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Peter’s Take: The County Board’s Consent Agenda Policy – No Comment

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.

At its January organizational meeting, the County Board approved a new policy governing its consent agenda.

At any County Board meeting, all consent agenda items — representing as much as 80 percent to 90 percent of the Board’s entire agenda — are passed as a group by a single Board vote and without any further review or public discussion.

In describing that change, the Arlington Sun-Gazette reported:

No longer will members of the public be able to remove any item from the County Board’s “consent agenda” for a full airing. While they will still be able to seek full discussion of items that are subject to Virginia’s public-hearing rules, in other cases members of the public will need to convince at least one board member to pull the item for discussion.

Under the current consent agenda policy, new items can be added (or changes to existing items made) and posted online less than 24 hours prior to a meeting’s start time — leaving the public and Board members with little opportunity to review new materials or changes and leaving citizens with insufficient time to ask a County Board member to pull any item now categorized as a “nonpublic” consent agenda item.

Significantly, consent agenda items may be added to the Board’s agenda in an incomplete form — for example, items may lack staff reports or essential supporting documents and information, may contain material omissions or errors of fact, or may not have met the Board’s guidelines for a full public process or review.

The County Board should reconsider its January decision

Until January 3, any member of the public could pull any County Board consent agenda item for any reason, thereby shifting that item to the regular agenda and providing an opportunity for public comment and Board discussion. To pull an item, a citizen needed only to be physically present on Saturday morning to submit a request prior to the Board’s vote on the consent agenda.

The Board changed the consent agenda policy to prevent what it considered abuse by a small number of citizen-activists. However, its new policy provides too few safeguards and too little transparency in limiting or eliminating all citizens’ ability to comment on certain items before a vote is taken.

The Board failed to seek public input or feedback before passing this significant procedural change. Had it done so, it would have been reminded of multiple historical examples documenting how important public policy matters initially placed on the consent agenda subsequently proved to merit a full Board hearing or deferral based on citizen-supplied comments or questions.

Conclusion

On March 7, the Arlington County Civic Federation unanimously passed a resolution asking the County Board to reconsider its new consent agenda policy. The ACCF resolution:

asks the Board to seek input and suggestions from the public and civic groups to create an alternative policy that allows the Board to conduct orderly meetings within a reasonable timeframe while also meeting the Board’s stated goals of improving government transparency and encouraging greater public participation in Arlington County government.

I agree. The Board should seek citizen feedback on its current consent agenda policy. Possible adjustments to this policy include limiting citizens to pulling only one item per speaker per meeting.

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