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Peter’s Take: Improving County Government Transparency

by Peter Rousselot January 8, 2015 at 2:30 pm 0

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

Peter RousselotIt’s time for the County Board to adopt a new rule relating to significant Board votes.

Under the new rule, all critical supporting documents underlying any agenda item for which such a vote is scheduled must be sent to all Board members and posted on the county website at least 72 hours before the meeting at which the vote is scheduled.

At a minimum, a “significant Board vote” would include votes on any of the following:

  • Approval of any contract, agreement, appropriation, grant, plan, project or budget committing $1 million or more of taxpayer funds;
  • Site plans/Amendments Review;
  • Ordinances, Plans and Policies.

At a minimum, “critical supporting documents” would include all information, reports, presentations, or recommendations from county staff, consultants, advisory bodies, or applicants. Any history of previous Board votes on the item should be included.

Failure to comply with the proposed new 72-hour rule would require postponement of the Board’s vote on the item unless at least four Board members voted to waive the 72-hour requirement. Such waiver votes would only be justified in rare emergency situations.

Why the Board should adopt the new rule

Arlington voters and taxpayers have a right to transparent, complete and timely information with respect to significant government actions in order to have a fair opportunity to communicate with their elected officials before a vote is taken. Elected officials also ought to have complete, final information in a timely manner in order to make reasoned and effective decisions.

By definition, “significant Board votes” almost always rely upon very extensive and complex documentation. The new rule is necessary to improve county government’s transparency and accountability.

Why likely arguments against the new rule lack merit

The county manager, county staff and the county attorney likely will oppose the new rule. They may argue that it will require extra work. Such arguments lack merit. No extra work will be required. They just have to complete the same work earlier. Staff might contend that the County Attorney’s office is the bottleneck and extra staff will need to be hired. This is another false argument. Getting the material to the County Attorney earlier is the simple solution.

Though the manager and staff may also argue that Board members receive briefings about significant Board votes much earlier than the 72-hour rule would require, such arguments miss at least two critical points:

  • Even if such briefings occur, the public lacks the 72-hour minimum access to the underlying documentation that the rule would require, and
  • Last-minute substantive changes in the underlying documentation often deny such access to Board members themselves. 

Conclusion 

Adopting the new 72-hour rule offers far greater benefits–transparency and accountability–than any costs it might entail.

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

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