“Arlington County management is worse than in developing countries”

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Earlier this year, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz made a public apology for a major road disruption on Columbia Pike, affecting businesses and angering residents, who were never told of the work. Only after a public uproar and media reports, did he make an apology

It’s dumbfounding that notifying the public about disruptions to infrastructure impacting businesses and residents would be a difficult task. But it seems that is case for Mark Schwartz.

A Columbia Heights post on Nextdoor is another example of his mismanagement.

Schwartz isn’t making apologies just for his errors in alerting public about disruptions to infrastructure, he has made many other public apologies over policies including another one this year when Arlington staff was ordered to remove BLM chalk on Juneteenth. 

Given the frequency of apologies and that he only doles them out when the media reports on them, it’s clear that he doesn’t learn his lesson and that these apologies are insincere. 

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Short Term Thinking Schwartz Short Changes Arlington Again

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Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz rarely misses an opportunity to place his personal short-term agenda ahead of Arlington’s long-term strategic interests. But a November 12 memorandum that Schwartz sent to the County Board reaches a new low even for small-minded Schwartz.

Background

Over 1,825 days ago, the Community Facilities Study Group recommended that Arlington adopt a long-term public facilities plan locating new school seats and other new public facilities like parks, fire stations, and stormwater infrastructure, at specific sites. After prolonged delays, a new commission—the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC)—was created to help develop such a plan. Schwartz quickly intervened, successfully pleading with the County Board for JFAC to be given a series of short-term planning assignments on items like the Buck and Virginia Hospital Center properties, thereby diverting JFAC from its primary mission: long-term, county-wide public facilities planning.

In recent months, JFAC finally began to show signs that it might be on a path to creating the critically important, but MIA, long-term public facilities plan. Re-enter Schwartz to try once again to side-track this vitally needed plan.

Schwartz strikes again

At a time when COVID-19 makes long-term planning for Arlington’s future even more important than it was before, short-term-thinking Schwartz’s latest petulant memorandum to the County Board again tries to deflect us from the strategic thinking Arlington desperately needs. We just can’t afford to do it, according to Schwartz, because:

“The work in [JFAC’s] outline, to be done well, and to be accurate and thorough, requires staff from virtually every department to be involved, including department heads.

“Such a plan requires subject matter expert advice, along with citizen input beyond the JFAC members. In addition, the outline focuses on areas that I see as squarely within my purview as Manager.”

No shit, Sherlock! If you had been doing your job right, instead of spending years preventing JFAC from doing its job, Arlington would now have the long-term public facilities master plan it desperately needs.

Conclusion

It’s important to note that the public has not been consulted about any of the policy suggestions floated by Schwartz, including any radical long-term permanent shift to virtual classrooms. Whether APS or parents will accept that result is not even considered in the memo. But make no bones about it, yet another  “pause” to locate school locations, and JFAC’s  diversion to review virtual classrooms will cover up Schwartz’s own failure to plan for brick and mortar schools up until now, and will result in no other option but virtual learning.

Similarly Schwartz’s suggestion that level of service reviews for facilities, including those for infrastructure and parks, are exclusively under his purview is designed to shield Schwartz from any independent critical thinking for how facilities can be used more efficiently or removed from Arlington’s exclusive management through things like partnerships with neighboring jurisdictions. 

Mark Schwartz does not have the strategic vision required of the Chief Executive Officer of a $1.5 billion enterprise.  The County Board should replace him with someone who does.

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Arlington’s Goldilocks Dilemma: Over and Under reaching during the pandemic

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The Arlington County government has enacted a “Continuity of Government” ordinance to help it address the emergency presented by the COVID-19 epidemic.

All levels of American government need and have emergency powers. How, when and where government exercises those powers is a test of leadership. Will the government overreach, underreach, or get it right?

The Arlington County government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic has displayed all three types of responses. There are many respects in which our government has gotten it right during this emergency. Expanded efforts to provide food to the hungry and deferral of the opening and operation of the Aquatics Center and Lubber Run Community Center are two examples. The Manager’s decision to postpone until 2021 the adoption of a 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is another good decision.

But, in a number of other respects, our government has either overreached or underreached.

Overreach

A conspicuous example of overreach was the hastily-retracted effort by County government to use its consent agenda to try to enact an ordinance amendment that would have shut down several important aspects of Arlington’s long-range planning functions. As the Arlington Sun-Gazette explained, several eagle-eyed citizens and groups like the Urban Forestry Commission and Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future spotted the proposed amendment, raised an outcry, and forced the amendment to be deleted:

“But concerns indeed were raised, largely over a provision that potentially would have shunted aside the county government’s Long-Range Planning Committee and various review committees that consider the implications of new development.

“‘Proposing such overreach, especially opportunistically so during a deep public-health and economic crisis, favors those who most profit from land development above the public’s interest and fairness and transparency in government operations,’ local resident Rod Simmons said in an e-mail to County Board Chairman Libby Garvey. ‘It would effectively disenfranchise meaningful and required public participation in guiding land-use decisions… .’

