County Attorney Blasts Change-of-Government Proposal

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.”

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