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Peter’s Take: Choosing the Next County Manager

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

Peter RousselotArlington needs a fresh start. It now has a great opportunity to make one.

Arlington’s current County Manager, Barbara Donnellan, is resigning effective June 30. Thereafter, current Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz will serve as the interim county manager until the Arlington County Board chooses a permanent manager.


Arlington is the only locality in Virginia authorized to have a “County Manager Plan” form of government. No change in Arlington’s current form of government is feasible within the time horizon in which Arlington must select Donnellan’s permanent successor.

The duties of the Manager are “administrative and executive” in nature. The County Board, NOT the County Manager, sets public policy direction.


Candidates for Arlington’s new manager will possess a wide variety of administrative and executive skills, personal qualities, and other attributes. The key principles that should guide our final choice are discussed below.

Use a transparent process to solicit Arlington citizen input

To help us make a fresh start, the County Board should establish a transparent process to solicit broad-based citizen input regarding the key skills, qualities and attributes that Arlington’s next manager ought to have.

The Board may think it’s good at doing this. Recent history, including last year’s “Public Land for Public Good” fiasco, proves the contrary. To solicit citizen input, the Board should look to the best practices of other localities. For example, the Board ought to consult the menu of Communication and Citizen Participation Techniques offered by the state of Washington.

Appoint an independent auditor reporting directly to the County Board

The Board should start planning now to appoint an independent auditor reporting directly to the County Board. Arlington citizens should be invited to suggest priority areas of inquiry for the new independent auditor. If properly managed, the results of the initial independent audits can help the Board in its choice of a new manager by highlighting areas most in need of improvement.

Conduct a nationwide search

The Board has announced that it plans to conduct a nationwide search for Donnellan’s permanent replacement. That is the right way to proceed. The new manager should not be a current Arlington County employee. This is another way to ensure a fresh look at the challenges facing Arlington.

If the best candidate to succeed Donnellan lives outside the D.C. metro area, that candidate should be required to move to Arlington as a condition of the job. If the best candidate lives within the D.C. metro area, that candidate should be strongly encouraged, but not required, to move to Arlington.

Defer final vote on new Manager until 2016

There are lots of things that should be done starting now to choose a permanent replacement for Donnellan. However, the final County Board vote to approve that choice should be deferred until after the two new Board members take office on January 1, 2016. This is another way to ensure the fresh start we need.

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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