Should Virginia politicians be able to draw their own districts?

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Currently, the Virginia General Assembly draws all of the district lines in Virginia.

What does this mean? It means that the politicians you’re voting for get to draw the districts you vote in, potentially deciding who your elected representatives are, as they’re allowed to draw the districts to advantage or disadvantage whomever they chose.

Districts lines in Virginia have come under intense scrutiny recently, as the Supreme Court and a three federal-judge panel sided with a lawsuit that asserted that the Virginia Congressional districts were racially biased.

The districts were thrown out, and will have to be redrawn in a special session by September 1. A similar lawsuit regarding gerrymandering for House lines goes to trial on July 9.

But this means that the same Virginia politicians will be drawing the district lines again.

“Ultimately, if you gave politicians the opportunity to draw the lines to advantage themselves, they will do just that,” said University of Mary Washington professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies Stephen Farnsworth.

Can anything be done to make district lines more balanced?

With the outcome of the lawsuit on the Congressional districts as they’re currently drawn, the question remains – is there a way to make districts more balanced and competitive?

One potential solution, according to Governor Terry McAuliffe, is to have an independent and non partisan redistricting committee create Virginia’s district map.

“Listen – the map is totally gerrymandered today. All I want are fair lines, as close to 50/50 as you can get because competition’s good. I have competition every day. When these members, up to 90% of them don’t have elections, that’s not good for democracy – it’s not good for Virginia.I have always been for non partisan redistricting committees to figure this out. Take politics out of the whole thing. I have always advocated for that, and there will be a suit in the first two weeks of July for the House of Delegates seats [districts]. Same issue – packing African Americans in a district – which is not allowed under the law, and I’m sure the [suit] will prevail and we’ll be drawing designs [for the House],” said McAuliffe.

The call for an independent committee is not unprecedented.

Currently five states use an independent commission for drawing district maps, and yesterday the Supreme Court upheld a case in Arizona, where their state law gives all power in redistricting to an independent commission.

“I think the [Supreme Court] opinion removes the claim of those who gerrymander that only a legislature can draw its own lines. I think momentum is building across the country and in Virginia against gerrymandering and legislators can no longer say that independent commissions are not to be allowed. This moves the ball forward at least a little bit toward a day when more districts can be competitive,” said Executive Director for the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership Bob Gibson.

Though as it currently stands, the only way that an independent redistricting commission could take the reigns would be if the Virginia General Assembly were to give up the redistricting power willingly, and vote on an amendment to the Virginia constitution.

“Former Governor McDonnell also wanted to have a greater role for independent assessments in line drawing. But the control of the process by the legislature meant that independent designs for districts were ignored in the process. Under the [Virginia] Constitution, the legislature has the authority to draw the lines. For there to be an independent redistricting authority that would to be decisive in Virginia, it would require a constitutional amendment. So the legislature would have to decide to give away that power, and that’s not something the legislature is really likely to do,” said Farnsworth.

What could happen to Virginia’s district map?

While only one of the redistricting lawsuits has been decided, the General Assembly will need to redraw the Congressional lines.

According to McAuliffe, the House will draft a map, and if the House cannot agree, he will draw the map.

The General Assembly does not have override power over the Governor, as Congress does over the President, but if a map drafted by the Governor is not approved, then the map will be handed to the courts for redrawing.

“This story may very well end with the Governor refusing to accept any Republican plan, and if the state can’t reach a consensus on drawing the lines, then it goes to the courts. And the Democrats may fare better if the judges are the line drawers of last resort,” said Farnsworth.

Farnsworth stated that the House’s draft of the map will likely show little change to the current map, because it is not in their best interest to make drastic changes.

“My guess is the legislature will try and draw lines that are as much like the old lines as possible. There’s no doubt about it – the Democrats have more leverage now in redistricting than after the 2010 census, because there’s a Democratic governor now. The Democrats have more authority than they did the last go around. The Governor doesn’t have much incentive to compromise with the Republicans on the [district] lines, unless he were to get something else in exchange,” said Farnsworth.

