Arlington prides itself on citizen participation in government, but public engagement is taking a backseat to practical necessity during the coronavirus crisis.
On Wednesday, members of Arlington’s galaxy of advisory commissions and boards were told that their meetings have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
“As you may know, we issued a continuity of operations ordinance that offers some flexibility for the County Board and other appointed bodies to meet virtually — but only for decisions directly related to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and other essential continuity of business matters,” Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said in an email.
“While commissions and advisory boards do important work, it is not necessarily essential to the crisis in front of us, which is our key priority at this time; and which is the only kind of work legally covered under the ordinance we adopted,” she continued. “As of March 31, 2020, ALL Commission, advisory boards, workgroup and subcommittee meetings are cancelled until further notice. However, there may be a few exceptions that will require some additional review and approval prior to taking any actions.”
“The Arlington Way has been killed by COVID-19,” one tipster told ARLnow in response to the mass meeting cancellation.
Garvey’s email went on to outline how commission chairs can request in writing the scheduling of a virtual meeting for an item involving “business essential for addressing the coronavirus or the continuity of business operations for the County.”
The “continuity of business operations” includes “the adoption of the budget, the approval of tax rates and fees, and appropriations of funds necessary to keep government running,” Garvey clarified, in response to a series of questions from ARLnow.
Asked whether the temporary halt to commission meetings — including key bodies like the Planning Commission and Transportation Commission — will delay development approvals before the County Board, Garvey said it depends.
“The Board will assess pending applications to determine whether they should be considered or can be delayed,” she said. “If the proposals are considered, the public process for development proposals will occur to the extent possible and consideration by advisory commissions, such as the Planning Commission, will occur.
The County Board chair said that the county’s actions are consistent with an opinion issued by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring two weeks ago, in response to concern from elected officials that they were unable to comply with both the governor’s order to limit public gatherings to 10 people or fewer — and freedom of information laws that require in-person meetings that are open to the public.
“The cancellations are primarily to protect the health of commission members, staff, and the public,” said Garvey. “Matters that can be delayed are being delayed. The AG’s guidance has been considered in determining whether important matters that cannot be delayed can be considered electronically.”
“We are all learning how much FOIA and other regulations were put in place at a time when no one contemplated 21st century technology or a pandemic,” Garvey wrote in her letter to commission members.
VHC Land Swap Ready to Move Forward — “Nearly six months after a divided Arlington County Board approved a major expansion of Virginia Hospital Center, board members are set to take the next step.” [InsideNova]
DEA Finds Temporary Digs — “The Drug Enforcement Administration has found temporary space in Crystal City for its employees while its… headquarters in adjacent Pentagon City gets a major makeover. Representatives for the DEA recently applied to Arlington County for interior alteration permits to renovate three floors at 2200 Crystal Drive.” [Washington Business Journal]
Road Closures for Ballston 5K Race — “The 2019 Girls on the Run 5K Race will be held in the Ballston-Virginia Square area on Sunday, May 19, 2019. The Arlington County Police Department will implement the following road closures from approximately 8:15 AM to 10:15 AM to accommodate the event.” [Arlington County]
Carlee Defines the ‘Arlington Way’ — “‘In its most positive framing’ [the Arlington Way] means ‘engaging with the public on issues of importance or concern (not always the same) in an effort to reach community consensus or… a shared understanding and an opportunity for everyone to be heard,’ [former County Manager Ron Carlee] writes. ‘In its negative framing’ the phrase has been ‘derided as a way to talk everything to death so that ideas are killed or that people are so worn-down that by the end, they do not care what happens as long as it is just over.'” [Falls Church News-Press]
Photo courtesy @klk_photography11/Instagram
There is no single, comprehensive definition of what the Arlington Way is, but broadly, according to one county document, “the Arlington Way refers to the form citizen participation takes in Arlington County.”
It is, essentially, the way the county government — along with the school system — goes about shaping its plan and policies, through input from stakeholders like civic associations and by convening committees and commissions.
While the stated goal is inclusion and seeking input, there have been grumbles over the years that the Arlington Way is actually about getting residents to accept a preordained outcome set by elected officials or county staff.
The recent elementary school boundary process, Four Mile Run Valley planning process and Washington-Lee renaming process all featured disgruntled residents complaining about getting railroaded. In those and other controversial decisions, we’ve often heard from those involved that they felt certain cogs in the community process — committee members, consultants hired as “facilitators,” etc. — were specifically chosen to help steer the process to a desired outcome.
