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On December 21, Arlington County’s public engagement team (led by Bryna Helfer) posted a new draft Public Engagement Guide for Capital Projects.
This latest draft incorporates feedback received from residents and County staff during 2017. Over the next two weeks (until January 18), Bryna and her team are very interested in receiving your feedback on this draft.
The latest draft guide shows promise in an area crying out for major improvements.
In late 2016, the County Manager created the Office of Communication and Public Engagement in the wake of multiple public engagement fiascos. Bryna Helfer was appointed an Assistant County Manager to lead this office.
During 2017, while Helfer and her team appropriately were conducting multiple community meetings and seeking public input on an earlier version of the guide, these fiascos continued at Nelly Custis Park and Virginia Highlands Park.
The persistence of these fiascos, many involving the Department of Parks and Recreation, underscores the urgency of approving and implementing a final guide.
As was the case with the prior draft, the latest draft raises issues, some mentioned, some not.
Strategies for different projects and policies
The final guide should be very clear that its public engagement processes also will apply to county decisions in addition to those about capital projects, like all significant new policies or plans and the annual operating budget. Each of these other types of decisions should have its own appropriately-defined and publicly-understood levels of engagement.
Project and policy definitions
If the county only asks, “where shall we put the basketball court?”, and never asks, “do you want a basketball court?”, the county and its residents are in serious trouble.
Our new public engagement resources should be focused on key priority choices which drive major amounts of budget dollars. The question should be: “We have enough money for Option A or Option B, but not both. Which do you prefer?” Statistically-valid surveys should be used in appropriate circumstances.
Arlington’s civic associations, ranging from the many superbly-managed ones all the way to some non-existent ones, always will display a spectrum of effectiveness. The county government, not civic associations, ultimately must be accountable for public engagement with respect to taxpayer-funded projects and policies.
The county should maintain a separate, interactive webpage with all information, data, assumptions and public engagement results regarding each project or policy.
Limits of public engagement
Even the best public engagement practices cannot prevent fiascos caused by other factors such as:
- Wrong policies
- Lack of proper staff training
- Changing needs
- Lack of accountability
The best public engagement practices cannot cure poor substantive policies or poor management.
If the policy is wrong, change it. If staff lacks training, train them. If needs change, then processes need to be flexible. If staff members are never disciplined, transferred, nor fired for repeated mistakes, that is a fundamental management failure.
If necessary, neutral facilitators should be employed to conduct public engagement.
No guide or plan can be perfect. However, the county must ensure that it is delivering the best possible opportunities for fair, transparent and inclusive public engagement.
The latest draft guide helpfully reflects significant improvements suggested by Arlington residents over the past year.
The May & June 2017 Friends of Aurora Highlands Park newsletter contains excellent additional public engagement suggestions.
Last week, The Washington Post published a story about newly-imposed parking restrictions on a one-block, dead-end street in the Woodmont neighborhood.
After initially receiving a complaint from one street resident, county staff decided that parking on certain narrower portions of the street should be prohibited even for residents, per the article: “Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten said that the county does not seek out violations of its parking or zoning laws but that once a complaint is filed, it is obligated to respond.”
The Post story explained that the county’s decision to ban parking was based on “rules that allow the government to ban parking on streets narrower than 21 feet (24th Street N. is only 15 feet wide in places) and concerns about how fire department vehicles could quickly get in and out.”
Arlington County staff’s solution was worse than the problem
Once county staff received the original complaint, staff were obligated to “respond” by investigating, learning about all relevant facts and circumstances, and respectfully seeking to engage with all street residents (there were only 13 homeowners) regarding possible solutions.
One of those solutions could have been: take no action. The county’s “rules,” as quoted in The Post, are not mandatory. Even if they were, the county could change them. Justifiably, when residents of the block finally found out that “most of their curbside parking was about to disappear…they were outraged.”
Understanding the character of the neighborhood puts their outrage into context:
All of the houses on the block have at least one off-street parking space. Edwards and his wife, Vicki Edwards, 80, who has an artificial knee and artificial hip, share a steep private driveway with Joe Ruth and Sharon Rogers. When it rains or snows, however, both households prefer to park on the street, which gives them easy access to their front doors. “This is definitely limiting our goal of aging in place,” said Rogers, 75, who has helped organize the street’s resistance.