While the map was drafted by the Republican majority in the House, there are also Democrats who favored and approve of their own gerrymandered seats.

“There were Democrats who did support the Republican plan, because they liked the districts they ended up with. Because when you gerrymander to create these Republican seats, the way to do that is putting a lot of Democrats in districts, which then creates safe Democratic seats. To a significant degree, redistricting is a piece of incumbent protection legislation,” Farnsworth commented.

How do we stack up to other states?

It’s important to note that several states gerrymander districts in varying degrees and Virginia is not alone in this issue. But according to Farnsworth, Virginia is one of the more gerrymandered states.

“There are various measures to determine how badly gerrymandered a state is – and Virginia, by various measures – is at the high end,” said Farnsworth.

Overall, the people who lose out with Virginia’s gerrymandered districts are the voters.

The voters, who rely on their representatives to vote on their behalf, have no say in the redistricting process and when the lines are drawn to greatly favor one party or another, the voters – and their vote – get little say in who represents them at all.

“The real losers in redistricting are voters. They’re deprived of the opportunity to have competitive elections where they might. They’re deprived of the opportunity to have districts that are fully focused on their jurisdiction. These are some of the bi-products of redistricting that are really damaging,” said Farnsworth.

Manassas City leaders like Georgetown South parking district

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[Photo: City of Manassas]

Georgetown South has a unique set of rules that govern who can park in the Manassas neighborhood.

For the past 20 years, visitors and guests of neighborhood residents have been required to obtain a special parking pass from the Manassas treasurer’s office.

The temporary permit costs $10 each, and it’s good for a one-night stay. Each resident is allowed 50 per year.

Some residents want to do away with the parking rules, called a “parking district” by city officials, calling them restrictive and noting they’re the only ones of its kind in the city.

City officials say the parking district is effecting in curbing illegal parking in the city, and that many residents who’ve spoken at various public hearings on the matter want the parking rules enforced.

“I have not seen any advantages of getting rid of the parking district,” said Manassas City Manager Patrick Pate.

A spokeswoman for the Georgetown South did not return a request for comment for this story.

City leaders say the parking district has also been effective in curbing the number of cars and work trucks that are parked in the neighborhood but registered in another jurisdiction, like Fairfax County.

Manassas issues special parking permits to work trucks registered elsewhere to operators who have proven to the city treasurer the personal property tax on the vehicle has been paid to its respective jurisdiction.

City police also support keeping the parking district in place.

“I was troubled to read emails that say the only reason we have this parking district is for revenue generation by the police], and that is not true,” said Councilwoman Sheryl Bass.

The City Council on June 15 had the ability to vote to keep the special parking district in place or to remove it. Instead, the council took the lead of Councilman Ken Elston who suggested city leaders table the issue hold more meetings with Georgetown South community members to hear their concerns on the matter. The first of those meetings was held Monday night, said Pate.

While this is the only special parking district of its kind in the city, leaders have imposed other parking regulations in other neighborhoods. The catch is, the city may only impose such restrictions on publically maintained streets.

“If Georgetown South were built today instead of in the 1960s, it would have privatized streets,” said Pate.

Of the 1,700 parking spaces in Georgetown South, the city issued 2,400 temporary parking permits in the past year, Pate added.

The city is looking at adding a similar parking district on public streets near the Point of Woods neighborhood.

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Stafford school board concerned about class size, communication

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At a work session on June 27, the Stafford school board established some of their priorities for the next year.

The school board had an efficiency study for the school system conducted by Evergreen Solutions, LLC, which led to 16 recommendations that the school board reviewed.

Of the 16, two items in particular were selected as top priorities for the coming school year – one related to strategic planning, and another being a communication plan.

More from a Stafford school board release:

The Board would like Superintendent W. Bruce Benson to develop a plan to review and revise the division’s vision, mission, and goals, and identify measurable outcomes and strategies connected to desired outcomes. The Board requested that a Superintendent’s Strategic Planning Committee be developed. The committee representation shall include School Board members, parents, teachers, administrators, and government and community leaders.

