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Typo causes hassle for county, prompts critique of public notice law’s limits

Board Chair Katie Cristol during the Tuesday, Feb. 15 County Board meeting (via Arlington County)

(Updated 3:45 p.m. on 2/22/22) A typo in a recent public hearing notice has had some larger consequences for Arlington County.

The error — an incorrect date printed on posters around town — also sparked a County Board discussion yesterday (Tuesday) about finding more effective ways to communicate with residents about upcoming hearings and projects.

This is a recurring conversation for Board members, who have now critiqued the county engagement processes for being neither penetrative nor inclusive enough.

Currently, the county posts signs at and near near the sites of future land-use projects, per its zoning ordinances. It also prints advertisements in the Washington Times newspaper to meet state public notice laws.

The fliers posted this time around bore the wrong date: Feb. 19, or this Saturday, instead of Feb. 12, when the County Board actually met.

As a result, most of the hearing items impacted — including plans for a church moving to Ballston, a new daycare coming near Clarendon and a private school opening in a church near Crystal City — will be rescheduled for a meeting on Saturday, March 19.

A hearing for the Marbella Apartments, a forthcoming affordable housing project near Rosslyn, will be heard at a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. so that the project can meet an early March deadline to receive tax credits from Virginia Housing.

Those who spoke at the Saturday meeting will have their comments entered and don’t need to return, officials said.

“Unfortunately, [for] this error — which anyone can make an error like that — we didn’t have redundancy, which is something we’re going to address immediately,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said. “We’re going to be immediately improving our process to address this.”

Only one person reviewed the dates before the printed placards went out, he said. The newspaper advertisement, meanwhile, had the correct date, but County Board members mused about whether putting legal notices in the Washington Times, a conservative daily newspaper with a circulation around 50,000 in the D.C. area, is effective.

“This invites the question of not just ‘What went wrong here?’ but ‘What could go better in the future?'” Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey said. “Many have long decried our practice of advertising in the Washington Times, given its relatively low circulation in the county. While it meets the legal requirements, it doesn’t necessarily meet the spirit of broad notice.”

In Arlington, Board Chair Katie Cristol said, the challenge is that the county can choose broad circulation and additional expense with the Washington Post or low prices with the Washington Times.

She said she “would love” to advertise with an online news source, but state law mandates that such notices be placed in print publications.

“We have at least one of those where a lot of Arlingtonians get their news,” Cristol said. “We are constrained by state code from doing that — and some very effective lobbying from what I understand is the Virginia print industry, which is very interested in keeping that requirement the same.”

Virginia Press Association Executive Director Betsy Edwards says the current system “works very well for the majority of the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Legal notices go in a newspaper’s print product and on the newspaper’s website as well as on a statewide website run by the association, she said. A printed ad provides an option for communities where internet access disparities exist and it helps publications meet a requirement to provide an affidavit certifying the notice ran when and how often it was supposed to run.

“We’re supportive of the way it is, and we know it reaches the greatest number of people,” she said. “A lot of important government actions are taken and [newspapers] are the public’s window into what the government is doing or about to do.”

Del. Patrick Hope tells ARLnow he wants jurisdictions to be able to place public notices with digital media groups, if they choose, so that they reach a broader swath residents. (Disclosure: Such a change could financially benefit this publication.)

Hope’s bill to allow for this failed in 2020 and the issue, for now, is on the back burner — until he can get more votes.

“The thing about the current law… [is] it flies in the face of putting notices in a place where people see them,” he said. “You know people read other outlets, and they do it to comply with the law.”

Under the legislation he previously proposed, jurisdictions would have to advertise with sites that have high enough readership rates, revenue and publication frequencies.

“The future is online… If you look at this issue five to 10 years down the road, it’s going to be a non-issue. That’s where the people are,” he said. “I’ll make another run of this.”

Meanwhile, Arlington’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development Planning Director Anthony Fusarelli, Jr. says his staff will be exploring options for putting up more eye-catching, illustrative signage at project sites.

“We could, and probably should, do better in terms of how to get signage out into the public realm to allow more people to understand what’s proposed for a property,” he said.

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