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Progressive Voice: Questions for 2016

Larry RobertsBy Larry Roberts

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

If you are an Arlington County Board member, you get up early on New Year’s Day for the annual County Board organizational meeting. It’s what you do.

This longstanding tradition reflects the importance of government in Arlington, the County’s history of civic engagement, a desire to “hit the ground running” by identifying early the priorities that Board members plan to pursue during the year.

One of the first acts by the Board every new year is to elect a Chair and Vice Chair.

In recent decades, the choices have been fairly obvious. Not so in 2016. The new Board includes two newly-elected Democratic members casting their first votes, two incumbent Democrats who have not always seen eye to eye, and a Republican-endorsed independent who won his seat with the support of Democratic Board member Libby Garvey and a fusion coalition.

In the end, Libby Garvey won the Chair position by a unanimous vote. Jay Fisette, the longest serving Board member was elected Vice Chair on a unanimous vote.

Following those and some other organizational votes, Chair Garvey set forth her priorities for 2016 followed by the other Board members.

While the unanimous Chair and Vice Chair votes suggested a cohesiveness among the Board members, the individual remarks about priorities suggested an interesting dynamic in the year ahead.

There were many positives expressed about Arlington, as well as areas of agreement about transparency, efficiency, rebuilding public trust, keeping Arlington a welcoming community, and new ways to involve residents in County decision-making.

Yet our five Board members bring independent perspectives with strong and engaging personalities, are able to articulate those perspectives clearly and with conviction, have constituencies that are not identical, and were each elected in years where the mood of the electorate differed from the years when other colleagues were elected.

Most observers would acknowledge that Arlington is in a time of transition. The historically important role of the federal government is changing, and Arlington’s share of federal dollars is less secure. We have changing demographics. Our unemployment rate remains very low, but we have higher than normal commercial vacancy rates. We have outstanding schools, but those schools are a magnet for more families and require greater resources. We have increasing demands on our facilities because Arlington remains a very attractive place to live and work. And housing prices continue to rise even though the incomes of many long-time Arlingtonians are not keeping pace.

The Board reflects that transition and — like Arlington’s residents — they have differing perspectives on how to respond to the changes in the County.

Observing the Jan. 1 meeting brought some questions to mind:

  • Will the Board develop a consensus approach that results in 5-0 votes on key issues and priorities?
  • If not, will a reliable bloc of three — or four — votes develop that sets the agenda? Which Board members would make up that bloc? Or will there be shifting majorities depending on the issue?
  • Will the Board be able to develop strong consensus views in order to maximize the County’s effectiveness in influencing federal, state and regional government decisions?
  • The Washington Post suggested that on Jan. 1 the Board “signaled that its priorities in the famously progressive community may turn toward the right.” Is that a fair characterization of the Board’s intentions? If so, does that accurately reflect the wishes of County residents?
  • Will we continue to see a level of cooperation and coordination between the County Board and the School Board that maximizes the effectiveness of our public schools, yet does so in cost-effective ways?
  • How will “core services” be defined? Is there a community consensus in that regard? In the past, Arlington has defined core services to include a range of values and services that have made Arlington an attractive place to live and contributed to economic and revenue growth. Many of those values and services enjoy broad support in the community. Will those values be considered “core services”?
  • Will Arlington’s economic development efforts keep pace with other jurisdictions? Will sufficient resources be available?
  • How will the Board’s common desire to keep Arlington affordable for people of all income levels — including fixed incomes — mesh with market forces that move the County in the opposite direction?

During a time of transition, there are many questions. These are a few. I welcome other questions by commenters.

Larry Roberts is a 30-year resident of Arlington and an attorney in private practice. He chaired two successful statewide campaigns and is a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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