Inaugural Speech by Chairman Gerald E. Connolly
I carry in my wallet a quote from Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris almost a century ago that has guided me in public service.
“It is not the critic who counts, nor the individual who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. Credit belongs to the individual who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again, who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and, who, if he or she fails, at least failed while daring greatly, so that his or her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
TR understood that to be in public service is to be in the arena. He also understood that the arena was all about passion and action.
Why do we seek elective office if it is not to get something done for our community? That ought to be the overarching ethos of our service. Each of us brings different experience, different perspectives, different ideas about what that something ought to be and how best we ought to achieve it. The arena provides the place where we forge agreement on that action. But it is also the place where we allow – indeed we encourage – the clash of ideas, the contrast of our respective experiences, the melding of our passion.
In the arena we test the strength and durability of each other’s ideas. We challenge conventional truths and proffer new ones. We hypothesize new theorems, debunk old shibboleths, and reaffirm our core values. We encourage vigorous combat in the arena, because without passion, without a sense of mission, ideas are stale intellectual constructs. But we must also approach the arena with a dose of humility and with respect.
None of us in public life has a corner on the truth. In public life, dogma serves us poorly. We see it in the political gridlock in Richmond and in Washington. The idea that there can only be one way of seeing the truth, that there is only one answer to a public policy dilemma debases the inherent democratic value of vigorous debate.
What’s the point of debate, after all, if I already possess a certain truth?
In fact, with that ideological perspective, the other point of view is always defective, always wrong. Respect and humility offer a more productive model for debate in the arena.
They require the acknowledgement that we can be informed by another’s point of view and experience, even as we challenge them. They require recognition that the opponent can also be sincere in his or her beliefs. Respect and humility allow us to remold our own ideas and to reach out to those of a differing view. They allow us to stand steadfast for our values without feeling threatened by those of others. Indeed, in political life, we are as much defined by our competition as by ourselves. The vigor and quality of debate, and the passion of our own strongly held views, in Roosevelt’s arena, are never diminished by civility.
Vigorous debate with mutual respect guided by the simple but profound ethos of action – to get something done for our community, to leave behind a better place than we found it is what we do, or should do, in local government.
It is our calling.
And our public instinctively gets it. I worked for 10 years in the U.S. Senate .We would consider it a job well done when we spent two weeks gathering signatures on a Sense of the Senate Resolution expressing the United States Senate’s concern for Middle East peace. Can you imagine the Board of Supervisors passing a Sense of the Board expressing our deep concern for congestion? We’re concerned about it?
It is risible because at the local level of government we are expected to provide results.
Expressions of aspiration are not sufficient. In our arena, action is the yardstick by which we are measured by our citizens.
We must deliver.
In that expectation we here in Fairfax County have delivered a government that works.
Our government responded swiftly and effectively to floods in Huntington, to the tornado in Centerville, to victims of Hurricane Isabel. We have made the investments that provide the highest quality of services in the United States. We are the benchmark locality, named best managed county in the best managed state in the nation. Triple AAA bond rating. Highest performing high schools in the United States, including the number one rated high school in the entire country. Highest graduation rate in the United States. Highest median household income in the United States. Rated best digital county government in the United States. Lowest crime rate of the 50 largest jurisdictions in the United States.
These accolades are not just plaques on a wall—they represent investments that pay off for our citizens every day. Because we insist on a government that works, we Fairfax County citizens have built a quality of life and a place that is the envy of our nation.
But we know we do not live in a static world. To stand still is to fall behind.
Four years ago we laid out an aggressive agenda to make this an even better community and to address areas where we had reason to be concerned. Gangs, for example. We acknowledged the fact that we had a growing problem. We brought together stakeholders from the community to examine the issue and to recommend changes in our approach. We added emphasis on gang prevention and intervention while maintaining our strong law enforcement and suppression activities. We hired a prevention coordinator, expanded after school programs from three to all 26 middle schools, enhanced adult mentoring and tutoring, expanded the tattoo removal program, provided hundreds of summer camp opportunities for at-risk youth, and collaborated with Cox Communications in a $3 million outreach effort that established five strategically located Boys and Girls clubs.
The results: a 50 percent decline in the number of young people who identified themselves as being involved with a gang and a 32 percent decline in gang-related crime countywide. Government that works. Results that matter.
We are not declaring victory, nor are we pretending that this will not be an ongoing problem for the foreseeable future. But we did recognize that we had a problem and got in the arena and developed an innovative, community-based prevention program that has made a substantial difference.
Our model of holding summits, convening task forces to develop recommendations and implementation plans for the Board of Supervisors to act upon is successful and underscores our culture of citizen involvement. Whether you attended the Community Summit to End Homelessness, serve on the Consumer Protection Commission or speak at one of our regular public hearings you are in the arena helping to drive the policy debate.
Tackling the environment has been a big part of our agenda. It impinges on almost everything we do in government, from public works to land use and transportation. In the past, Fairfax County had not always been a good steward of the environment. In recent years, we set out to reverse the damage done to our water and air quality, our streambeds, our shrinking open space. Four years ago the Board adopted the first comprehensive 20-year environmental plan in our history. Since then we have restored miles of streams, re-planned all 30 watersheds, launched an ambitious tree planting effort to expand our tree canopy to 45 percent, set a goal of 10 percent of the county land mass as parkland, doubled our use of wind power and renewable energy, and shifted the pattern of development from one favoring sprawl to one that is smart and transit-oriented.
And these are not just feel-good investments. Many of our environmental initiatives are yielding economic benefits.
For example, our energy efficiency program is saving the county millions of dollars. We are turning waste into energy. We are replacing large numbers of county vehicles with hybrids, retrofitting our buses to run on low sulfur diesel fuel. We built the county’s first certified green buildings and pledged that all new or renovated county buildings will be green. For the first time ever we won a national award last year for these environmental efforts. And earlier this year Fairfax County took the lead and launched the nationwide “Cool Counties” initiative to reduce our carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions as our part to combat global warming.
Making a difference, in the arena.
As a government that works, Fairfax County stands in stark contrast to the federal government and some other state and local jurisdictions. Hurricane Katrina and the failed response at all levels of government provide a compelling reminder of what can happen when we allow government to fail. It usually begins when we foster a culture of low expectations. When we have low expectations about the ability of government to perform, government never disappoints. But as the aftermath of the Katrina tragedy gave witness, the consequences of those low expectations can be catastrophic.
Continuing to ensure that Fairfax County is a government that works is the imperative of this newly sworn Governing Body. To do so we must sustain the strategic investments our citizens have entrusted to us, and which they overwhelmingly reaffirmed in the 2007 election.
To ensure a high performing school system; a vigorous environmental stewardship; a public safety system that is second to none; a human services network that enables the aged, the young and those in need to lead productive lives; affordable housing for those who serve our economy; 10 percent of the county as permanent parkland for this and future generations; a transportation system that is multi-modal and that provides choices for our commuters.
How best we do all of this will be decided in the arena.
And as we ready for the arena, we gird ourselves with passion for the mission —to serve the community, to leave it a better place than we found it — with a sense of respect for and civility toward other viewpoints and an unwavering commitment to a government that works.
Congratulations to my newly sworn-in colleagues and thank you all for joining us in this great celebration this evening. Have a safe and wondrous holiday season.