Surviving ARL Processes

Everything you need to know for surviving an Arlington including contact information and resources.


  1. How Arlington Processes Typically Works. Know the players and tactics
  2. How the County Would Like for You to Engage in the Processes (Don't do it!)
  3. How to Avoid Being Part of a Bad Process. Tips and tricks to be effective
    • Resources to connect to other groups
    • County contact information
    • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests
    • Participating in commissions

How Arlington Processes Typically Work

Despite messages to the contrary, the County Staff consistently uses techniques that stymie progress. Through an examination of most county processes, you will find a proliferation of these tactics including:

  1. Procrastination – delaying responses, information, meetings, planning and only move forward with persistent nudging and reminders.
  2. Mixed messages – saying one thing, posting another thing, and doing something else. When confronted on the discrepancies, they will simply say that the website or messaging has had an update delay.
  3. Belittle and diminish – when individuals provide counter arguments or suggestions, they will dismiss the individual's contributions by blatantly ignoring them (not including them in the meeting notes or on the presentations), suggest that those ideas were considered and were found to be lacking without providing any substantiation, or smile and acknowledge the person has contributed the idea, but do nothing about it.
  4. Refuse to provide documents, relevant , substantiate the recommendations – presentations, working groups, and commissions all operate on limited information. When asked for more information, staff gets indignant claiming information can't be shared, it would cost too much or take too long to provide, or point to some other non-benchmarked jurisdiction who rolled out the same initiative. When data is provided, it is usually error-ridden and promises are made for a revised version that will never be provided.
  5. Pre-determined outcomes – staff will propagate their vision with a few chosen residents to push the process through despite the broader needs of Arlington and the consensus of the neighbors. Conversations with the chosen residents will happen behind closed doors and while there are full planning meetings that are occurring, the staff will be having an adjacent conversation on what will actually happen and be pushed to the board.
  6. Lack of follow through – when confronted with concerns, staff will agree to remove or adjust the project based on those concerns. Then, right before the approval change, staff will provide the with a proposal without the amendment.
  7. Facilitate unrest – due to Arlington's small size, there are typically multiple individuals impacted in various ways by decisions. Take a divide and conquer approach, the County Staff will pit neighbors or communities against each other to move their agenda forward.

How the County Would Like for You to Engage in their Processes. (Just don't).

ARLWAY COMMENT: Don't fall victim to the “Pat-C” method below.

“Hi, I'm Pat-C an award winning resident and one of staff's go-to-people. I'm going to provide you with a guided tour of how the County wants you to behave when you want to volunteer your time, ideas and energy for the next few years of your life. Consider this your personal presentation on “How to be a successful Arlington volunteer” according to Arlington.

  • You should definitely engage in local processes – because you can really make a difference! You know, different perspectives lead to better outcomes and civic engagement is the foundation of a representative government!
  • Guiding principles to success begin with defining the problem. You must identify and understand who the key players are. Be persistent, but polite and LISTEN. Build relationships and trust and also look for creative solutions. I was recently on a committee with an overly excited participant and they just really turned people off with their energy.
  • Public processes require that you do your homework and show up. Ask lots of questions but don't play gotcha. Disagree without being disagreeable and be respectful. County Staff have a hard job and you need to be respectful of their time and ideas.
  • So, with that in mind, here are my top four pieces of advice:
    • Don't ask for or use data. Data is hard and it almost always contradicts what staff already decided that they wanted to do in the project and it greatly angers staff to spend time trying to dodge your requests for it. This is a big no! 
    • Don't add new ideas. No, you may be able to tweak what staff already has presented, but don't expect any changes. It disrupts the flow of the process. 
    • Follow the hierarchy. If you're new to volunteering respect others who have been sitting in meetings for years or decades. You may be an expert in the field, but respect the county staff experts who know everything there is to know because of their positions. 
    • Agree to whatever developers ask for. After all, they are our saviors! Arlington County will pay for all of our community amenities like an aquatics center, but we rely almost entirely on developers to provide tiny wins like a small square of open space or perhaps a piece of art that they will take down in a couple of months. Just don't rock the boat and upset them. They'll go elsewhere. And, face it, we are desperate. If it weren't for the developers contributing to sidewalks as community benefits we wouldn't be able to afford them.

