By Rodger Digilio
The independent investigators hired by City Council to look into the circumstances surrounding the city staff’s response to the establishment of Norfolk Southern Railway’s Ethanol Transloading Facility in Alexandria last April have reported. Readers can find a link to the full report in our news story if they would like to peruse it for themselves. While not an easy read, it shows what happens when a leaderless bureaucracy tries to deal with an issue from a belief in their own correctness rather then what the law and precedents say.
Norfolk Southern (NS) was very upfront. They said in the summer of 2006 to the Mayor and City Manager that they were going to build the facility. When city officials told them in the fall of 2006 to apply for a special use permit they replied that federal legislation pre-empted local control on railroad property.
For some strange reason this did not raise an alarm among the manager’s staff or with the city attorney. NS is a railroad. NS should know federal railroad legislation. Instead our city attorney opined that they did need a special use permit. Is he an expert in federal railroad legislation? Obviously not given the outcome. Did he consult experts in federal railroad legislation? Not according to any document we have seen.
City staff, except for the Fire Department, seems to have ignored the situation. They appeared convinced that a special use permit was needed. That is ridiculous. Are they experts in federal railroad legislation? Obviously not given the outcome.
At the end of 2007 the Fire Department swung into high gear as the opening of the facility appeared to become a reality. They wanted to be adequately prepared. NS was working with them. New equipment was needed. The Fire Marshall actually knew that local control of railroad property was marginal at best.
The result, however, was that in January of 2008 the City Manager’s Office ordered the Fire Department to break off contact with NS. What was the manager and his staff thinking? Clearly not of the safety of the thousands of Alexandria’s citizens and others who live and work in close proximity to the site. The Fire Department should have been encouraged to work closely with NS while the Manager’s staff and the City Attorney sorted out the legal issues. If the facility was going to open, the city and regional first responders needed to be adequately prepared.
As it turned out, NS was correct on the special use permit. The City Attorney reversed himself in April of 2008 as the facility opened. Of course the first responders were not prepared. Even worse, no one was told.
What is even more incredible is that no one on Council seems to have found out. The city staff kept this more quiet then any national security operation in recent memory. Even after operations at the site started in April, no staff member told a member of council what was going on. Only the Mayor would have had a clue from his meetings two years earlier and he did not seem to recognize what it was. If he did he certainly did not share it with anyone.
City Council Members who were on safety committees with staff were never sent minutes of meetings they did not attend where the facility was discussed. Some excuse about Robert’s Rules of Order was offered. That is absolute garbage. That smells of incompetence or cover up.
This report does not paint a pretty picture. It does not build confidence in the city’s ability to protect the average citizen.
City council has decided to review the report in a special closed meeting in January. Normally we are against closed meetings and, indeed, opposed one in conjunction with having this study done in the first place.
Given the information reported in the study, however, there are so many failures on the part of so many city staff that personnel issues must be addressed and the proper place to address them is in a closed meeting. The actions resulting, however, must be publicly reported.
The city attorney has already resigned. More resignations and retirements should be forthcoming. This was failure from the top down and there must be accountability if the credibility of the city staff is to be restored and if the citizens of Alexandria are to have confidence in their local government.
Moreover, the structure of the manager’s office staff needs to be addressed as well as policies and procedures. It is abundantly clear that there was insufficient and, in some case, very poor guidance given to the line departments. This was abundantly clear after NS began operations and there was a need to inform the public.
This is unacceptable in a city that prides itself as being well run. No amount of self congratulation in which Alexandria excels will undo the failures here. These failures must never be repeated.