Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Last December, Arlington’s Committee of 100 sponsored a debate on Arlington’s system of government and whether it is time to change it.

Arlington’s system is unique in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The county is governed by a five member County Board (not a County Board of Supervisors, as some mistakenly refer to it), It is largely a legislative body, executive authority is vested in the County Manager, who is a career civil servant hired (and fired) by the County Board.

The members of the County Board are all elected by the entire county, not by districts as in other county governments throughout the state. One seat is up for election every year, with two seats up for grabs every fourth year. Of course, what this means is that we are always in an election season in Arlington, manna from heaven for political junkies.

Arlington’s public safety employees, largely firefighters, are leading the effort to change Arlington’s form of government. Their web page on the subject, www.changearlington.com, is a good, though highly polemic, discussion of the issue. I recommend it. When you parse it, however, it is a little vague to me exactly what they are promoting.

It is clear that they believe we should elect our County Board members by district rather than county-wide. They argue that when the current system of government was adopted in 1930, Arlington had only 26,000 homogeneous citizens – somewhat disingenuous since even then we had a solid black population here that was totally outside the power structure of the county and vastly discriminated against. They argue that Arlington is now a much more diverse community of more than 200,000 that would be better represented by County Board members from discrete districts – not a bad point.

Their real gripe, though, is the concentration of all executive authority in an unelected County Manager. Apparently, they would solve this by having a separately elected (county-wide?) chair of the County Board. The chair would have quasi-executive power, I guess. I am not quite sure.

To get right down to it, the reason that the public safety employee groups want a change in the form of government is so they have more political influence to enforce what they want to get from the government, a very questionable reason to support their cause. On top of that, there is really no indication that the case for increases in public safety programs – along with better pay and benefits – have not been heard by the County Board, only that it has chosen more often to go along with the County Manager’s budget recommendations. And make no mistake about that, the County Manager’s recommendations are just that – recommendations. The County Board can do as it pleases.

As guru once pointed out, when one says they have not been heard, they have been. It’s just that the powers-that-be disagree.

And while we are at it, there is really no serious indication that the various needs of wants of individual neighborhoods are being ignored or, worse, not even known about. As for diversity, just look at the County Board mover the last twenty years – it has been pretty diverse.

On top of all of this, Arlington is generally recognized as one of the best, governed counties in the country, if not the best. It doesn’t need to be changed; the advocates for particular causes just need to make more convincing cases. It’s the Arlington Way.Last December, Arlington’s Committee of 100 sponsored a debate on Arlington’s system of government and whether it is time to change it.

Arlington’s system is unique in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The county is governed by a five member County Board (not a County Board of Supervisors, as some mistakenly refer to it), It is largely a legislative body, executive authority is vested in the County Manager, who is a career civil servant hired (and fired) by the County Board.

The members of the County Board are all elected by the entire county, not by districts as in other county governments throughout the state. One seat is up for election every year, with two seats up for grabs every fourth year. Of course, what this means is that we are always in an election season in Arlington, manna from heaven for political junkies.

Arlington’s public safety employees, largely firefighters, are leading the effort to change Arlington’s form of government. Their web page on the subject, www.changearlington.com, is a good, though highly polemic, discussion of the issue. I recommend it. When you parse it, however, it is a little vague to me exactly what they are promoting.

It is clear that they believe we should elect our County Board members by district rather than county-wide. They argue that when the current system of government was adopted in 1930, Arlington had only 26,000 homogeneous citizens – somewhat disingenuous since even then we had a solid black population here that was totally outside the power structure of the county and vastly discriminated against. They argue that Arlington is now a much more diverse community of more than 200,000 that would be better represented by County Board members from discrete districts – not a bad point.

Their real gripe, though, is the concentration of all executive authority in an unelected County Manager. Apparently, they would solve this by having a separately elected (county-wide?) chair of the County Board. The chair would have quasi-executive power, I guess. I am not quite sure.

To get right down to it, the reason that the public safety employee groups want a change in the form of government is so they have more political influence to enforce what they want to get from the government, a very questionable reason to support their cause. On top of that, there is really no indication that the case for increases in public safety programs – along with better pay and benefits – have not been heard by the County Board, only that it has chosen more often to go along with the County Manager’s budget recommendations. And make no mistake about that, the County Manager’s recommendations are just that – recommendations. The County Board can do as it pleases.

As guru once pointed out, when one says they have not been heard, they have been. It’s just that the powers-that-be disagree.

And while we are at it, there is really no serious indication that the various needs of wants of individual neighborhoods are being ignored or, worse, not even known about. As for diversity, just look at the County Board mover the last twenty years – it has been pretty diverse.

On top of all of this, Arlington is generally recognized as one of the best, governed counties in the country, if not the best. It doesn’t need to be changed; the advocates for particular causes just need to make more convincing cases. It’s the Arlington Way.


Richard Barton may be e-mailed at rbarton@towervillas.com


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