“County officials got the message, removing that proposal from the emergency-powers declaration as it moved toward a final vote on May 19.”

Some residents continue to have justifiable concerns about the ordinance as it stands after that final vote. For example, local civic activist Suzanne Sundburg wrote to the County Board on May 19, noting in part:

The overly broad language of the ordinance makes it very difficult for the public to know precisely how broadly the County Manager may interpret his new powers to “temporarily suspend enforcement of existing provisions of County ordinances and conditions in use permits and special exception site plans” and to “temporarily modify or suspend application of administrative processes and procedures and other requirements. …

“Moreover, there appears to be no meaningful process or mechanism for the public to dispute or appeal the County Manager’s decisions in a timely fashion, even though the manager may be forced to grant relief that is unwarranted in certain cases simply because it falls into the same category as a decision legitimately made in another case.”

Other examples of County government overreach during the pandemic include the now retracted decisions to:

  • prevent County residents even from entering and passively using County parks
  • banning open-air farmer’s markets entirely

Underreach

Frederick Burr Opper‘s Alphonse and Gaston (1906).

“The phrase ‘Alphonse-and-Gaston routine,’ or ‘Alphonse-Gaston Syndrome,’ indicates a situation wherein one party refuses to act until another party acts first.”

One of the glaring examples of underreach in governmental use of its emergency powers relates to mandating the use of masks. In this instance, the federal, Virginia, and Arlington County governments all have been too halting and too timid.

At the federal level, it took the CDC far too long to develop its guidelines on the use of masks. But once the CDC finally did so in early April, both Governor Northam and the Arlington County government ought to have immediately seized the initiative and exercised their existing emergency powers to promulgate carefully tailored guidelines for when, where and how to mandate the use of masks. Both Virginia and Arlington bungled this leadership test.

Almost two months (!) after the CDC acted, Virginia finally announced on May 26 that it was going to mandate the use of masks effective May 29:

“The governor announced Tuesday that masks will be made mandatory in indoor public spaces, including businesses, starting Friday. The state’s mask requirement will have some exceptions, including for eating, children under 10, and those with health conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.”

Better late than never for Governor Northam, I suppose. But Arlington could have issued a similar mandate in mid-April. Why did Libby Garvey play Alphonse to Ralph Northam’s Gaston? We may never know for sure, but one likely explanation is poor legal advice from the Arlington County Attorney based on his erroneous belief that the Dillon Rule prevented Arlington from acting on its own. If that is the reason, it’s wrong. In a health emergency like the present one, Arlington could have acted in April to enact an ordinance mandating mask usage under circumstances similar to those Northam has now belatedly enumerated. And if the poor legal advice from the County Attorney is not the reason for Arlington’s inaction, then Arlington’s failure to act lies solely in the laps of the County Board.

All the County Board did in the meantime was to decide to offer free masks. Board member Katie Cristol said “the idea … was to encourage rather than mandate mask usage—a carrot vs. stick approach.” That approach was wrong. The Board in April should have offered both a carrot and a stick approach to wearing masks.

Conclusion

Arlington holds itself out as making “world class” decisions. In the overreach and underreach examples described above, Arlington has failed to meet its own self-proclaimed standard of excellence.

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Immaturity of $1 Billion Organization Exposed: The Referee Debacle Continues

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I’m writing about the referee payment problems. I submitted my concerns in January about how absurd it was that referees were not getting paid.

Apparently, our newest board member is most naïve in the ways of Arlington and was unable to fulfill his promise to get the referees paid by Feb. 1 “at the latest.” His updated desire is to resolve things “before spring arrives.”

Bless his heart. Now Matt DeFerranti has set up a Go Fund Me page to “Pay the Referees,” seeking $12,500.

Let’s recap the facts quickly:

  • The County Board was alerted to the situation of the referees outstanding payments due and the lack of contractual compliance in March 2019, August 2019, November 2019, December 2019, January 2020, and February 2020
  • The County Board voted to give themselves each a $19,000 pay raise with the new salary adjusted to the area median salary in June of 2019
  • The County Board voted not only to extend the County Manager’s contract, but also increase his salary by 4.5% or $12,712.
  • The County Manager just put up a $1.4 billion budget proposal for FY2021
  • Neither the County Board nor the County Manager can figure out how to pay the $12,500 to the unpaid referees. That is .0000089% of the budget or 90% of the County Manager’s pay raise or 60% of each of the County Board Member’s pay raises.

There is absolutely no excuse, no law, and no rationale that this timeline of events makes sense in the 6th richest county in the United States. The immaturity of processes, the unprofessionalism of the county staff, and the lack of accountability by the county board members is totally unacceptable. The county sure seems like it is planning to substitute “bush-league” for “world-class” in its vision statement.

Why are they literally passing the buck back to the taxpayers to cover their negligence? I applaud Matt for at least trying, but this is not Mayberry, folks.

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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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