How to Avoid Being Part of a Bad Process

The ArlWay Rules of Engagement and Process Strategies

ARLWAY believes that residents who understand the tactics of the County Staff and a handful of community Pat-C's, can move Arlington County forward in a productive way. ARLWAY believes that these are civil, thoughtful, and productive ways to engage for a better Arlington.

1. Work with Others

2. Ask for all relevant data up front

  • Ask which elements of the project have already been decided by staff.
  • Ask for all relevant data and information about the project, not just what they present in their power points.
  • Ask how the final decisions will be made i.e. how will input from the community be considered and other groups.

ARLWAY COMMENT: Just because County Staff decided on particular elements does not mean that those elements need to remain. But without careful questioning of staff, you will not know predetermined elements, have no idea where it came from or why opposition to these elements were never considered.  County Staff will often undermine the process to ensure that predetermined elements remain in the final documents.

Check out this independent data resource Arlington Analytics

3. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents 

It's very likely that your request for relevant data and information will not be produced willfully by the County. Your next option is to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to seek out the information which should have been willifully given to you in the first place.

If the results of your FOIA show that there is an unusually little amount of correspondence via email then you will have to consider and request information about messaging, meeting notes, and phone calls. 

ARLWAY COMMENT: Arlington County has been accused of very likely abusing the FOIA process by over-charging residents, not providing the complete documentation in their FOIA results and demanding that residents submit FOIA requests for information which should be readily available.

FOIA Requests: Arlington County FOIA webpage

How Arlington works with FOIA requests Arlington Often Charges Hefty Fees to See Public Records, Or Fails to Respond to Requests

4. Participating in Commissions and Committees

While commissions and committees are framed to bring community expertise to provide advisory guidance to the County Board, each and committee has a very different feel and style to it.

There are a spectrum of commissions and committees ranging from;

  • special interest advocacy commissions (Sports Commission, Child Care Initiative)
  • advisory commissions (Park & Recreation Commissions, Disability Advisory Commission),
  • and expertise commissions (Planning Commission, and Energy Conservation Commission).

How Commissions Really Work

  • Advocacy commissions are filled with individuals who may receive personal benefit from being on the commission and the commission has a singular focus on advocating for the benefits of their members. Advisory commissions are comprised of conflict-adverse folks who primarily serve as rubber stamps to the county board on county projects and rarely stick their neck out to move an agenda forward. Expertise commissions bring individuals with professional backgrounds in the areas together to provide guidance on how the County Board should be considering new initiatives.
  • Each of the groups has a county staff liaison who is responsible for coordinating presentations and information flow. The staff liaison works closely with the group chair and vice-chair who determine agenda items and facilitate the writing of letters and communication with the board, as well as any presentations to the board.
  • Commission agendas are often set up around staff presentations. Following the presentations, the commission will make a decision on how to move forward with communicating with the board and what the talking points were.

ARLWAY COMMENT: It is important to know that most projects are presented to commissions in the final round of review. So if you have concerns about a particular process, it is important for commissions to get feedback out to the County Board PRIOR to the process wrapping up. If you wait until it gets to your Commission, it will be too late to propose any changes that may indeed be accepted.

Groups & Commissions:
Meeting schedules are on each commissions site

5. Writing Letters to the County Board and APS

Communicating with the County Board members is an easy and effective way to share opinions. The more emails that they receive on a particular topic, the more effort they will put into thinking about a topic. All letters sent to the County Board are open to the public and subject to FOIA.

ARLWAY COMMENT: Letters to the County Board and Arlington Public Schools should be civil and include the following elements
– overview of your understanding of the topic
– opinion and evidence/data on why you think a change needs to be made (this may include information on the number of people impacted, the unintended consequences, or how this initiative dovetails with other initiatives)
– an invitation to discuss the topic with you, a group, or your civic association
– your name, address, and phone number.

County Board Contact Information

Katie Cristol
Christian Dorsey
Takis Karantonis

(County Manager who creates the processes you love so much and directs the staff)

School Board Contact Information

School Board Email Webpage

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