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Peter’s Take: Improve Civic Engagement by Adopting a ’72-Hour Rule’

Peter Rousselot

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 ARLnow.com.

In January, I discussed 10 steps that the County Board should take in 2017 to improve Arlington’s model of civic engagement. I noted that the goal should be to reach the broadest possible consensus and ensure a legitimate, fact-based process to inform real-time decision-making.

To achieve this goal, the County Board should adopt an additional reform often called the “72-hour rule.”

Discussion

During their 2015 election campaigns, County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol and County Board member Christian Dorsey each expressed support for the 72-hour rule. In January 2017, County Board member John Vihstadt supported an alternative version he described as the 48-hour rule.

The County Board should formally adopt the 72-hour rule for all significant Board votes.

Under this rule, all critical supporting documents underlying any agenda item for which a significant Board vote is scheduled must be sent to all Board members and posted on the County website at least 72 hours before the meeting at which the vote is scheduled.

At a minimum, a “significant Board vote” should include votes on any of the following:

  • Approval of any contract, agreement, appropriation, grant, plan, project or budget committing $1 million or more of taxpayer funds,
  • Site plans/amendments review,
  • Ordinances, plans and policies, and
  • Acquisition of private property or the sale/vacation of public property.

At a minimum, “critical supporting documents” should include all information, reports, presentations and recommendations from County staff, consultants, advisory bodies or applicants. Any history of previous Board votes on the item should be included.

Once approved and if County staff fails to comply with the 72-hour rule, then postponement of the Board’s vote on the item would be required unless at least four Board members vote to waive the 72-hour requirement in case of emergency.

Why should the Board adopt the new rule?

Arlington citizens, taxpayers and Board members themselves have a right to receive transparent, complete and timely information before significant government decisions are made and actions are taken. Without timely access to complete information, the public lacks a reasonable opportunity to communicate with elected officials before a vote is taken.

Seventy-two hours permits elected officials sufficient time to review all supporting agenda documentation–running anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pages–for final and last-minute changes before making decisions. Based on past experience, significant Board votes almost always rely upon very extensive and complex documentation.

Likely arguments against the new rule lack merit.

The County Manager, County Attorney and staff might oppose the new rule, arguing that it might require extra work. Such arguments lack merit. No extra work will be required. The same work simply needs to be completed earlier. If that is not feasible in a particular case, then the vote should be postponed.

Though the Manager and staff also might argue that Board members already receive briefings much earlier than the 72-hour rule would require, this argument misses at least two critical points:

  • Even if such briefings occur, without this rule the public lacks the 72-hour minimum access to review the underlying documentation, and
  • Last-minute, substantive changes in the underlying documentation often deny Board members sufficient access.

Conclusion

Adopting the new 72-hour rule offers far greater benefits–transparency and accountability–than any costs it might entail.

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