for a referendum, will be made in closed sessions.
While that result may be legally required, it irks me, and it may make you unhappy as well. I urge the Council and the School Board to make every effort to have companies responding the RFP disclose as much as possible. Of course, companies will want to protect their innovative ideas, but confidentiality should be minimized while preserving innovation.
The second issue discussed was what the RFP should say about the type of commercial development desired – what should be said about mixed commercial and residential uses on the GM/MEH site? As I wrote in an earlier post, the argument seems to be between those who want bidders to offer the most money to the City to minimize taxes, and are willing to accept mixed commercial and residential development, and those who want commercial development only with little if any residential development. At the end, the Council and School Board agreed on compromise language that the development must be “significantly commercial,” if I heard properly.
As I implied in my earlier post, this is a tempest in a teapot because the Council and Board will be able consistent with the RFP to select among proposals, and in this case, decide what “significant” means. If faced with deciding between a proposal that features apartments above ground-floor retail that fully funds a new high school, as opposed to a proposal for an entertainment facility that instead requires an additional $50 million from city taxpayers to pay for the new school, the hard decision will need to be made. But because under this process the facts of the proposals may not be available to the public (including officials whose terms have ended), describing development preferences in evaluation criteria is of elevated importance as one of the best ways for people to influence decisions that will otherwise be made behind closed doors.
Which takes me back to the first point. The City Council and School Board should use their best effort to encourage the sharing of as much information as possible, so we don’t see a referendum in a year and a half that proposes development that the people of Falls Church don’t want.