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

by Peter Rousselot January 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm 1,855 60 Comments

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.

  • bemused bystander

    Is this an opening salvo of a Board campaign?

    • Aw

      It’s the Arlington way…

    • Aw

      By the way, any way someone could disclose how much Peter pays for a personal forum?

      • Sam


  • YTK

    With all the expansion and high rises and lack of coheseiveness that used to be part of Arlington, this place has ceased being a community to me. Arington is just another place where pedestrians have to dodge motorists in a hurry, where Clarendon is now just another yuppie haven, where fights break out inside and outside the many new bars, where townhouses are stacked together like books on a shelf. The County Board is running this place like they were holding their poker cards close to their chests, and those who do care about Arlington now seem to be in the minority.

    • brown before green

      Um, no.
      The world (country / state / county / neighborhood) is run by the people who show up.
      Participate and make your voice heard in a civil manner.
      You have access to the Board. You have access to staff. You have access to your neighbors and the groups they are involved in. All you have to do is participate. Cohesion begins with you.

      • Suburban Not Urban

        I’ve got to disagree with you here. When they had an open public forum for the EFC Plan, people went and spoke – civilly and with clear points of view. Most of the board didn’t even show up, the staff and board did little to respond to the points raised. Then they changed the format for future events to where you simply left comment cards – that were then appended to the staff report and ignored.

        The newest format is to break these things into small groups with a moderator/hand-holder for each group that corral’s anyone who doesn’t agree with the pre-determined board/staff direction Why – because allowing people to speak out with disparate points of view is embarrasing to the board. When they ignore clear points of view they look silly. When they are pinned down to give facts -often twisted facts – people have an opportunity to refute them. Since the board has no minority viewpoints, if they control the story, they control the info that people have to form their opinions.

        • ramblin man

          I find this to be the case all to often as well. The board will have a particular outcome in mind, and then rally whatever supporters show up to become the “sponsored” for lack of a better term, group. There is certainly no shortage of people who will flock to adopt the boards view, as it often becomes a dem vs. repub/independent ideology debate. I think they do themselves a disservice when things are framed that way, because backing down and adopting any other outcome is seen as a “defeat”. It is prideful and hubristic. I think the streetcar issue has become this way, where backing down and doing the right thing (not building the streetcar) would be a personal blow to their egos. And with Libby and the way the last election went, it would probably put their next elections in jeopardy, although hopefully Zim is retiring because that is certainly the way all signs are pointing. And Jay is making plans to move on to Richmond.

          • DCBuff

            @ramlbin, I agree with your view on how the ArlCo board appears to guide the decision making process, but what “signs” or “plan” exist to show that Zimmie and Jay are leaving soon? Jay has announced plans to run for re-election to the board this year, and no local statewide jobs are open on the Demmie side. Zimmie has a couple more years on his current term.

          • ramblin man

            wishful thinking?

      • Dan

        ” Cohesion begins with you.”

        You didn’t just say that did you ??

    • drax

      You talk like the Board built all those condos and bars.

      • arlimprov

        they provided a way for them to get in and they allowed them to bypass zoning restrictions—add floors in height for things like a very few affordable housing units.

        They hold phony sessions, but their minds are made up before they hear what anyone has to say.

        The Board is a rogue entity. It’s a joke.

    • stephanie

      I agree 100%.

    • rob

      you are exactly right, that’s why I sold and moved to Loudoun 5 yrs ago. Traffic is a disaster I think I am in LA

      • drax

        So your trip to DC is shorter from Loudoun?

  • Taylor

    Very good summary of this issue — one that I’ve become increasingly aware of in the past few years.

    I would add the East Falls Church area Plan to your examples as well. The County Board (and/or its staff) clearly had certain objectives in mind, namely a huge increase in density. When it turned out that the surrounding communities were heavily against, it… well, the County just did what they wanted in the first place. I’d expect that kind of arrogance from some sort of Republican-dominated county, but seeing it in action in Arlington – which goes to great lengths to promote itself as inclusive – was exasperating.

    That made me seriously question the County Board’s motives, and like you said, just about every important decision since that time has been made in a similar fashion.

    I don’t expect everyone to always agree, but the County Board seems inclined to completely dismiss viewpoints that do not mesh with its own, which seems like a recipe for very bad government.

    • Quoth the Raven

      Yes, all Republicans are arrogant. Brilliant point, which makes your post so much more interesting and helpful.

      • GC2

        +100. Partisan smear ruins any validity to the argument. Besides, it is generally the liberal belief that the city / county / state should have the right to take public property to benefit the greater good, and those arrogant conservatives who believe in individual property rights.

