Moving County’s Community Engagement processes into the 21st century

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Arlington County takes great pride in its community engagement strategy which includes a robust communication process that includes a network of civic associations, commissions, and working groups. The County has a responsibility to announce meetings and provide the community access to the minutes of such meetings, as deemed by Virginia open meeting laws.

The Civic associations are a fundamental method to inform residents, involve them in decision making, and solicit feedback. The Civic Associations often bear the brunt of communicating and documenting the county’s presentations for their residents. However, the county’s civic association strategy has seen a series of unforced errors recently: 

  • Mark Schwartz tried to rationalize why the thousands of people that lived along Columbia Pike or used the Pike didn’t know about a major transportation project that is going to take a year to complete. Affected people will need to make adjustments to their work schedules, child care accommodations, and purchasing pattern due to the County’s poor planning and communication.
  • Then in a one-week span there were two sewage spills into Four Mile Run. Other than a cryptic alert and a twitter feed, the County has been silent on the reason, solution, and impact of the sewage spill. A spill that impacts thousands of people that live along Four Mile Run Creek, use the parks immediately adjacent, or the millions of organisms that are impacted by the spill draining into the Chesapeake Bay. 
  • At the Transportation Committee, the County announced moving forward with the Shirlington Road Bridge. However, the Green Valley Civic Association in which the Shirlington Road Bridge sits, was never consulted or informed about the project’s status. Rather the Civic association had to push on the County for answers resulting in an obscure note from the Ombudsman referencing the Four Mile Run Revitalization project where the committee was told the bridge is outside of the scope of the project.
Several Months out…. still no Meeting Minutes

The Commissions and Work Groups are also key way for the County Staff to vet projects with subsets of community interest groups who will then provide advisory guidance to the County Board. The meetings are often an hour long or more presentation by county staff or consultants with a limited amount of time for commission/committee members discussion on the topic. Often these meetings are lacking publicly available minutes that would memorialize the conversation, and when meeting minutes are available, the document is so general and does not attribute conversations and debate to any particular person.

This lack of documentation and access to data contributes to rumors and heresay, results in members’ contributions being marginalized, and impedes residents who don’t have time to attend from having access and insight into the conversation.

These meetings are routinely referenced by the Chairs of the commission/committee or the staff liaisons as the rationale for supporting particular policy decisions in their testimony to the County Board.  When dissenting members highlight that the reports shared with the County Board are not complete or representative to the divide in thought, the County Board is often reluctant to open the conversation up for deeper conversations at the Board level given lack of time and competing priorities.

To date, the county staff hasn’t been held accountable, as examples above show, for communicating properly with community members and often have already moved a project forward. Furthermore, the county staff is perpetuating mis- information with their inability to document meeting conversation and debate creating a hazy version of the truth for the County Board and the general public.

It is unreasonable to think that residents will be able to attend and participate in the multitude of meetings occurring across the county. Today’s Arlington County resident is operating in an ever-complex environment that is complicated by long commutes, multiple policy issues directly impacting their lives/homes/children, and limited time for self-care. The onus is on the county to create a methodology for residents to understand the discussions involved in how decisions are made.

It is time for a video recording and transcript of every meeting that is available to the public within a reasonable amount of time (2 weeks) to enable every resident to have transparent insight into county decision making.

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