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County Attorney Blasts Change-of-Government Proposal

by ARLnow.com April 21, 2010 at 11:16 am 2,140 24 Comments

A proposed change to Arlington’s form of government would “significantly impair” the county board’s effectiveness, and would invite “certain mischief” among elected officials, according to County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac.

In a memo to county board members, MacIsaac says the change would transfer some of the county government’s current powers to the state and would “compromise and even eliminate the County’s ability to achieve long established goals.”

The change-of-government proposal is sponsored by the Committee For a Better Arlington, which is endorsed by the Arlington Green Party, the Arlington County Republican Committee and the police and fire unions. The committee is currently trying to collect the 14,350 signatures necessary to put the proposal to a voter referendum.

If approved, the proposal would change Arlington’s government from the current “County Manager Plan” to the “County Board Form,” as outlined by state law.

The County Board Form calls for board members to be elected by districts, rather than at-large, and it would result in the board being elected all at one time, instead of holding separate, staggered elections.

MacIsaac said such a change could cause the “balkanizing” of county politics. Instead of promoting the interests of the county as a whole, there could be “competition among board members for funding and staff time for the betterment of one district over others.”

The change would also apply to the school board, “creating the possibility that schools in some districts would fare better than those in districts of less influential, powerful, or persuasive members.”

The County Board Form would give the board some of the executive powers currently entrusted to Arlington’s unelected county manager. Control over personnel matters, including appointments and compensation, would be transferred to the county board, “potentially introducing a form of political patronage not possible under the County Manager Plan.”

The county’s purchasing agent would report directly to the county board under the plan, presenting “the opportunity for undue influence in the award of contracts, and favoritism generally in the competitive procurement process.”

The change would also prevent the board from enforcing a human rights ordinance that prohibits all forms of discrimination, MacIsaac says. The board’s authority would be limited to the classes proscribed under state law, which does not include sexual orientation.

MacIsaac argues that the County Board Form was designed for a more rural county and is not suited to a large, wealthy, urban county like Arlington. As an example, he cites a state requirement that County Board Form governments establish a department devoted to agricultural and practical continuing education.

“It is naive to believe it is possible to change the form of Arlington’s government and expect the many powers Arlington now enjoys to neatly transfer into the comparatively small box afforded by the County Board Form,” MacIsaac concludes. “Adoption of the County Board Form would be a step backwards for the County.”

  • Anthony

    In a Dillon rule state like ours, if the form of government were to change, Arlington would have to start from scratch! I don’t think that the supporters realize this. This is all about some people being upset about their retirement benefits. Very self-serving!

  • I’m curious why this is an issue that the Republicans and the Green Party apparently agree on–it certainly doesn’t seem like they would be natural companions. I would assume it is because both parties are in the minority in Arlington (obviously moreso the Greens, but still), and they think that the proposed form may allow them more influence. Because of the move to district elections rather than at-large, perhaps?

    Is a copy of the memo referenced available somewhere? I’m interested in learning more about what exactly is going on here.

  • Chris

    I am curious; if this were to pass what effect would it have on the Arlington County Attorney’s Office. The County Attorney is after all appointed by our County Board. What was it you said about someone’s position being self-serving, Anthony?

  • ArlingtonAaron

    After months of silence from county officials and democratic party regulars, I’m glad that MacIsaac has finally gotten the ball rolling on the pushback to this silly plan…

    And yes James L, the support from the R’s and G’s comes from their hope that a district system could give them a better chance to gain political power, as opposed to concern about good governance. While under a ward system they would have “very little chance” of being elected, that beats the “no chance” of the current system as far as they’ve been concerned… which is why the Dems have been reluctant to speak out against the proposal for fear of looking like they are only out to preserve their seats, though I’m sure that they all think this change would be a disaster.

  • Alan

    Isn’t it a little self-serving for him to take a stand on the political issue to be decided by voters that would affect who he answers to? Why shouldn’t we have oversight over our lawyer?

  • Arlington

    Now, Alan and Chris, don’t shoot the messenger. The County Attorney was asked by the board to review the potential impacts of the proposal on Arlington’s authority. He is a superb civil servant and did exactly what he was supposed to do — gave the county legal advice. It is the answer that should shock you.

    The real question is how anyone could have thought that a dissatisfaction over pay or benefits should be resolved by blowing up the government and, in the process eliminating Arlington’s affordable housing programs, civil service commission, protections for gay and lesbian employees, and other things. Just as absurd, under the proposed change, we could only select a health commissioner from a list provided by our nutty Governor. Good lord.

    The memo by the way is available on the county attorney’s website. Direct link here: http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/CountyAttorney/file76036.pdf

    Read it yourself.

  • MB

    Virginia Republicans trying to bugger up government? Gosh, who would ever have thought of that?

  • Marge

    If you are concerned about what you are reading here, or in the memo from the County Attorney, when you are offered a chance to sign their petition, simply follow Nancy Reagan’s advice and “Just say, NO.”

  • Matt

    These Dillon Rule arguements are a complete non-issue unless you think Sen. Mary Whipple, Del. Bob Brink, & Del. Patrick Hope are completely inept legislators. It is nice to know that the Arlington County Board has such a low opinion of the representation Arlington has in Richmond. The Arlington Delegation should remember this slight next time the County Board delivers its legislative package!

