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The Right Note: Public Engagement Milestone

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Last week, County Manager Mark Schwartz put out a new “Six-Step Public Engagement Guide for Capital Projects.” The county press release called it a “major milestone.”

County staff will find no objection to a more clearly defined path to consider large scale infrastructure projects. And the process will certainly provide a good path for projects that everyone will generally agree on the need for, but maybe need just need a little tweaking that comes from public input.

But as Mike Tyson once said about boxing, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In other words, the true test of the guide is what happens when a project turns out to be controversial.

In the case of a controversial project, how will county staff address negative feedback that present major obstacles to move through the six steps?

If, at the end of the engagement process, the staff and elected officials are unable to address concerns in a way that the community feels good about, will county staff just step up the public relations effort to tell Arlingtonians why the project is a good thing? And under what circumstances will the County Board move forward with the project anyway?

What about putting a policy in place to bring the biggest projects to a straight up or down vote with the public? A standalone vote at a threshold borrowing amount of $25 million for a single project does not seem too much to ask. If a majority of the voting public feels the project is worthy, they will approve it.

Finally, what accountability is there for a project that doesn’t live up to its promises? For example, what if the county subsidy for a new aquatics center doubles, or triples over estimates? This is the type of thing that happened when it came to the Artisphere.

Over the years, we have heard a lot about how the government will listen to the public and be held accountable to the public. Every time a member takes over the gavel to chair the County Board, the subject is incorporated into their speech.

Two years ago, the County Board unceremoniously terminated a proposed “Blue Ribbon Panel” that would have provided independent citizen input into county priorities up front. The county auditor has not been given adequate resources to embark on a scope of work that would result in real accountability.

The true test for the County Board moving forward is how they take into account advice, input and accountability that is truly independent of the county manager, not whether there is an avenue to offer it.

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