After the original complainant withdrew her complaint, all street residents opposed county staff’s solution.
The squeaky wheel shouldn’t always get the grease
There are too many instances in which County staff receive a complaint or a request from an individual citizen that at first blush suggests taking an action, but after careful investigation and consideration actually deserves a no-action response.
Another example is the Nelly Custis playground request I discussed in a column a few months ago. In the Nelly Custis situation, the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation initially decided to install a 3d playground in a .8-acre park located in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood.
That neighborhood already had two playgrounds within a little over one block. DPR made that initial decision at the request of a nearby day-care provider, but without taking into account the objections of many other neighbors who preferred to retain open green space at that location in their small park.
Even the intervention of a sympathetic County Board member, John Vihstadt, didn’t fundamentally alter the outcome in Woodmont: “‘It’s sometimes hard to fight city hall, even from the inside,’ he said.”
We need a new culture at city hall: first, do no harm. Why is the current culture so often oblivious? What happened to common sense?
Ms. Minton told one resident that staff’s solution couldn’t be changed because “this ship has sailed.” This ship should be returned to port.
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.
As Arlington grows and urbanizes rapidly, conflicts are increasing among different users of our parks.
Arlington should give higher priority to open, un-programmed and natural parkland
The county government continues to demonstrate that it is not giving fair, transparent and due weight to the wishes of those who desire access to multi-use, un-programmed, open or natural spaces.
Instead, the percentage of open green space in existing parks is declining, while:
- dedicated, programmed space is increasing despite usage data not being publicly available for a transparent analysis
- uses of existing programmed space are intensifying through paving, turf, lighting, fencing, expansion, pay-per-use only and access restrictions
- not enough parkland is being acquired to accommodate residents’ needs
Some examples of prioritizing organized recreational use over other needs include:
- refusal even to consider community proposals to convert existing softball fields to un-programmed space at Virginia Highlands Park
- initial proposal to fence off entirely the diamond at Bluemont Park
- more dedicated playground space at Nelly Custis Park
- proposals to install new lights at Discovery Elementary School/Williamsburg Middle School
- a request to buy more land for open green space in Alcova Heights denied because the proposed acquisition in part was too small “which limits recreational opportunities”
These decisions are at odds with the results of the county’s 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey. That survey established that natural areas and wildlife habitats — as well as hiking trails — were two of the three most important outdoor facilities that Arlington residents want.
Best practices elsewhere do give higher priority to open green space
The best city park planning is based on the principle of the most uses for most of the community. Travel and Leisure magazine listed the World’s Most Beautiful City Parks where “for city dwellers and tourists alike, an urban park becomes a shared backyard.”
In New York City, many playgrounds and basketball courts are designed into urban space, e.g. on rooftops or located between buildings, and not into natural parkland.
New York is enormously more populated and denser than Arlington, but the principles of giving sufficient priority to natural, un-programmed spaces can and should be similar. Current efforts in Arlington appear to be designed to provide enough paved sports courts, playgrounds, and playing fields to accommodate every league, paying user and sports type – all occupying a larger percentage of our limited public parks.
In contrast, cities around the world place a high priority on their parks’ function as natural spaces interspersed and accessible throughout city landscapes: e.g., Atlanta’s BeltLine project and an excellent report from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority on sustainability and parks planning.
The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan. The Parks and Recreation Commission should propose, and the POPS Group should be directed now, to develop principles giving due weight to open green space based on best practices elsewhere.
Pending adoption of such principles, the County Board should direct the Manager to report how to prevent open green space from being short-changed.
Continued shoehorning of single-use sports fields into our limited park space guarantees increasing conflict. Applying reasonable principles of equitable expectations of use, while simultaneously expanding our parkland to keep pace with population growth, are the correct solutions for a rapidly growing county.
On December 8, Jane Rudolph, Director of Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), issued a formal apology on behalf of DPR and the County Manager’s Office. At issue were the ways in which Parks staff interacted with residents last year over a proposed additional playground at tiny Nelly Custis Park:
County staff made statements that were inappropriate and inconsiderate. The engagement within the community was not at the level that Arlington County expects to deliver to their residents. We are sorry. …We will strive to ensure that all members of the community are a critical part of the project moving forward.
