As the Pandemic continues, Arlington Elected Officials Drift into Opaqueness, Closed Door Sessions, and Lack of Public Review.
Tag: County Board
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?
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
There is plenty of information that can be shared, should be easily available, and needs to be formatted in a way that a non-participating party can follow.
Arlington must have the will to say that we believe that transparency is the first measure of building an inclusive, healthy community.
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.
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.
Arlington has an excess of diamond fields now and even decades from now, but the Department of Parks and Recreation is not being transparent with the public.
It’s been two months now since the surfacing of Christian Dorsey’s financial problems and some campaign reporting issues. He made the declaration that he is still committed to serving Arlington. “My personal financial issues do not in any way impinge upon my ability to work with staff and with our community to find practical, innovative solutions to all these issues,” Dorsey added. “I love this County, and I will continue to work hard to ensure it remains one of the greatest places on the planet to live, work and rear a family.”
However, I haven’t seen much of Dorsey since the scandal and when he’s chosen to attend a meeting, it’s been a quick appearance. Most recently, at the joint meeting of Amazon-impacted civic associations with Amazon and JBG, Dorsey was noticeably missing – if he showed up, he wasn’t participating in any meaningful way. As the board liaison to these civic associations and the incredible impact that the Amazon arrival has on Arlington, as well as, the documented lack of appropriate staff engagement in these neighborhoods, one would think that Dorsey should be onsite to hear the communities’ issues and engage in the conversation. And, when Dorsey has made public comments, one questions whether he may also have a slight conflict of interest. First, with the unpaid referees debacle asking for patience working with a vendor who has yet to pay referees a year out and then with the affordable housing initiative.
Katie Cristol has been much more measured in her comments and staying out of the fray. She has created clear boundaries and, with but a look, makes a person think twice before asking for a meeting or engaging her in conversation. Katie has been completely off my radar and in reviewing recent board comments has been relatively silent.
There’s no doubt that the County Board role is a big job with lots of critics. However, let’s not forget that the County Board voted themselves a significant pay raise in June 2019. This pay raise gives them the comparable FULL time median salary for the PART time gig. And, that the County Board role is a choice; no one is forcing these folks to run and each of them have the capacity to make several times what they could make on serving on the board.
This calls to question – what should the expectation be of our county board members in participation in the conversation and understanding the nuances of the conversation at a deeper level? Perhaps, it is simply that candidates are so available pre-election that there is a vacuum after they win. However, the larger issue remains, how much engagement should we expect of our County Board Members?
The need for financial literacy is critical. We have just seen a County Board member publicly share that they have filed for bankruptcy.