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The Right Note: Failing the Transparency and Accountability Test?

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.

Back in mid-March, no one could have fully predicted just how long or extensive the lockdown for COVID-19 would be.

Over the past three months, the County Board moved the most essential functions of governing to online platforms. Essential services and public safety continued largely without interruption. A modified budget moved through a revamped public comment process, though not without a couple blips. For example, the county’s pay plan set to take effect on July 1st still says County Board members will receive a raise. There has been no public announcement on how they will deliver the promised fix to prevent the raise from taking effect.

On June 9, the chairs of 25 county advisory groups wrote to the County Board and raised concerns that these avenues for public input were unnecessarily lying dormant. Despite plenty of online options, meetings were not happening at all. It was not until May that county officials unveiled a plan to determine how staff and other resources would be allocated as well as how meetings would be prioritized. Based on the county guidance, many groups may effectively be shelved for the remainder of the year.

The defenses of the County Board on Saturday rang a little hollow to the thousands of county residents who have been successfully teleworking for the past 90 days. Most of us participate in multiple video conferences every week — often multiple times on the same day. Meetings that used to take place in person simply moved online. Screen sharing is enabled. “Rules of the road” for recognition to speak are quickly developed. It has changed the way we exchange information.

Surely Arlington officials could do better than “we’re working on it” by now.

Restricting public input in this way is one concerning trend. On today’s County Board agenda is a report on the County Auditor’s work plan that should also raise some eyebrows.

For fiscal year 2021, the County Auditor is proposing new audits into COVID-19 cost reimbursement, non-profit funding allocations, housing grants, and risk management. These are all fine areas to look into for a robust audit function.

Unfortunately, the County Board never fully embraced the auditor’s role to identify waste and efficiencies on behalf of the Arlington taxpayer. They have not dedicated significant staff resources to evaluate a $1.5 billion budget on a regular basis. As a result, there have been just a handful of audits produced thus far.

According to the draft work plan for the coming year, the Auditor is suggesting they stop the audit of economic development incentives — presumably without a report. The audit was supposed to be done by the end of last year and feature a look into the taxpayer-subsidized Amazon deal. It was taking the place of a jettisoned audit of business improvement district activities which should have been done as well. If no audit is ever produced on the Amazon deal, it represents a disturbing loss of promised transparency. And it is being quietly jettisoned during this time of a pandemic and civil unrest.

The work plan is also proposing that an audit of real estate assessments and appeals be postponed until some unknown date in the future. The message from the County Board appears to be: taxpayers will just have to wait on accountability if they get it at all.

Surely the County Board can do better.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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