The second area identified was communication. It was noted that the division does not have a formal communication plan and division-level communication often appears reactive.

Additionally, during the work session, school board members voiced their concerns about class size. An analysis of class sizes from 2014 to 2015 showed numbers were higher than school board members felt comfortable with, according to a release.

Members of the school board advised the Superintendent to draft staffing and class recommendations for the next year’s 2016-2017 budget to address the issue, said a school release.

$11M Gainesville library to open in October

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The western end of the county is getting a new library.
The library will cost around $11 million.
There will be a historical property located on the site.
It will open in October this year.
This library is one of two library projects ongoing in the county.

Western Prince William is getting an $11 million library.

The Haymarket/Gainesville Community library – which will be located at the intersection of Route 15 and Lightnet Road – is under construction and will be completed in October 2015, according to Andrew Spence, a spokesman for the Prince William library system.

The location will be 20,000 square feet and will offer their normal range of services, including checkout materials and children’s programming, as well as electronic services.

“In addition to the system’s traditional services, the Haymarket/Gainesville Community Library will provide access to our digital resources (databases, electronic books and magazines, and more), web-based library services (digital catalog), self-checkout, public Internet access, community/room space and wireless public Internet access,” said Spence.

According to Spence, the $11 million in funding for the library came from various sources, including debt financing and proffers.

“A 2006 bond referendum, approved by voters, provides $9,940,000 debt financing for the new Haymarket/Gainesville Community Library. Additionally, Prince William County Government’s General Fund provides $50,000 and developer contributions (proffers) provide $1,823,405 for the new library,” stated Spence.

This library is the second ongoing library project in Prince William, as the Montclair Community Library will also be completed this fall. Spence stated that the library is being built to meet the growing need for the services in the western end of the county.

“The library system recognizes that the Haymarket/Gainesville area has grown over the last decade creating an opportunity to provide this community with increased library services such as literacy materials, community space, reference assistance and civic engagement,” said Spence.

Similar to the new Montclair library, the Haymarket/Gainesville library will have a historic property on the site for visitors to see, called the “Bushy Park House”.

“[The house] is a 200 year-old Gainesville farmhouse planned to become a history interpretive center for our visitors,” said Spence.

BB gun, mace, used in Woodbridge robbery

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On the morning of June 29, Prince William police responded to a call for a robbery on Prince William Parkway in Woodbridge.

According to Prince William police, the victim – a 35-year old Woodbridge man – was robbed by two known acquaintances.

During the incident, the male suspect – 18-year old Ethan Brommer – showed a handgun and the female suspect – 26-year old Felisha Tucker – threatened the victim with mace, said Prince William police.

The individuals took an electronic tablet from the victim, before the victim fled and called Prince William police.

Prince William police located the individuals in a wooded area near the scene of the incident. Officers determined the handgun was actually a BB gun.

No one was injured.

Brommer and Tucker have both been charged with robbery.

McAuliffe tours Manassas, talks jobs, transportation, and doughnuts

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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and 7-year-old Kylie choose their favorite doughnuts from a display case at Paradise Donuts in Manassas. [Uriah Kiser / PotomacLocal.com]
Paradise Donuts Owner Keith Buck, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffee, and Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish taste Paradise Donuts. [Uriah Kiser / PotomacLocal.com]
Paradise Donuts ribbon cutting in Manassas. [Uriah Kiser / PotomacLocal.com]
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe addresses a crowd of business owners at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. [Uriah Kiser / PotomacLocal.com]

Jobs, transportation on McAuliffe priority list 

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had his choice of flavor of doughnut in Manassas on Tuesday.

The executive was on hand for the grand opening of Paradise Donuts on Route 28. McAuliffe shook the hand of new franchise owner Keith Buck, a 24-year veteran of the Naval Reserve, who opened the shop after two years of work.

“My goal is to make Virginia the most vet-friendly state in the country,” said McAuliffe.