    • drax

      Taylor, I’d like to see what you base your claim that the surrounding areas are “heavily against it.”

      In any event, the opinion of the surrounding areas are important, but not the only factor. You can’t expect to just walk in and veto anything you don’t like near your home. If you think that’s the Arlington Way, you’re mistaken.

    • Lars Jones

      Taylor, this responds to your comments, “I’d expect that kind of arrogance from some sort of Republican-dominated county, but seeing it in action in Arlington – which goes to great lengths to promote itself as inclusive – was exasperating.” While many who read this will simply dismiss you as an idiot, I’d rather ask you whether your experience should cause you to question your assumptions. Maybe a place “which goes to great lengths to promote itself as inclusive” (the opposite of a “Republican-dominated”place, in your view, is actually more arrogant than you assumed. Maybe this arrogance manifests itself in other ways. Maybe this arrogance should lead you to question the policies of the arrogant. Maybe you would find less arrogance in places that are differently “dominated.”

  • John Pettiford

    Arlington is on the same path, kicking and screaming into the 21st Century as it was pulled and pushed into the 20th century. All of Arlington is becoming more diverse except for the Government. Arlington had a Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That was eliminated. Why?? We need a two party system in Arlington, because these constant retreads do not listen to the people.

    • Look at 2010 Census

      Arlington was the only major jurisdiction in Virginia that became whiter – If I recall by 4-5 percentage points. Though they way some board members talk you would think there are only 10-15 white people in the entire county.


    Excellent presentation and educational for those of us not deeply engaged in the operation of Arlington County.

    How did “the Arlington Way” operate differently in its heyday of the 1960s and ’70s? How did the County Board operate differently now?
    Is the demise of Arlingtonians for a Better Community (ABC) about 15 years ago part of the problem now? ABC used to be a filter for electing officials, and it permitted federal employees to participate as candidates. The two major political parties destroyed it in the late 1990s.

    • BBMS

      I could be wrong, but I think the Arlington Way is a pretty recent construct. I don’t recall ever hearing much about it prior to the early 90’s. At least in terms of labeling it as such.

    • occasionally a fact

      What did in ABC was changes in the Hatch Act that allowed more federal employees to be more active in local partisan campaigns.

    • Change of political identity

      Sure. The change is pretty easy to see. Most of the Democrats back then would be labelled as Republicans now a days – i.e. Byrd/Johnson Democrats.

  • JimB

    RE: Meetings and input.
    When do these become “endless,” time-consuming and unproductive?
    What is the way to effectively and with time-efficiency obtain citizen input?

    RE: Accountability
    ARLCo board members are elected officials. Send a clear, explicit message: conduct the county business in an open, considered and accountable process, with facts and rationales to support conclusions, OR face accountability come election time.

  • Homeowner

    The Arlington Way, if it ever truly existed, is long gone. Citizen input is seen by Staff and Board alike as something to be endured prior to forging ahead toward the preordained outcome. Nothing more.

    • 1234

      You couldn’t be more right. Staff’ seems to be wholly focused on avoiding citizen engagement when at all possible and when forced to interact completely ignores input. The general excuse seems to be “this was decided years ago, you should have commented then.”

    • Clarendon

      Citizen input is all over the map on almost every issue so inevitably some or most people will be (or feel they are) ‘ignored’ by whatever course is taken.

  • Kim

    I totally agree. Often times the issue at hand has clearly been decided before the public meeting. The Board members put on a dog and pony show — listening to public comment, pretending to take it seriously by asking inane questions to the County Manager, and then doing what they were going to do anyway. The Homeless Shelter is the perfect example.

  • TransitRider

    I would add the Columbia Pike streetcar project to the list of examples where the Arlington Way has been sacrificed. I attended one of the early “community outreach” meetings, which I thought would be an open discussion of the issues and the options for addressing those issues. It turned out to be little more than an “infomercial” for streetcars, complete with the false claims and hype one would expect from an infomercial. (For example, they touted the Tampa streetcar as a great example and model for Arlington. Turns out that the Tampa streetcar barely gets 900 riders per day and could very well be shut down for lack of use, but of course the County has never told us that). Now, the County’s own studies show that a streetcar on the Pike would add $200 million to the project cost but provide no additional benefits, yet the County Board (with the exception of Libby Garvey) remains completely closed to discussing other options. Why? If the Arlington Way means anything, surely it means providing citizens with accurate information about a range of options before spending $250 million. If the streetcar is such a good idea, surely an objective study of options would affirm that and provide citizens with the assurance that THEIR money (not the Board’s money) is being well spent.

