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The Right Note: Erosion of Trust

Mark Kelly

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Earlier this week, ARLnow ran a piece on Barbara Donnellan’s comments on the loss of public trust in relation to big ticket projects. The entire video interview with Donnellan provides an interesting insight into how the former County Manager did her job. Donnellan had 32 years of experience in the Arlington County government, so she has a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge to share.

As she began to talk about public trust, Donnellan said it was her role to listen, and help those who wanted to invest in our community. Kudos to Donnellan for taking this approach to her work.

The discussion turned to light rail, aquatics center, Artisphere and the Arlington Way. For Donnellan, the failure of these projects came down in large part to the erosion of the people’s trust of government at all levels.

She is exactly right. But it is not the people’s fault for not trusting government. Government at all levels continues to take more of our money, or take on more debt, and cannot seem to get the basics of government right.

 In Arlington’s case, instead of focusing on infrastructure, safety and schools, our elected leaders appeared focused on spending hundreds of millions on light rail and other shiny objects.

Donnellan cited the organized effort spreading misinformation for the downfall of the streetcar. After knocking on doors to talk to people in two elections for County Board, it was clear to me the organized effort merely synthesized already existing opposition in the community. While Donnellan may have been doing a good job listening to those with business before the County Board, she and the Board either missed this widespread opposition or chose to ignore it.

Donnellan went on to say that the only reason the aquatics center is not being built is that the bids came in to high. Exactly. The price tag kept going up all throughout the process to the point where the Board is now unwilling to go back to the public to ask for more borrowing authority.

A final revealing part of the conversation centered on the bailout of the Signature Theater. Donnellan admitted the reason for the bailout was that the County did not know the original deal they sold to the community was simply never workable. This is not unlike the over-promise, under-deliver problems the Artisphere had.

Is it any wonder that the public’s trust has eroded?

It should now be clear to our elected leaders that we have reached the point where the community is going to ask how much is too much for a swimming facility or insert boondoggle here, when we are still losing parts under our cars by hitting potholes? We want them to get the basics right first, then ask for the extras.

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