His appearance came on the heels of him signing new legislation into law Monday at the Woodbridge Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, at that allows military veterans the ability to get college credit for prior military training.

The governor said Virginia has more military veterans under age 25, and all have unique skill sets that are needed to fill jobs in today’s workforce.

Many of those jobs — at least 30,000 of them in Northern Virginia — are in the IT field, McAuliffe told crowd gathered at the Hylton Performing Arts Center for the Prince William Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Chamber event Tuesday.

“Jobs in big data, personal medicine, that’s what the new economy will look like,” McAuliffe told a crowd of business owners.
Jobs in web coding and cybersecurity will also play a role/ Moving away from traditional four-year degree programs and focusing on two-year training and certification courses will put more people to work faster, he added.

And while Virginia — a state that is so heavily reliant on federal defense spending — has seen the government ratchet back those dollars, McAuliffe said he’s convinced a new FBI headquarters will be built in the state. He’s also lobbying President Barack Obama for a new cyber defense facility that would house national defense and intelligence under one roof.

The governor also spoke about reducing the number of SOL tests Virginia school children must take, expanding Obamacare in the state, ending veterans homelessness. He also talked about improving transportation along Interstate 66 by adding HOV lanes, and improving Metro.

“In transportation, I”m all in. We just authorized the new cars for the Silver Line because it does no good if the train shows up, and its full,” said McAuliffe.

Plantation tours, National Night Out, at Manassas Museum in July

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manassas museum

The Manassas Museum will be hosting free book talks, historic walking tours, Liberia Plantation tours and a National Night Out event in July.

More on July’s events at the museum, from a city release:

Historic Downtown Manassas Walking Tours; Thursdays and Fridays at Noon
Stroll through Historic Downtown Manassas and learn about the town’s history during a Manassas Museum Walking Tour.  Costumed interpreters share stories about Historic Downtown during the Civil War and about the rebirth of the area after war and fire.

Liberia Plantation Tours; Sundays at Noon (8601 Portner Avenue, Manassas, VA) –
Step back in history at this historic 1825 plantation house where Civil War soldiers and presidents tread. Liberia will be open every Sunday at 12 Noon (as restoration work permits).

Museum at the Market; Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. through October –
(Lot B, Prince Williams Street and West Street) Stop by the Farmers’ Market and enjoy hands-on history for all ages.

A New Exhibit: Protecting Manassas; Through July 15; free –

The exhibit features historic and modern artifacts from the City of Manassas police, fire and rescue services, and features activities for young visitors. The exhibit coincides with this summer’s 2015 World Police and Fire Games, an athletic competition held throughout the region.

Free Book Talk: Jonathan Roberts: The Civil War’s Quaker Scout and Sheriff; July 12 at 2 p.m.
When author Gregory P. Wilson began researching his family history, he never expected to uncover a great-great grandfather as unique and fascinating as Jonathan Roberts.

Pre-K Tuesday; July 14 at 10 a.m.; ages 3-5 with adult; $10 per child

Children ages three to five and a caregiver may enjoy storytelling, crafts, songs, and outdoor exploration during the Pre-KTuesday program at the Manassas Museum. Register at www.manassasmuseum.org or by calling 703-368-1873.

Free Book Talk: Cut From Strong Cloth; July 19 at 2 p.m.
In her new book, Cut From Strong Cloth, author Linda Harris Sittig tells the story of a strong Civil War-era woman whose dreams of entrepreneurship are thwarted by family and the threat of war.

Free Book Talk: For Brotherhood and Duty: The Civil War History of the West Point Class of 1862; July 26 at 2 p.m.

Brian McEnany’s curiosity about the Civil War and about the West Point class that graduated 100 years before he did, resulted in his new book, For Brotherhood and Duty: The Civil War History of the West Point Class of 1862.

National Night Out – Towne Ball; August 4 from 6 to 8 p.m.; free

See how baseball began during the annual event on the museum lawn held in conjunction with the Manassas City Police.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire, Caarmo to offer car diagnostic device

There’s new technology out there that will help you understand what’s going on with your car.

