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Peter’s Take: Toward a New Model of Arlington Civic Engagement

Peter RousselotPeter’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.

On December 8, Jane Rudolph, Director of Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), issued a formal apology on behalf of DPR and the County Manager’s Office. At issue were the ways in which Parks staff interacted with residents last year over a proposed additional playground at tiny Nelly Custis Park:

County staff made statements that were inappropriate and inconsiderate. The engagement within the community was not at the level that Arlington County expects to deliver to their residents. We are sorry. …We will strive to ensure that all members of the community are a critical part of the project moving forward.

Discussion

Kudos to Jane Rudolph and Mark Schwartz for their forthright apology.

On the very same day, Gillian Burgess, writing in the Progressive Voice column, observed: “Arlington has the opportunity to be a national leader in developing a modern model of community engagement.” I agree.

What Happened

The County’s apology concerned a proposal to spend nearly $1M of Neighborhood Conservation bond funds to construct a playground at a .8 acre park–the 3rd playground in a little over one block.

The proposal was highly contested for several reasons — less green space, proximity to nearby homes, need and equity. Why, some asked, did Aurora Highlands need a 6th playground when 16 neighborhoods have none?

Adjacent neighbors were not notified. Follow-up meeting notifications didn’t occur. From the beginning, it appeared that Parks staff was giving undue weight to some voices, including daycare and commercial users.

Numerous community members suspected that there was something wrong with the community engagement process. This led to a January 9, 2016 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the County. Emails and other documents the County produced in response confirmed these suspicions.

The documents produced showed that:

  • County staff failed to follow Arlington’s code of ethics,
  • Committees failed to follow their own process guidelines,
  • Persons with special interests undisclosed in the NCAC approval process worked nearly exclusively with staff, and
  • Numerous efforts were pursued (both publicly and with staff) to exclude, discredit and even falsely campaign against residents including stakeholders, working group members and active civic volunteers.

Lessons Learned

The Nelly Custis Park project illustrates the serious issues that Arlington faces relating to community engagement. Three other examples are the WRAPS process in western Rosslyn, the fencing of a Bluemont Park baseball diamond and the Williamsburg fields lighting proposal.

The serious community engagement issues highlighted by all these recent controversies include:

  • Lack of a needs assessment including demographic information,
  • Prematurely deciding that a proposed project is needed at all,
  • Properly defining the nature of the proposed project and alternatives to it,
  • Providing adequate public notice to close-by residents and all stakeholders,
  • Need for properly designed community surveys,
  • Undue influence exercised by organized special interests, and
  • Lack of fair and neutral stewardship by County staff.

Conclusion

The Community Facilities report analyzed why Arlington needs to do better in this area. The County’s recent hiring of Bryna Helfer as its Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement is encouraging. But the Nelly Custis controversy indicates how much new thinking, processes and leadership are needed in order for Arlington to develop a new model of civic engagement. The County apology indicates progress.

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