  • Patrick

    Until Arlington has voting districts and all members of the board stand for election at once, the board can continue to do whatever it pleases because the institutionalized vote dilution scheme that currently exists protects incumbents.

  • South Awwlington

    For those of you who didn’t watch the last County Board meeting in December 2012, this piece sounds an awful lot like Libby Garvey’s argument against the PPTA. My question is this, who is the Sock Puppet now?

    This article has more than one author OR the one author instructs Libby on talking points.

    • huh

      Or the argument is a logical one and widespread against PPTA, so maybe multiple authors who actually investigated the typical outcomes and how they have worked other places came to the same result? NAAAAH!

  • Jim

    Who the hell cares if it sounds like Libby Garvey’s argument? It is a valid argument and deserves to be repeated as much as possible until these County Board morons GET IT

  • TransitRider

    Who cares how many authors there are or whether there are talking points somewhere? I certainly hope that Ms. Garvey and other board members would listen to constituents and, where appropriate, accept and use their input. Shouldn’t that be part of the Arlington Way? The question is whether the points are valid, which they most certainly are in this case.

    • South Awwlington

      Noooooo…the thinly veiled point of the authors is to continue to battle a 10 year old process of studying, mapping alternatives and reaching a decision on the transit on Columbia Pike – all of which were done very much in public.

      I am not on nor have I ever been chosen by the County Board to serve on a committee or a Commission. When I heard of possibility of transit upgrades to Columbia Pike, I went to arlingtonva.us and signed up for the appropriate distribution lists. I was notified of and invited to attend of single meeting of the process. There was nothing done in the dark and no manipulation of facts. A decision was reached. Not everyone likes it. Move on.

  • Bender

    The “Arlington Way” is a propaganda ploy whereby the Board gives the illusion of people having any real say, but then the Board does whatever it wants. If you agree with the Board, then they’ll listen and pat themselves on the back about how they value communithy input. If you disagree, then they’ll simply ignore you and do what they want to do.

    Show me ONE area where “the Arlington Way” actually led to the Board changing its mind from what they wanted to do.

    • paul

      Amen! I have lived in Arlington County for 33 years and I learned very quickly that the whole “Arlington Way” operates exactly as you describe it.

    • Dan

      I think that “the Arlington Way” is somewhat like the “Pirate’s Code”…………

    • Michael Brown

      Remember me? They fired my a$$ as county manager because I stood up to them and refused to green light everything. And then they tried to blame it on ‘personal reasons’

  • Mr. Neuron

    “The Arlington Way, if it ever truly existed, is long gone. Citizen input is seen by Staff and Board alike as something to be endured prior to forging ahead toward the preordained outcome. Nothing more.”

    Well said, indeed. This has been my experience dealing w/ the county over the past 20+ years, including their approving massive development in Ballston with inadequate parking, which forced commuters into the neighborhoods.

    Then, after we who live there could not park on our own streets, we were told we could get residential permit parking. Which then led to being told that we would have to pay to park in front of our own house when we are already paying taxes for that street — all to fend off outsiders parking there because the smug & arrogant county board thinks that by failing to provide adequate parking we will magically become an “urban village” that doesn’t need cars.

    That is just one example (we got out of that neighborhood, thankfully), but it’s also seen in the zoning department, where individual homeowners are squeezed for extra expenses and modifications to projects that are not required by code and not the result of neighborhodd complaints or desires — just the arrogant hand of the county telling people how they must build even when it has no bearing on the legal requirements of zoning or structural adequacy.

    The so-called Arlington Way is nothing more or less than the “illusion of inclusion” IMO/IME.

  • Thana

    As a committee member I can tell you that the committees are places for debate and discussion with objective ideas being brought forth as much as they are as a way to leverage an outside source to affirm what the county board would like to do. The committees are just rubber stampers for the Arlington County Board. Despite the awards about transparency the ACB are crooks.

  • Wild Bill

    Thank you Thana..finally the truth comes out…we spend hours discussing these plans
    knowing well that the back room ACB has already made their decision..vote them all out
    except Libby…

  • Jim Webster

    Sour grapes. It is Peter who has lost his way.

  • Teacher and resident

    School board and administration has also lost “the way”. Surprise early extension of superintendent’s contract is easiest example, but there are many others. And parents and teachers can feel the difference.