The technology, created by Caarmo, is a diagnostic device that will let drivers know if there is something wrong with their vehicle. It also sends the diagnostic information to a certified auto technician.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire has partnered with Caarmo to become one of the first 18 auto repair shops to offer the device to their customers.

“We know how important it is to keep our customers informed and on the road. By offering Caarmo devices to our customers, we hope to ensure that their vehicles are getting the best care possible,” said Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire owner ST Billingsley.

Caarmo CEO Vinay Raman, said that the device – which is smaller than a pack of cards –is simply plugged in to the diagnostic port found in every car, and immediately begins to collect information on the vehicle.

“One of the biggest expenses that people have is their vehicles. And that can be for businesses or consumers. They spend a lot of money, and a lot of time on them – but they don’t know what’s happening. So we’ve created sort of a really sophisticated ‘Fitbit’ for a car,” said Raman.

For $80 a year, customers with the device will be able to see their car’s information, service reminders and GPS tracking. The auto technicians at Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire will also be able to see the car’s diagnostic information for a mechanic’s portal. So if a customer’s car is having an issue, a technician will be able to call right away – either to provide reassurance or to schedule maintenance.

“[We put] these devices in the vehicles to let them know, ‘Hey your car is operating just fine’ or if a check engine lights comes on – some people kind of freak out when they see that – we can take a look at that and say, ‘Based on the make and model of your vehicle, let me give you a sense of what’s actually happening.’ It gives you more of a sense of what’s going on than just a light on your dashboard – you have an expert on the phone,” said Raman.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire is looking to begin providing the Caarmo devices to customers in the coming months.

*This promoted post was sponsored by Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire.

Is housing in Prince William affordable?

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Row houses line streets in Woodbridge’s Belmont Bay neighborhood. (Mary Davidson/PotomacLocal.com)

Housing can be expensive.

And for those that are economically challenged, the cost of housing in the Northern Virginia region can be a major hurdle that impacts their lives.

According to a Prince William rental market comparison, a one bedroom apartment runs $961, a two bedroom runs $1582 and a three bedroom runs $1,801 per month.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated that the average wage for individuals in Prince William is $832 per week – $3328 per month. This is lower than the national average according to the BLS, which is $1027 per week – $4108 per month.

So for individuals paying for housing in Prince William, many pay 28% to 54% of their monthly income, depending on the size of the space, utilities and fees added to the initial housing cost.

According to Andrea Eck, a housing specialist for Northern Virginia Family Services, those that pay more than 30% of their income towards housing are ‘precariously housed’.

“I bet if you took a look at your housing costs, it would probably be more than 30%, and that’s because it’s expensive to live here…We serve a low income population – typically people that are 30, 50 or 80% or below area median income. And based on the family’s income, their rent does not exceed 30% of their income, because we know that anybody who pays more than 30% of their income on housing is precariously housed,” said Eck.

While there are residents that are able to afford the housing costs in the county, there are some that cannot.

A 2015 report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments stated that there are 409 homeless individuals in the county – 136 of which are children. These are the individuals that populate the area’s tent cities and homeless shelters.

What programs are available in the county?

The homeless are not the only individuals in need of access to affordable housing.

Bill Lake, the director of Prince William’s Office of Housing and Community Development, works with residents in need providing rental assistance, also known as Section 8 housing.

“We help low income families with their rental obligations, to help them find affordable, decent, safe and sanitary homes. Our families receive a voucher – they go out and find housing. The housing is inspected to meet certain housing quality standards…they negotiate with the landlord what the rent would be, and we have to do something called ‘rent comparables’ where we have to make sure that the rent is being charged is [appropriate] for the area,” said Lake.

While the housing vouchers are assisting with the need for affordable housing in Prince William County, there is a gap between need and what is available.

“We have a waiting list of over 8,000 families, and we’re serving now about 1,900,” said Lake.

“Vouchers are limited, and the wait list is not open,” Eck commented.

