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Should Arlington County change its form of government?

Arlington County Board “Missing Middle” work session (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Arlington County and School boards would be more competitive and diverse if they were bigger, better-paid and elected via ranked-choice voting, says a group of community leaders and former elected officials.

For about two years, members of the Arlington County Civic Federation Task Force in Government and Election Reform (TiGER) considered how to improve county politics by meeting with community members and hearing from other jurisdictions.

TiGER suggests elections where voters rank candidates by preference, with winners selected over the course of elimination rounds. It recommends expanding the five-member County and School boards to seven, paying them more, and electing three to four members every two years. To increase the boards’ sway in the region, chairs would have two-year terms, with the possibility for a second term.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity right now to improve both the electoral and governance systems of the county to ensure that both the County Board and School Board better represent our diverse community as well as promote effective citizen engagement with our county government,” Allan Gajadhar, TiGER chair and immediate past president of CivFed, told the Arlington Committee of 100 last week.

Some of these ideas are already on the table: Early next year, the Arlington County Board could consider ranked-choice voting, which Virginia has allowed since July 2021. Meanwhile, $20,000 raises for County Board members were part of the Fiscal Year 2023 county budget (for the School Board, wages sit at only $25,000 for members and $27,000 for the chair).

Instead, some attendees were interested in bigger changes, including one TiGER ultimately dismissed: district-based representation.

They pressed Gajadhar and another TiGER member, former School Board Chair Tannia Talento, to explain why redistricting won’t work. They asked if Arlington should become a city with a mayor, or if voters should elect the County Manager, who the County Board appoints.

One asked whether chairs should be elected for four-year terms, not chosen by sitting board members to lead for one year. Another expressed interest in setting aside a County Board seat or two for members of non-dominant political parties.

Problems facing Arlington today

TiGER levied heavy criticism of Arlington’s political landscape. It said the County and School boards do not adequately reflect the the county’s racial and ethnic, socioeconomic and viewpoint diversity, in part because Arlington has had five-person boards since 1930, despite the population being eight times larger today.

Elections don’t ensure proportional representation, encourage the most qualified and diverse candidates or provide competitive races in general elections, it said. Primaries and caucuses discourage people from running and voting and prevent federal employees from running.

These critiques are shared by independent County Board candidates and skeptics of how the Arlington County Democratic Party endorses candidates for the non-partisan School Board. Those who lose the caucus in the spring agree not to run unaffiliated in November, making the end result similar to a primary.

Ranked-choice voting as a cure-all

Talento and Gajadhar said TiGER’s recommendations would fix these problems more elegantly than some of the other suggestions raised during the panel.

Any change to Arlington’s form of government would require state legislative action, since legislators approved Arlington’s current County Manager form of government in 1930. They argued that adding members and implementing ranked-choice voting would be more manageable than persuading lawmakers to support a complete overhaul to Arlington’s governance.

TiGER members did consider dividing Arlington into districts — similar to the map for the House of Delegates passed in December 2021 — to improve the chances that voting blocs, such as people of color and independents, have of electing a candidate who represents them to the County and School boards.

Some supported districts for only the County Board, as School Board districts could be too complicated, given the frequent boundary changes Arlington Public Schools undertakes.

Ultimately, the math didn’t add up and districts could pit neighbors against each other, Talento said.

“Unless you had a district that was majority-minority of any given ethnicity or race, your chance of electing a person [of a given group] that would represent that district were not necessarily high when you put the math behind it,” she said.

In ranked-choice voting, meanwhile, a candidate could earn a seat by getting the second-most votes, furthering the chances of candidates who represent smaller “tribes” based on ethnicities or interests rather than geography, Gajadhar said.

Talento says TiGER “didn’t discuss moving to a form of government that would provide slots” for non-dominant parties like in neighboring D.C., where voters will pick two at-large council members this November who have to be from different parties.

But, she added, “having multiple candidates run in one election with ranked-choice voting will really help [elected officials] and candidates focus on the issues and not on the personal attacks present in today’s election processes.”

Becoming a city or electing the County Manager and board chairs

TiGER nixed the idea of changing Arlington to a city as an unlikely outcome after “a long, detailed process,” Gajadhar said.

Arlington is the smallest self-governing county in the U.S. Proponents say Arlington is more akin to Virginia cities, like Alexandria and Falls Church, is urban enough to be governed like a city, and is already often referred to as one.

They also ruled out electing the County Manager because that’s “ultimately going to a mayoral form of election,” he said.

“Without getting into the pros and cons of that, given the complexity and heavy lifting of that versus everything else we wanted to talk about and recommendations we ended up having, we decided not to consider that,” he said.

Talento said members did debate allowing voters to pick County and School Board chairs. The model could “ensure the face of both boards represents the community,” but it could also cause an ideological rift between board members or between the board and the state, causing “roadblocks” to policy making.

“It is better and healthier governance in our opinion, based on the work and discussions we had, that the chair of each board have the ability to really bring consensus in their board,” she said.

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