  • Puzzled

    I think Mr. Rousselot and others have fundamentally confused participation and engagement for direction setting and leadership. We elect members of the County Board who in turn provide direction to the County Manager – that is the way our government is designed and how it operates in practice. In most cases, such as the Streetcar and the EFC Plan and other initiatives, the purpose of the community engagement process was not to take the community’s temperature in order to determine WHETHER to pursue those initiatives – it was to refine and to surface potential problems or unforeseen consequences with the direction set by the County.

    The odd examples that Mr. Rousselot cites – closeout funds and PPTA (a procurement authority allowable under Virginia law) are hardly clear examples of big important decisions – more like inside baseball. And, as anyone who has tried to participate in the recent Schools Capacity planning process can attest, the School system is hardly a shining example of an open community process – in fact, I would say that the County usually offers the opportunity for more substantive input and shaping of outcomes.
    The Arlington Way is far from perfect, but it is also not lost or broken.

  • Incredulous

    To all of you who talk about the County Board getting its way, was is it that you think the County Board wants? Don’t you think they all want what’s best for Arlington? If there is some secret plan, what is it? Or are these comments here just from people who didn’t get THEIR way and are throwing hissy fits. How can the Board please everyone all the time? Are you saying this isn’t a well run county? And if not, give an example of one that is.

    • Suburban Not Urban

      I think it’s pretty clear, they want control of bigger budgets – that makes them bigger deals. They want easy access to campaign contributions from buisness folks like developers who then owe them favors. They want project contributions that they control the distribution of to establish their legacies. They want more voters in tighter spaces where these folks are dependent on them for even a moderately good quality of living and without their ridiculous policies, these high rises become pits.

      • Why are you here?

        If you want to live in the suburbs I hear Loudoun has plenty of open spaces and cul de sacs.

        • sarcasm

          And Loudoun has really, really good government too.

  • BS

    Peter’s Take, AKA Let me tell you why I’m anti-streetcar

  • Alex

    Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Arlington is just a lot closer to the critics. Most areas of this nation work like this. Look at the typical ballot. After all the deals are made and months or years of private and occasionally public wrangling, we get our prepared candidates. Most people do not care as long as their personal situation is not in jeopardy. I’d like to say it could be different but even at this level of partial daylight it’s taken over 30 years for the center of Rosslyn to be redeveloped. Imagine if everyone was “informed”, projects would take centuries.

  • Seeing it like it is

    I would like to see some polls taken by ARLNow and see how they mesh up with the c9unty board decisions. Let’s see if they are voting their own agenda or the will of the people who actually live here. I love my Arlington, and have for the past 42 years, but sadly I am feeling less and less represented by the board and more governed and restricted by them day by day.

    • drax

      In what way do you feel “restricted?”

    • Incredulous

      I second drax’s question. In what way do you feel restricted? I just don’t understand all this criticizing and complaining, all this negativity. Arlington is a great place to live. The people who run this county are PEOPLE just like you.

  • JM

    Benign Oligarchy. This place has been a one way street for tax hikes and budget increase for decades now. If you dare stand in the way of the almighty county board, you will get rolled over. Look at the many school projects in which the community voiced concerns,but went ahead with projects like Swanson because the school wanted it. The government is beholden to people or so we were told. The Arlington way is nothing more than sweetheart deals and backroom politics. Always has been, always will be.

  • barticus

    I’ve heard it said the “Arlington” is an old Native American word meaning “endless series of meetings.” While that’s not the most deliberative way to decide anything, at least everyone gets their opportunity to be heard. That, to me, is the Arlington Way. Or used to be.

    Let’s look at the two biggest recent projects proposed for Arlington: the ballpark and the streetcar. The Board did its best to suppress discussion on the ballpark on the rationale that it was too divisive. (Pretend to understand that logic.) Suddenly, without discussion, 4 of the 5 members told Major League Baseball to look elsewhere for what is now the Washington Nationals. The streetcar did require official action, much to the Board’s dismay. So the discussion and vote were delayed until very late: I think discussion began around 10 p.m. and the vote around 1 a.m.

    In both cases the public did not get a chance to air its viewpoints. There was no due process: the issue did not graduated from one hearing to the next. The Board decided by fiat, and that was that. The Board members believe their elections and re-elections equate to an endorsement of all their views and Machiavellian skullduggery. If you have a problem with that, you can raise it years later in the voting booth when they’re running against hapless Republicans and Independents.

    Still, I must disagree with Mr. Rousselout slightly. The Arlington Way has not lost its way. But its stewards, the Board members, certainly have.


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