Kudos to Jane Rudolph and Mark Schwartz for their forthright apology.
On the very same day, Gillian Burgess, writing in the Progressive Voice column, observed: “Arlington has the opportunity to be a national leader in developing a modern model of community engagement.” I agree.
The proposal was highly contested for several reasons — less green space, proximity to nearby homes, need and equity. Why, some asked, did Aurora Highlands need a 6th playground when 16 neighborhoods have none?
Adjacent neighbors were not notified. Follow-up meeting notifications didn’t occur. From the beginning, it appeared that Parks staff was giving undue weight to some voices, including daycare and commercial users.
Numerous community members suspected that there was something wrong with the community engagement process. This led to a January 9, 2016 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the County. Emails and other documents the County produced in response confirmed these suspicions.
The documents produced showed that:
- County staff failed to follow Arlington’s code of ethics,
- Committees failed to follow their own process guidelines,
- Persons with special interests undisclosed in the NCAC approval process worked nearly exclusively with staff, and
- Numerous efforts were pursued (both publicly and with staff) to exclude, discredit and even falsely campaign against residents including stakeholders, working group members and active civic volunteers.
The Nelly Custis Park project illustrates the serious issues that Arlington faces relating to community engagement. Three other examples are the WRAPS process in western Rosslyn, the fencing of a Bluemont Park baseball diamond and the Williamsburg fields lighting proposal.
The serious community engagement issues highlighted by all these recent controversies include:
- Lack of a needs assessment including demographic information,
- Prematurely deciding that a proposed project is needed at all,
- Properly defining the nature of the proposed project and alternatives to it,
- Providing adequate public notice to close-by residents and all stakeholders,
- Need for properly designed community surveys,
- Undue influence exercised by organized special interests, and
- Lack of fair and neutral stewardship by County staff.
The Community Facilities report analyzed why Arlington needs to do better in this area. The County’s recent hiring of Bryna Helfer as its Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement is encouraging. But the Nelly Custis controversy indicates how much new thinking, processes and leadership are needed in order for Arlington to develop a new model of civic engagement. The County apology indicates progress.
On July 19, the County Board approved another extension of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC Program). But, this program no longer can function effectively.
Arlington’s NC Program had a noble objective:
When the program was created in 1964, the goal was to empower residents by having them come together to discuss and share ideas for improving their neighborhoods.
Though nothing could sound more idyllic or representative of the “Arlington Way,” the way NC actually works in practice undermines its lofty goals. NC has problems in three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.
Equity. NC’s principal inequity — a crippling one — arises because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are being denied timely neighborhood infrastructure improvements since they live in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association. (Belonging to a civic association is an NC requirement.)
Many civic associations have modest memberships, representing just a fraction of the community’s population. Most are operated by a handful of volunteers. Quite a few lack functioning, updated websites, and still fewer are capable of producing anything approaching a newsletter. Newsletters distributed to the highest possible percentage of community members are the surest means of effective communication.
Simply put, too few civic associations are truly functional. Many are run by a few people with little knowledge of or consent from those living within the association’s boundaries. Arlington County cannot mandate that every civic association function properly.
Residents without a fully functioning civic association are barred from tapping the NC Program’s roughly $12 million annual budget.
Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive requirements, which include monthly meeting attendance–often for years–to gain “funding points,” and repeated outreach and notification efforts, mean the complete NC “process” can take anywhere from 5 to 10 years. If an association’s NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.
Project engineering, always in short supply, further delays project funding. The current status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.
Cost. Typically, delays make projects more expensive. Earlier this decade, the cap for NC projects was $250,000. Then, it grew to $500,000. In the most recent funding round, improvements to Nelly Custis Park clocked in at almost $800,000.
NC rules also add to costs. For example, NC street projects must contain curb, gutter and sidewalk components, whether or not a sidewalk is needed or desired. With flexible spending caps, expensive add-ons like lighting are common–even though Dominion will install new lights at no charge.
It’s time to provide a more equitable, timely and cost-effective way to provide critical infrastructure to neighborhoods. Back in 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. County staff has the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding.
Over the next two years, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely and re-allocate current NC Program funds.
The Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient. A more flexible Missing Links Program could be another.
The goal should be to fund critical infrastructure equitably, efficiently and in a way far superior to what is possible under the NC Program.