Arlington, VA

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.

By Katie Cristol and Matt de Ferranti

In a conference call, Progressive Voice editors asked Arlington County Board members Katie Cristol and Matt de Ferranti about their insights on the challenges of being a leader in local government during the trying time of the COVID-19 epidemic.

PV: Tell us about the challenge of making pressing leadership decisions, such as on the County budget, when there are fewer known facts, data and projections about 2021 and beyond.

MD: This isn’t an easy budget. In normal years, we have about 10-12 budget work sessions. You have time to learn, synthesize. This year, the fiscal reality has changed during the middle of the process, so it’s challenging to accept the new reality and adjust quickly.

Ultimately, we have to focus on values and what we must do: keeping people safe, making sure people are not evicted, and meeting our commitments and basic human needs. So we will do a pretty basic budget, and in the coming year, may come back and make adjustments. It’s a dynamic environment.

KC: It helps that Arlington’s fiscal fundamentals are still strong. Arlington is in very good fiscal health–such as our bond rating, our fully funded pension plan. What we are really talking about is lost opportunities–the investments we hoped to have made in this budget to attract good people to work here, expand human services, expand our capacity to fix street lights more quickly.

There may be harder times ahead. But what enables me to tell residents we can weather the pandemic as well as the economic challenges is that the fundamentals are still there. We have excellent public health and emergency response teams. We have staff who were with us during 9/11, during the recession starting in 2008. Our public health director got us through H1N1. I hope people feel confident by the amount of expertise brought to bear. We [County Board] are the faces on policy, but a lot of the pandemic response is at the professional expert level.

KC: I was reading through comments, a chat that the county manager did with staff, and it was a reminder of how dedicated the people who work for government are…. EMS, Fire are top of mind but also people who administer food stamps…they are risking their own safety to do that.

PV: What ways have you found to balance necessary health and safety (such as physical distancing) with the desire to shore up the economy, small business and workers? Any new insights about the role of government?

MD: Local governments and state governments have had to step forward, particularly because of an absence of leadership from the federal government, so the breadth of what local government can do is more clear to me than ever. There is an opportunity for innovation as we seek to serve all of our residents well.

KC: At the policy level, we’ve been providing small business technical assistance through BizLaunch, trying to help owners navigate SBA loans.

KC: We’ve been wrestling with how to support our restaurants, which are hurting so deeply. Very quickly, DES [Department of Environmental Services] traffic management set up free parking zones marked with signs outside the restaurants. Those are safer and easier for people [to pick up takeaway orders].

Doing things so quickly now will carry over to expecting it to always be so quick. When people discover how quickly we can do these changes…[laughs] without so much public engagement. People are used to [a long time of] hashing out pros and cons for something like curb space management.

PV: Will there be lingering after-effects on public engagement, move more quickly after the emergency passes?

MD: I think there will be some changes in public engagement. People will still want input and we will engage fully, but I think we will evolve a bit, so our input is both thorough and effective in making sure we hear from our whole community.

PV: What are examples you’ve seen of empathy from local leaders? And when you yourselves run into individuals who are concerned about health, safety, finances?

MD: Neighborhood blogs and social media have helped connect people in need with services, bringing out the best in people. Teachers have raised more than $220,000 for kids on hunger, Randolph has its own food pantry. The challenge has increased the number of people who care about hunger as an issue, countywide, helping us focus on this issue.

KC: These personal stories, they’re informing our policy. For example, where AFAC traditionally requires a referral for their services, we’re increasing funds so they can serve anyone. Or our economic assistance fund…we’ve increased funding there so that the usual income requirements can be relaxed.

MD: With a person worried about difficult times, our first obligation is to be fully prepared on the facts. We must make sure they know we understand the facts and the issues they are dealing with in this really hard moment. We also have a duty to tell the truth: we know social distancing helps, but this is a serious virus and minimizing infections is essential. And, ultimately, we must reassure people that they are not alone, we can focus on doing our part, and that we can all help neighbors to the extent we can do so safely.

PV: Any “silver lining” discovery you’ve made during the time of COVID-19 crisis?

KC: I am five years into this job and still really humbled to be of service. By having access to experts, we get the extraordinary opportunity to be of use to others.

MD: The power of the telephone, when I want to get people’s thoughts, and can’t meet in person and the compassion that we are capable of. We often do many in-person meetings, but you really can make a difference when you work via phone in moving forward on an issue.

As far as compassion, when I drive by Trader Joe’s and see people standing exactly on the tape 6 feet away from each other, it is clear we care about ourselves and each other. That’s not to say that everything’s perfect, but people are trying, and that’s a testament to our community.

KC: I hope this will have the consequence of helping me stay focused on basic values, like helping those who are vulnerable, isolated, economically unstable…it’s easy to lose that focus when mired in the details of say, the residential parking permit program. I hope this emergency reminds us all of staying focused on what local government and community mean.

Matt de Ferranti began his service on the Arlington County Board in 2019. Katie Cristol began her County Board service in 2016.

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