  • John Antonelli

    Oh spare me Mr. McIssac

    1. S. Arlington has been the County’s red headed step child for YEARS exactly because with an at large Board all the power is in North Arlington. Don’t beelive me? Take a tour of Wakefield High School

    2. Forcing Board members to run in Districts not only makes it easier for minorities to run and win, it forces a County Board member to provide services to their District. Fairfax County uses this system and the sky has not fallen down over there

    3. forcing the County Board to run all at once allows citizens the chance to throw the bums out. having an election every November for Board is another Arlington only activity, but one the entrenched power structure wants to continue. By placing the power of day to day operations in someone who is elected by us also allows us to demand accountability. The County Board fears this as they will no longer have the County Manager’s skirts to hide behind.

    Mr. McIssac is acting as the County Board’s mouth piece saying what his employer wants him to say. I can’t WAIT to sign this petition. Arlington needs change and citizens need someone to fight for them in their neighborhoods so they are not sacrificed to the whim of the power structure which favors North Arlington.

    • MB

      John Antonelli, taking up the interests of South Arlington’s residents? Hilarious.

      • John Antonelli

        I have been taking up S. Arlington causes for years or have you not noticed

        • MB

          My apologies for being less than precise. I should have said “John Antonelli, taking up the interests of Arlington’s minority residents? Hilarious.” And yes, I have noticed. Everyone has.

  • Steve

    I just read the memo. As “Arlington” notes, Mr. MacIssac has indeed presented the facts and references relevant to potential changes between the current and proposed form of government. However, he goes well beyond legal advice and also provides unsupported suppositions that would be better described as personal editorial. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the editorial paragraph at the end of the summary and other unsupported inferences taints the entire memo and indeed calls into question the intent behind the creation of this memo.

  • Thes

    Matt, in case you haven’t noticed, Richmond is controlled by the party opposite of Arlington’s legislative delegation. The powers currently afforded to Arlington County were the result of decades of hard political fights over the years. There is no reason to expect that they can be restored by a wave of Mary Margaret’s magic wand.

    Or, to put it another way, if it was so easy to get things done in Richmond, why didn’t the firefighters just go there first to change the Chief’s reporting relationship to the County Board — instead of launching a year-long and expensive petition drive?

  • Eric

    However effective Arlington’s General Assembly delegation may be, Matt, the fact is Arlington fought long and hard for some of these authorities. If you think a GOP controlled legislature bent on payback is going to simply give them all back you clearly don’t follow politics in Richmond.

  • MB

    This is also an indicator of the sad state of Arlington’s Green Party. If they could get their act together, I suspect they’d find a more receptive audience here than the Republicans can. Instead they throw their efforts into this certain-loser of an issue? Great going, guys.

  • Matt

    Thes & Adam:
    When Bob Brink and Patrick Hope were on the campaign trail they explictly told voters that they would be effectve advocates for Arlington and Arlington Values in the General Assembly. If citizens such as yourself and the County Board thought otherwise that concern should have been expressed during the campaign. I find it pretty flimsy to say that the arguement against this initiative is that Arlington’s state legislators are not competent enough to fulfill their campaign promises.

  • Arlington

    Matt, can you count? Brink, Hope and Whipple without a solid progressive majority are limited in what they can accomplish. Go see how many bills make it out of committee in Richmond. Its a different world down there. To whit, apparently the GA just passed a bill to mandate gun education in schools. Seriously. If you think everything Arlington wants will automatically carry the day you are very naive. Would we get some of it back? Probably. Should we have to go through all this simply because the Fire Fighters think their benefits aren’t good enough, when they are comparable to every other jurisdiction? What about everyone else’s pay and benefits? Talk about a flimsy argument.

  • Richmond veteran

    The last thing I want my delegates to spend time on is recapturing the rights and powers we already have — Arlington certainly doesn’t have the political capital in Richmond to spare fighting for past victories as well as new initiatives. I’d rather have Arlington reps working to gain new things, like environmental protections or a solid transportation budget, than chasing the powers a cavalier Arlington would inadvertently give away.

    • ArlingtonAaron

      Exactly… and all for what upside exactly? Ward oriented earmarks and rampant Nimbyism? A district-based school board that would be an even bigger mess than it is now when it comes to difficult issues like boundaries? The politicization of day to day issues that currently fall into the manager’s domain?

      Seems like this is just an f-you effort from a diverse coalition of the county’s various malcontents… I’d have rather they spent their energy on an outsider candidate or something.

  • Novanglus

    The question comes down to this: do we want a government run by professionals with political oversight, or a government run directly by politicians? You don’t have to look far from Arlington to see the dangers of the latter, while the former has served us very well. We have the lowest tax rate and the highest quality of life in the area.

    The change doesn’t serve Arlingtonians, it serves unions made up of non-residents, and gives false hope to political parties who can’t field qualified candidates anyway.

  • Mike

    I could care less about the unions or political parties. This initative is spot on because it will prevent the CB from getting elected when they crap all over their distrcit.

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