Peter’s Take: Has The Arlington Way Lost Its Way?

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column published on Tuesdays. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotWhen County Board member Mary Hynes launched a new initiative called PLACE (Participation, Leadership and Civic Engagement), ARLnow posted a video and wrote a capsule story. In the video, various people were asked what they thought the term “Arlington Way” meant.  The capsule story asked and answered the question:

“What is the ‘Arlington Way’ exactly? It is essentially an open conversation between the local government and the people who live and work in Arlington. But the Arlington Way can mean different things to different people, as the video … seems to prove.”

Has the Arlington Way lost its way?

Arlington has created an elaborate system of advisory commissions, committees and task forces to tap the wealth of talent in our community This system was supplemented in 2012 with the PLACE initiative. And, in 2013, the County Board has added Walter Tejada’s Neighborhood Town Halls.

Compared to every other community anywhere near its size, the variety of opportunities that Arlington affords for citizen engagement and participation is admirable.

But, the Arlington Way is losing its way because of a combination of:

  • whether, when and how the County Board frames the issues for community discussion
  • what the County Board does with the advice it gets

Example: the PPTA guidelines.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) issued a report last fall warning that the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA) lacked adequate safeguards, often enabling private firms to negotiate sweetheart deals that earn them high profits while placing most or all of the risk on the public.

The County Board has at least 3 citizen advisory groups that should have been asked to meet, review the proposed PPTA guidelines, and report back to the community: the Transit Advisory Committee, the Transportation Commission, and the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission. The County Board never requested such meetings or reports. Why not? What was the rush to enact such far-reaching guidelines without the input of these advisory groups?

Other examples:

  • The County Board’s recent decision on what to do with its fiscal year closeout funds, totaling many millions of dollars, included no opportunity for significant community engagement.
  • The entire structure of County Board decision making is a question too:  an item can appear once on an agenda and be voted on the same night.  Compare this with the School Board’s process of an item appearing first for information, with an opportunity for public comment, and then not being voted on until the next meeting – two weeks later. For major decisions, the School Board has even more time between public notice and action (like what to do with its fiscal year closeout funds).

We are losing our way. We have created many commissions, PLACE, and Neighborhood Town Halls so it looks like there is a lot of input, and there may be on many decisions. But, too many of the big, important decisions are reached without following the process we have created.

When we do use the process, the County Board too often disregards the input.  Of course, it is naïve to believe that the Board should always follow the recommendations, but when at midnight Board members are making changes to staff proposals and voting that same night – that does not inspire sufficient confidence in the Board’s decisions.

Peter Rousselot is a member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.


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