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Progressive Voice: Time For an Arlington Way 2.0?

by Progressive Voice December 3, 2015 at 1:15 pm 0

Mary Rouleau

By Mary Rouleau

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

Last year, I attended a workshop focused on crafting a conversation about and building public support for “the common good” in Arlington. In my view, the workshop helped counter the view that government was the problem — or at least a large part of it — in a climate of “no trust” and partisan gridlock.

While the “no trust” description readily applies to the other side of the Potomac, there have been threads of the “no trust” narrative in Arlington in recent years.

I believe Arlington has done many things right over the past 20 years, including balancing the tax base between commercial and residential sources, sustaining strong schools and crafting national best practice models of transit-oriented development, including affordable housing.

But we now face large, complex challenges, including sustained school growth, economic competition, a growing affordability gap and a large number of aging Boomers — and all must be placed in the context of limited available land.

A prior generation of Arlington leaders made tough but good decisions in leading the County. Among the best was siting the Metro underground instead of in the I-66 median. We now find ourselves with a set of “next era” decision points. Those decisions will determine where and how we go forward as a community.

Because we must make these decisions in an era of tight budgets and slower economic growth, it would not be surprising to hear sentiment along the lines of, “Why should I pay for things I don’t need?”

But Arlingtonians have, over the decades, been more sophisticated and progressive, showing a willingness to go where the facts lead, even if there is not a direct benefit to them. Perhaps the most important and consistent indicator of this is the continued support for our schools even though the vast majority of Arlington households have no direct ties to APS.

Pursuing progressive values does not require a blank check to government. And residents should be able to expect not only good outcomes, but also transparency and informed decision-making with public input of various kinds.

It is important that the County government provide the public with facts that support its decisions and a description of the public purposes served by the decisions. My experience with housing issues over the past several years has demonstrated again and again that there is a wide information gap on that set of issues alone.

Advocacy groups can play an important educational role, too, but the County has the resources to reach more households and should be a primary source of information for explaining the use of public assets and resources.

And what of the “Arlington Way” that has guided County decisions? No doubt it has been a key in the public’s support for most of those decisions.

But demographic shifts, the technology explosion, and increasing careers demands support the view that it’s time for an Arlington Way 2.0.

There was talk during the recent election cycle of the need to bring more segments of the community into the dialogue by creating more opportunities for feedback. While true, it’s not enough. We also need ways to get more information about the challenges we face into the community’s hands in a timely and a sustained way. For most issues, this will need to be an ongoing process and not a one-off exercise.

It strikes me that so much energy goes into a typical Arlington study process on the front end that little remains for the rollout. Yet for many people, the rollout is the first time they become aware that change is happening.

We can fairly expect that those who participated in the process understand the reasoning behind the recommendations and outcomes that follow. But to build and maintain a larger community consensus, it is probably even more important for good information — promoting understanding of the importance of the action and why the action serves the common good — to flow after a decision is made.

In a future column, I will discuss the importance of the just-completed Final Report of the Community Facilities Study Committee, both for its substantive recommendations and how it provides an opportunity for greater public awareness and consensus.

Mary Rouleau is a 25-year resident of Arlington. She is the Executive Director of The Alliance for Housing Solutions. This column reflects her personal views.

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