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Progressive Voice: Broadening Civic Participation

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.

By Nicole Merlene

Outside of voting, most Arlingtonians do not participate in local civic life. Even fewer study key planning documents such as the Arlington Community Energy Plan or the Rosslyn Sector Plan.

Although county plans impact large numbers of residents, a relatively small number of civic group members, commission members and political party members shape the discussion around these topics.

While our county has been blessed with a remarkable group of civic volunteers and thought leaders, there is a danger of becoming too insular.

Proactive participants who often dedicate countless hours to Arlington civic life can come to overlap among many groups and have an outsized impact on the community’s consideration of a problem, plan, or opportunity.

While it is important to create and make use of a knowledgeable base of experts and advocates, we must acknowledge that this proactive group does not necessarily represent the viewpoints of a majority of county residents. This can lead to decisions that do not take views into consideration that are necessary to achieve a result that provides maximum benefits to the county as a whole.

It is incumbent upon the County Manager’s office and the County Board to put systems in place that seek input from additional sources so that we do not rely too heavily on those that have the ability to be and are proactive in their engagement.

If, for example, there is decision affecting field space up for consideration, the times of relevant public meetings should be posted at the field, similarly to how the county posts information when road work will be done.

Associations (such as the Arlington Soccer Association) that represent sports teams that play on those fields should be notified. Notes could be sent home with students.

A goal of a representative democracy should be broad-based consensus that enhances public trust in the decision making process and makes for easier and more successful implementation of public policy decisions.

Such consensus may be easier with broader participation that does not require the many hours of continuous volunteer time that is at times seemingly required for one’s voice to be heard. A proactive approach can avoid what often happens in today’s national politics – where the conversation is dominated by activists on polar ends of the spectrum.

I will use many of my peers as an example. One-third of Arlingtonians are between the ages of 20-33, and 56 percent of housing units in Arlington are rentals. Most do not know if they will live in the D.C. Metro region for the next five years, let alone in Arlington County. Most don’t own big ticket property items such as cars or homes.

Anecdotally, I would say they are not making close to median income and are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. They have a full time job and are working long hours to improve their economic situation.

There are few hours left in the day to engage in the civic process even if one was so inclined. Most people in the 21st century want and need to receive information in direct manners that are quick, digestible, and easily interactive.

Arlington County has a population of around 230,000 and has over 3,700 full-time county employees. Although 16 people are assigned to community engagement and marketing, most work in video/media production (11) or administrative support (3).

This leaves only two employees engaging directly with local communities. While most departments will present their work to the community upon request, we need a more comprehensive plan of engagement.

In a major step forward, the County Manager has developed a Draft Action Plan for Enhancing Public Engagement, along with a public survey that has now closed. Hopefully, the final approved Plan will include a proactive effort to engage people in newer demographic groups.

Another improvement relates County Board notices of action. Key items are posted as “public legal notices” that are hardly designed for a lay person. These notices should be presented in a digestible manner.

Creating broad consensus for county actions and priorities can also be facilitated if various top level working groups are brought together annually to develop joint priorities wherever possible – and not just operate separately – to create broader County unity.

While there is much work to be done, I commend the county for working toward an action plan for enhancing public engagement with broader participation and consensus.

Nicole Merlene is a member of the Board of Directors of the Arlington County Civic Federation, the Arlington Young Democrats and the North Rosslyn Civic Association, where she serves as liaison to the Rosslyn BID. She is Associate Director of Public Policy for Invest in the USA.

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