On the opposite side of those arguments, others who’ve talked to ARLnow have expressed disappointment in the slow, trodding pace of decision-making in Arlington. The complainers, some have said, are simply trying to slow down progress or to use the process to get their way despite being ultimately being in the minority on a given issue.
There has been a notable amount of off-the-record criticism, for instance, about the County Board dragging out the approval process for a very necessary expansion to Virginia Hospital Center. The cost to the hospital and the delay in the project, some have said, was not worth trying — unsuccessfully — to appease a handful of residents who essentially didn’t like the idea of bigger buildings in their neighborhood.
That’s not to mention the fact that serving on committees is a massive time commitment — a big “ask” of those involved — and attending civic association and County Board meetings requires setting aside considerable time as well. Thus, those serving on committees and attending meetings are often those with strong opinions about the outcome — opinions not necessarily reflective of the view of most residents unwilling or unable to put in the time.
So today we’re asking: what should be done about the Arlington Way? Should it be scrapped altogether in favor of a more streamlined process of gathering community input — online or otherwise — and then letting those elected to make such decisions do so, taking into account the input received? Or should it be kept the same or even strengthened to be more inclusive and iterative, and less deterministic?
Community Concerns Over Hospital Land Swap — Updated at 1:50 p.m. — Virginia Hospital Centers needs to expand to keep up with patient demand but the planned expansion is in a holding pattern as resident concerns are addressed. “Tracy Greiner, chair of a task force of three nearby civic associations, said the hospital has ‘failed to effectively address three years of homeowner feedback.’ Neighbors — some who’ve been in Halls Hill for three generations, others who just bought in — worry about traffic, nighttime lights and construction.” [Falls Church News-Press]
Beyer Wants Answers from FBI — Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) is requesting a meeting with the director of the FBI to discuss the investigation into the fatal shooting of Bijan Ghaisar by U.S. Park Police along the GW Parkway, to ensure that it proceeds expeditiously. Of note: “Beyer said that Arlington County, where the 911 calls came in, will not release the 911 tapes because the FBI hasn’t given them permission because it’s an ongoing investigation.” [WTOP]
Wilcox to Headline Arlington Gala — “Arlington’s own Amy Wilcox, a recording artist and star of A&E Network’s ‘Crazy Hearts: Nashville,’ will be the featured performer at the Arlington Community Foundation’s annual gala – ‘This Is Us’ – to be held April 21. The evening event will be held at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City, with funds raised being used to support the philanthropic initiatives of the foundation.” [InsideNova]
Candy Dispute Prompts Call to Police — According to scanner traffic, police responded yesterday evening to a domestic incident in which “a father is not allowing his kid to have candy and they’re all fighting.” [Twitter]
A draft plan aims to build a clearer approach for county officials engaging Arlington residents on new projects.
Staff in the county’s Office of Communication and Public Engagement put together the plan over the past four months, with the goal of enhancing the engagement process, building more trust and getting a more diverse range of participants having their say.
They met with members of the community and took feedback on the public engagement process — sometimes referred to as the “Arlington Way” — particularly around new capital projects.
A survey is now open for county residents to share their concerns on how previous processes have gone and their priorities for how public engagement can be improved. Based on staff’s preliminary sessions with community leaders, concerns have been raised about communication around projects, how costs change and the impact on nearby neighbors and businesses.
That follows a number of instances in which residents complained about a botched engagement process for projects in their neighborhoods. Examples include opposition to new baseball and softball field at Bluemont Park, which was eventually built with little controversy after a compromise was reached, and stringent opposition to the proposed relocation of Fire Station 8, which was scrapped after neighbors of the current station and the proposed new site both spoke out against it and said they were “blindsided” by the plan.
As it stands now, the draft plan would develop a template for public engagement that would better lay out the details of a project early on while also identifying stakeholders like civic associations, residents and commissions.
Throughout, the county would look to use a range of tools to communicate “early and often” about a project, including on signs, its website, newsletters, emails and postcards among others. Staff would also make an effort to show how feedback from the community influenced a project, and show a wider range of opinions on a project, including when briefing the Arlington County Board.
The plan would also look to establish a “common set of ground rules” for in-person and online discussions, all to encourage “civil dialogue and respect.” An engagement boot camp is mooted for spring or summer next year for staff, civic associations and commissions.
