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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How much engagement should we expect of our County Board Members?

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 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?

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