City council candidates talk to residents

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March 6, 2010

12:24 PM

Two candidates for city council spoke briefly at a Williamsburg neighborhood meeting Saturday that also touched on city budget reductions and the state of newspapers in the region and the nation.

Williamsburg City Council candidates Sean Driscoll and Douglas Pons laid out their platforms for the approximately 50 attendees at the Neighborhood Council of Williamsburg’s monthly meeting March 6 at the Quarterpath Recreation Center. NCW invited all running for city council to speak for five minutes at either its March or April meetings.

Driscoll, a financial planner and Williamsburg Planning Commission member, said the city has a high quality of life and “world-class assets” such as the College of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg.

“My goal is to maintain the quality of the character of the city, continue to make it a fantastic place to raise kids and move here, retire here and stay here,” Driscoll said. “We need to look for opportunities to make sure we keep our youth here, our college students.”

Driscoll also noted long-term development projects are crucial to the city’s long-term success. He is “very excited” about the College’s Triangle Retail Project, also known as the “Wawa project,” which will eventually provide retail space and campus housing for 56 students adjacent to the Richmond Road Wawa.

“We believe it will take pressure off of the neighborhoods. It’ll be a great opportunity to increase bed space for the College of William and Mary students [and] offer some mixed-use retail,” Driscoll said. “We need to look at smart things like that when we start talking about what’s going to happen to Williamsburg in the next five, 10, 15 years.”

Pons, a hotel operator and chairman of the planning commission, talked about his young children attending public school in the city.

“Education is a big part of what I think city council is going to have to grapple with here in the next couple of years, is fighting for the school system,” he said.

The longtime Williamsburg resident stressed his involvement in local groups and commissions, including the planning commission, the tourism industry and the Williamsburg Industrial Development Authority.

“I’ve worked with Colonial Williamsburg, with the Chamber Alliance, with College students, all in an effort to make this a better place for all of us to live,” he said.

The other three city council candidates — Bobby Braxton, David Dafashy and Scott Foster ’10 — will speak at the April NCW meeting. The city council election will take place May 4.

City Manager Jack Tuttle gave a short presentation on the city’s budget reduction proposals for fiscal year 2011 and solicited feedback from city residents on the ideas.

Tuttle said the city’s revenue dropped sharply between 2008 and 2009, much of the decline coming from a $2 million drop in local taxes, which include hotel room and meal taxes.

Already this year, the city has cut staff from 202 to 184. Some of those losses came from combining positions and responsibilities; others were positions left unfilled.

“Paul Hudson, our longtime Parks and Rec director, when he retired, we went to the staff and said, ‘We’re going to promote from within and we’re not going to fill Paul’s position,’ and so Recreation came down one position,” Tuttle said. “We’re looking ahead to next year. There will no doubt be some degree of additional reductions in the force required in the future.”

Other possibilities include a moratorium on raises, shifting benefit costs to employees and unpaid furloughs — a proposal, Tuttle said, “is not particularly good for Williamsburg for a number of reasons, but nevertheless that’s there.”

Additional possible cuts could come from decreasing contributions to outside agencies, such as schools, libraries, 20 health and human services agencies, four cultural agencies, two tourism agencies and 15 economic development agencies. A “significant portion” of city expenses go toward funding those external groups, Tuttle said.

A last resort measure would be tax increases. Tuttle noted that a one-cent increase in property taxes would bring in an additional $188,000 per year for the city.

“[There are] major opportunities here, and also decisions to make,” Tuttle concluded. “Now is a great time for you all to get engaged and let us know what you’re thinking.”

The monthly NCW meeting also hosted Virginia Gazette publisher Bill O’Donovan to discuss the state of newspapers in the area and in general.

O’Donovan pinned the newspaper industry’s troubles on developments in mass media, including the internet.

“Keep in mind that when you are reading on the internet you are scanning, you are not doing deep reading,” he said. “This is a continual theme of what I’ll be talking about today, the decline of media.”

Although he also targeted cable news crawls, news aggregation, and biased media personalities such as Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, O’Donovan also placed significant blame on “The Daily Show,” a satirical Comedy Central program hosted by Jon Stewart ’84.

“It is a dangerous trend,” O’Donovan said. “The cynicism that derives from ‘The Daily Show’ is well-aimed at harpooning the hypocrisy, but it is dangerous for young people to learn cynicism, in my opinion, and it enables them — ‘The Daily Show’ — to pick and choose news targets as they will without giving the full overview of news.”

Nevertheless, many of the industry’s problems, O’Donovan said, derive from itself.

“One of the problems that newspapers brought on themselves is that its news is simply boring,” he said, citing repetitive news, late sports scores and even insipid headlines.

“The headlines lack zip,” he said. “Headlines matter because in newspapers they help organize the front page or any page. They help build a sense of priority, a sense of grading, a sense of what is important and what is less important. You don’t get that so much on the web.”

O’Donovan also attacked depressing news, such as reports about terrorism — “Terrorism leads this list. Not to say its not important news, but people get turned off by reading about it all the time, so it just scares them.” — and irrelevant news, such as the national debt, which he said is “irrelevant to many people because it’s out of their control and they can’t do anything about it.”

After O’Donovan spoke, a question-and-answer session with the NCW attendees centered around topics such as allegations of bias in the Daily Press, newspapers on the internet and why children no longer deliver newspapers.

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