Additionally, the Office of Housing and Community Development puts forward $55,000 per year towards assisting homeless individuals in finding housing.

Alongside the Office of Housing and Community Development, NVFS does have housing services, including their 92-bed SERVE shelter in Manassas, and their takeover in operations of the Hilda Barg shelter in Woodbridge, according to Eck.

NVFS also owns properties where residents can pay a reduced rate, but this is limited as well, said Eck.

What can be done to provide more affordable housing options?

According to Eck, there are several things that can be done in the county to ensure residents have access to affordable housing.

“On the housing side specifically, I think Prince William County has made some great strides by shifting to a rapid re-housing philosophy in our home shelters…and something critical to that process is a housing locator…the reason why housing locators are so important is that they build that network of property managers and private landlords that are willing to work with us and the barriers our clients face,” said Eck.

Eck stated that the board of supervisors has supported affordable housing initiatives by contributing to area non-profits like NVFS.

“Our local county board of supervisors is very supportive of the non-profit community that is working to address this issue, so there are contributions made to non-profit partners doing this work…I think their continued support of the work that is being done…is obviously very critical,” said Eck.

Creating job opportunities and maintaining access to public transportation are critical pieces of alleviating the problem.

“I also think that availability housing in and of itself isn’t the only issue. We also know that jobs help to create stable communities, when folks are working, earning a living wage. So ongoing efforts to build a robust job training [program] and supportive services that go along with it [are important]…Ongoing support of our public transportation system is pretty important as well because, the folks that we work with really rely on public transportation to be able to get to those jobs and those job training programs,” said Eck.

System 2040 plan maps out changes for VRE service

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121212 VRE

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) has a plan that includes adding train lines, stations, and even reverse commute capabilities.

While mass transit is one of the major methods that many area residents use to get to work in the area, there is still a lot of congestion that VRE is trying to combat, according to Director of Public Affairs Bryan Jungwirth.

In order to handle congestion and provide more service to riders, VRE has created a System 2040 plan with service improvements and additions up through the year 2040.

One big component of the plan is reverse commuting, which would alleviate some congestion on the roads for commuters coming in to Prince William and Manassas for work.

Currently there are only three trains that are classified as a reverse commute, according to Jungwirth – one from Union Station in Washington, D.C. at 6:25 a.m. to Broad Run, an additional Union Station to Broad Run in the afternoon and a Broad Run to Union Station train in the afternoon.

“We’ve got some trains that actually can be characterized as a reverse commute, and they’re on the Manassas line,” said Jungwirth.

In the immediate future, VRE will be adding more cars to existing trains.

“The best things we’re definitely going to do – max by 2017 – are adding more cars onto more trains and make the trains longer, which will increase capacity. And that will help with the whole [Route] 66 construction issue,” Jungwirth commented.

There are several station expansions and new platforms on the agenda from VRE, with a Fredericksburg train line being added this summer and Gainesville-Haymarket extension coming, said Jungwirth.

Also coming up in the next few years, are VRE’s plans to add two more tracks and potentially adding a line that goes from Manassas to Alexandria.

“[System 2040] tries to address all of this different elements, because we’re going to need two more tracks going across the Potomac [River] – so either a new bridge or the extension to the existing long bridge. And then we need more train storage up in the [Washington] D.C. area, and we’re looking to expanding where we store our trains. Parking lot expansions – we’re looking at those as well…We could potentially get additional capacity on the Manassas line…we’ve thought about ways we could run more service on the Manassas line and doing what we call a fish-hook kind of service to Alexandria, but it would take a lot of construction to make it even feasible,” said Jungwirth.

Reverse commuting capabilities should start to become a bigger focus towards the end of the System 2040 plan, said Jungwirth.

“I won’t say that reverse commutes aren’t on our list of things to do, because it is in the System 2040 plan, but it’s the latter part of the plan, so we’re talking out to 2030, 2040…all of these other infrastructure improvements would need to occur before that were to happen,” said Jungwirth.

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