Colin Mills: The Gang’s All Here

Colin Mills/File photoLast night, I attended one of my favorite meetings. I got together with RCA Vice President John Hanley, RA President Ken Knueven and CEO Cate Fulkerson, and ARCH President Jerry Volloy. We had a couple drinks and talked about the hot issues in Reston, what we’re each working on, and how we can help each other out.  We laughed a lot and teased each other a fair bit, but we left feeling like we understood each other and the community a little better.

This is the Gang of 5. We’ve been gathering, in various configurations and at various times, for the last two years. Meeting with the Gang has been one of the highlights of my RCA presidency, and I believe it’s been a great benefit to our organizations and to Reston as a whole.

Our meetings are very informal. There’s no agenda, no one takes minutes, and Robert’s Rules of Order definitely don’t apply. It’s a chance for us to let our hair down, say what’s on our minds, smooth out any bumps in the road, and find ways to better serve our constituents.

One of my goals when I became RCA president three years ago was to strengthen our relationship with other Reston organizations. We’re all serving the community and we share many of the same broad objectives; why shouldn’t we work together more? If we don’t, we risk duplicating efforts or, worse, fighting where we could collaborate. We may not agree on everything, but I suspected we might agree on a lot if we sat down and talked things out.

This wasn’t the first effort to bring Reston organizations together. About 10 years ago, the leaders of many Reston groups formed the Coalition of Reston Organizational Leadership (COROL), to share information about what everyone was working on.  But that effort faded quickly, and since then, our organizations had largely been stuck in their silos. Too often, we didn’t talk to each other, we didn’t really trust each other, and we spent too much time guarding our own turf instead of looking for ways to help each other.

The “Gang of 5” concept was John Hanley’s idea. John is a great raconteur, and he believes that big things can happen in casual meetings. So he proposed a get-together with Jerry, Ken, and then-RA VP Andy Sigle.  Happily, they were all on board.  We met at the now-closed Greenberry’s Coffee, and spoke about our organizations, our projects, and our goals for the community. The relationship bloomed from there.

What have the Gang of 5 meetings accomplished for Reston? Quite a lot, actually. We’ve discovered that we’re on the same page about a lot of community issues, and that Reston would benefit from a collaborative effort, a unified citizen voice rather than a Greek chorus of organizations with different messages. So we’ve sought out opportunities to join forces and present a united front to the community.

In addition to presenting a unified message to the community, joining forces also allows us to take advantage of each organization’s unique strengths.  There are things RCA and ARCH can do that RA can’t, and vice versa.  But by coordinating our plan and backing each other up, we’re able to do the most good for our citizens.

This approach really paid off during the Master Plan Task Force discussions.  RCA, RA and ARCH all had representatives on the Task Force, but like the other citizen representatives, we all had our own separate messages, which paled in comparison to the much more unified efforts of the developer reps. In our Gang of 5 discussions, we recognized that we shared many of the same goals regarding Reston’s planning and land use, so we decided to work together.

This resulted in a couple of joint statements to the County outlining our goals and concerns, and a joint forum at which we told Restonians how the planning process was going, and let them know what still needed to be done. The forum drew an overflow crowd of hundreds, and many more watched it at home on YouTube. That turnout showed the County that the people of Reston were paying attention, and that our message was resonating in the community.

Did we get everything we wanted in the final plan?  No. But we did get a lot of our points incorporated, and that wouldn’t have happened without a strong, united campaign by all three organizations on behalf of our constituents. And that campaign couldn’t have happened without the trust, working relationship, and open discussions that the Gang of 5 made possible.

The Master Plan campaign has been our biggest effort to date, but our collaboration has worked in other ways as well. For instance, we’ve been brainstorming about ways to better inform and engage the community on issues concerning Reston’s future. And RA and RCA are also working on reviving Reston’s Sister City relationship with Nyeri, Kenya.

None of this could have have happened if John hadn’t proposed the Gang of 5, or if Jerry, Ken, Cate, and Andy hadn’t been open to pursuing closer ties. I’m very optimistic that the collaboration will outlive our terms with our respective organizations. We’ve done a lot of good for Reston in the last couple years, and I believe all of us see the value in continuing that work.

What does the future hold for the Gang of 5?  Ideally, I’d like to see it expand to include other Reston organizations.  There are a lot of groups out there that do good work, and I think the kind of collaboration that RCA, RA, and ARCH have done would only be better if more groups were involved.

As for me, I’m assured that even after I leave RCA, I will remain an honorary Gangster and will still be welcome at the meetings.  I look forward to seeing my friends again, and I’m delighted that we’ve taken a big step toward better representing the people of Reston.

Colin Mills is the president of Reston Citizens Association.

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