After months (it’s been months) of individuals and commissions trying to find the “next normal” for Arlington public engagement, the County Board has taken a step in the direction of reactivating Arlington’s decision-making infrastructure. If one takes a moment to analyze it, it has been a decidedly “Trumpist” approach. Hear me out.
The Trump administration has a play book: get the public distracted about something pretty basic and easy to do, tell them it’s impossible and move forward with whatever you deem is important, wait for something negative to happen that flies in the face of your stated agenda, acquiesce and say that you always supported doing the right thing, create something new that lacks any semblance of organization or success metrics, and then make it difficult for even the most stalwart public servant to make it work.
Arlington County makes a big deal about Community Engagement. Through its over 40 commissions, committees and a multitude of niche working groups, resident volunteers keep the county running with a litany of events and meetings that provide oversight, feedback, and insight into County initiatives that support county goals. Per the website, “Arlington County government relies on the hard work of its many civic-minded volunteer commissioners to help it make decisions that benefit our community.”
Libby Garvey grudgingly nodded to the public by saying that commissions can request to meet in her April statements ‘“business essential for addressing the coronavirus or the continuity of business operations for the County.” The “continuity of business operations” includes “the adoption of the budget, the approval of tax rates and fees, and appropriations of funds necessary to keep government running,”.’
Get the public distracted about something pretty basic and move forward with whatever you deem is important. When COVID struck, the County Board added a statement to all of its commissions’ webpages, “Effective March 2020, per County guidance all meetings have been canceled or postponed to ensure safety of all participants.” The County created a quite robust worksheet on how to determine whether county meetings were essential.
So, while the worksheet outlined how to make those meetings viable through a virtual format, the county policy actually was to cancel all of the meetings, wholesale. This included cancelling every one of the Planning Commission meetings April-July even though “authorized by the Virginia State Code. [The Planning Commission] promotes the orderly development of Arlington County and its environs by advising the County Board on development and use of land, facilities and zoning.”
While community involvement was put in the deep freeze, the County staff and Board moved full speed ahead on a huge menu of building and development, including site plan amendments, license agreements, funding agreements, and purchasing agreements through their scheduled working meetings. In listening to the Board meetings, moving to a virtual meeting took some getting used to, but they did it and the decisions they made – decisions impacting Arlington County residents quality of life – were largely made at the direction of staff with no input from the very groups who were put in place as a guardrail to bad decision making.
Tell them it’s impossible and not good for them. When asked about the ability of committees and commissions to go virtual, concerns of equity of internet access (didn’t the county just spend millions putting in fiber?) and lack of staff time were cited as the reasons that wasn’t possible. Individual community members sought out the Board and County Manager and raised their concerns and highlighted the problems – all for naught. The County Board continued to make primarily unanimous decisions rubber stamping staff recommendations.
The irony of County Board members who ran on community engagement — Libby Garvey “making it more feasible for time-challenged Arlington residents to weigh in on public issues” or Katie Cristol’s “The Power of Together”, or Christian Dorsey’s focus on equity—all fell flat when the going got tough. Making excuses about how it is too hard to move the commission meetings to a virtual format.
Meanwhile, the luckiest of county residents moved to working remotely via teleconference, students were meeting with their teachers remotely, and even the Arlington County Civic Federation, moved to virtual meetings in May.
Was it easy? No. Was involvement deemed important? Yes. And they figured out how to make technology work.
The County Staff and Board couldn’t figure it out. Well, until they were forced to by outraged residents
Wait for something negative to happen that flies in the face of your stated agenda. With all of the talk of the Missing Middle Housing initiative and the accolades given to the Columbia Pike Form Based Code, it is not a surprise that the County staff was recommending that the County Board move forward with a request to advertise new density incentives along the densest corridor that doesn’t have metro. The plan to (in plain speak) make it easier for the County to meet its affordable housing goals by expanding those eligible to those who don’t need a subsidy to buy a house, and give the developers yet more density in exchange for… (wait for it) basically nothing resulting in further inequity, especially for Black and Brown people of Arlington.
How did this happen? The Housing Commission hadn’t reviewed the item, nor had the Planning Commission. Why hadn’t the Housing and Planning Commissions reviewed the proposal? They hadn’t been meeting. Because of COVID-19 restrictions. And, these committees are not allowed to speak amongst small groups, theoretically due to the FOIA.
Luckily a group of housing advocates stood up and said, wait, you are missing the point. The County Board was in a bind. Do they move forward with the recommendation of staff [like they usually do] or do they use the lack of commission engagement as an excuse to put off a decision. They delayed the decision… until the commissions can review and discuss how it fits into the larger housing issues that Arlington is facing.
This in combination with the embarrassing exchange between the Green Valley Civic Association and the County Staff and Board about their lack of community engagement along with a memo from Commission chairs to the County Board saying that forgoing commission and community meetings wasn’t an option and that the county staff had to find a way, led to a change in plans. Only because residents stood up to the county did change occur. It did not occur because we had leadership who believed in transparency and engagement and demanded better on their own. Just like the era of Trump, residents must be vigilant.
Acquiesce and say that you always supported doing the right thing. Within a week, Libby Garvey sent a note out to the commission chairs underscoring the value the commissions bring to the community and that the commissions would have the options to meet in new ways. “We know how eager our advisory groups are to get back to work on behalf of our community, and we are eager to have your advice and counsel again,” she said. “There is so much to be done, and so much our advisory groups can contribute.”
Create something new that lacks any semblance of organization or success metrics. However, just like Trump’s advisory commissions and policies, there is a lack of clarity on how this will happen. The Chair has to request it, the staff have to agree, but yet the county staff don’t need to give permission. So how will this work?
Make it difficult for even the most stalwart public servant to make it work. I’m not sure how this loose guidance does anything other than making more work for the volunteer and, again, giving staff the ability to block any semblance of forward movement. Let’s face it: setting up a virtual meeting, announcing it on the website, and getting going is NOT rocket science. The folks who are on these commissions are connected and well resourced; they are not going to have issues beyond their own lack of familiarity with how to participate in a meeting remotely.
So, bravo to our County Staff and County Board for once again demonstrating that the Arlington Way is good and gone. The County Board’s preference is simply to have the ability to vote unanimously on anything that the County Staff put before them, regardless of what the community wants or needs. Sounds distinctly Trumpist, no?