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Peter’s Take: Does Arlington’s Form of Government Equitably Serve All of Its Residents?

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

Among the County government’s recent blunders are its disrespectful behavior as described by residents of the historically African American Green Valley neighborhood and its erasure of Black Lives Matter supportive chalk art on Juneteenth.

The Juneteenth erasure generated justified outrage and inspiring community-wide responses.

These latest inequitable actions come on the heels of other poor County government decisions I’ve discussed recently.

Would changes in the form of our government help?

Elect 7 County Board members

Arlington’s current “County Manager Plan” form of government was adopted in 1930:

[T]he County Board elected at large meant a governing body more responsive to the needs of the county as a whole… [T]he ‘continuous, contiguous, and homogeneous’ nature of Arlington had now found expression in its form of government.

Arlington has had five County Board members elected at large ever since. But in 1930, those five members represented 26,615 residents (5,323 per Board member). Now they represent 236,842 (47,368 per member).

Alexandria — a city not a county — has seven elected representatives (including the Mayor) representing a current population of 159,428 residents (22,775 per representative).

If Arlington had seven County Board members elected at large, that would be 33,835 residents per member. Having seven members elected at large would be a significant improvement. It would provide many more opportunities for our elected leaders to hear directly what many more residents think of actual or proposed government policies and practices.

Don’t elect County Board members by district

Some residents believe Arlington should elect at least some County Board members from geographically defined districts. But, where to draw the lines? Electing members by districts would not be a net plus. There are many very important communities and issues in Arlington that have a confined neighborhood focus, but these tend to be so localized that we’d need too large an increase in the total number of County Board members. Instead, we should study the benefits/costs of adopting something like D.C.’s elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners.

Alter election times & terms

Our current five Board members are elected in a 1, 1, 1, 2 annual sequence, and serve four-year terms. The costs/benefits of alternatives should be carefully studied. The most substantial changes include simultaneous elections of all at once and/or two-year terms. I support simultaneous elections of all at once, four-year terms, and a two-term limit.

Adopt ranked-choice voting

Arlington County should exercise its recently obtained authority to adopt an ordinance providing for ranked-choice voting (“RCV”) in both County Board primary and general elections.

RCV will:

  • reduce incentives for negative campaigning and appeals to partisan extremes
  • allow independent candidates to run without the danger they will become “spoilers”
  • increase the likelihood that more moderate candidates will get nominated and elected

RCV has been successfully adopted and implemented in other heavily Democratic localities like Berkeley, California.

RCV is the reform most likely to lead to the greatest variety of diverse backgrounds and opinions among elected Board members (even if all are Democrats) — especially when combined with electing all at once.

County or City?

Former County Board member Jay Fisette recommended that Arlington should change its form of government from county to city, saying:

  • we have much more in common with cities than counties
  • the change would require General Assembly action
  • some further changes would be automatic with a city designation

One potential benefit: elected Mayors would have a better sense of what residents want by having to earn their votes. But this is a complex decision with significant costs that are “automatic with a city designation.” The city option deserves careful study by a completely independent group with no designated predetermined outcome.

Conclusion

Arlington’s 90-year-old form of government does not equitably serve all its residents. Modifying Arlington’s form of government for the 21st century is an excellent idea, but will take time. Modifying our form of government is no substitute for acting right now (including multiple necessary changes in County staff) to make our current form of government work much better for all.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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