To increase the diversity of participants that get involved in public dialogue about county projects, staff recommended partnering with organizations to engage with “hard to reach” communities, and establishing liaisons to help out. There will also be an effort to ensure diversity on county boards and commissions.
The new plan is scheduled to launch this fall.
Bryna Helfer is trying to improve and modernize the way Arlington County communicates with its residents and businesses.
Helfer joined county government as Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement in September and has been seeking input on the county’s public outreach since.
On this week’s 26 Square Miles podcast, we asked Helfer about her position at the county, about technology and its role in updating the “Arlington Way” system of public outreach, and about why residents occasionally feel “blindsided” by the county’s decision-making process.
The following letter to the editor was submitted by Dave Schutz, a 30 year Ashton Heights residents, regarding the Arlington Way.
Dear Editor: This letter responds to the Dec. 3 Progressive Voice column by Mary Rouleau.
Ms. Rouleau suggests that recent dissension in our community shows that the Arlington Way needs to be updated, and that it’s time for an Arlington Way 2.0. Ms. Rouleau says that the current practice, even though advisory groups generally advocate the progressive options which the County should follow, does not adequately inform residents to build the necessary consensus for these options. She says it is “…important that the County government provide the public with facts that support its decisions and a description of the public purposes served by the decisions… there is a wide information gap on that set of issues alone… the County has the resources to reach more households and should be a primary source of information for explaining the use of public assets and resources..”
I agree with Ms. Rouleau that there’s an Arlington Way problem, but what I see is that the problem is basically that we have left behind the original Arlington Way 1.0, are already in Arlington Way 2.0, and this has led to the turmoil we have seen.
Arlington Way 1.0 involved the Board seeking input from citizens who brought to an issue group a wide variety of perspectives, and the Board sought a way forward which would leave most residents satisfied with the direction. It was widely popular. About fifteen years ago we shifted to Arlington Way 2.0, in which the Board would recruit mostly-advocate advisory group members whose views at the outset matched those of the County Board majority.
Since the shift, there has been a growing buzz of rejectionist comments directed toward task force products, as well as doubt and opposition from budget-minded people in civic organizations. To complete the picture, the County Board can push necessary approvals for a proposal to well before or after an election, and then claim that it’s been legitimated. Anyone who did not work the process earlier has no standing, it’s the Arlington Way, and it can’t now be changed because the board has decided. I think it would be well for our community if we went back to Way 1.0.
WTOP quoted Chris Zimmerman (a man who will never again face the voters) in Feb. 2014: “In the end, each Board member has to make a judgment about what is best for the community… Leadership is the unflinching exercise of that judgment without regard to momentary swings in popularity. I believe that the great success Arlington has had is the result of the combination of leaders who actively engage the people; listen closely to what they’re saying; and then chart a path that they, in their best judgment, believe is most likely to result in the ultimate happiness of the community; and the willingness of the people in this community to let them do so.”
I think this exemplifies the mindset which has led to Arlington Way 2.0. As an example, on the trolley, Zimmerman and his acolytes badly overestimated the willingness of the community to go down the road they had identified, and their advisory process did not adequately warn them of what was about to happen. Likewise on a number of other issues, including the Natatorium. Though the Board majority gavelled through the Affordable Housing Master Plan last month, it had been the source of a great deal of dissension — again, Arlington Way 2.0.
Ms. Rouleau suggested that the County government organize to advocate for new progressive initiatives. I’m not convinced that this would guarantee success: it’s very much what was done for the Columbia Pike trolley, hundreds of thousands of dollars went into the Mobility Lab for pro-trolley propaganda and the under-fifty thousand dollar oppositional spending of the Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit carried the day.
ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity.
USS Arlington Remembers 9/11 — The crew of the USS Arlington marked the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks while at sea in the Atlantic Ocean yesterday. The sailors and Marines aboard the ship, named in remembrance of the attack on the Pentagon, participated in a solemn ceremony to honor the 184 people who died in that attack. [DVIDS]
Travel Tips for Crystal City Wine Fest — Arlington County has car-free travel tips for those who will be attending Sunday’s Vintage Crystal Sip and Salsa festival in Crystal City. There are numerous rail lines, bus stops and Capital Bikeshare stations near the food and wine tasting event, which is taking place from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. in the parking lot behind 220 20th Street S. [Car-Free Diet]
Renovated Sheraton Now a Westin — The former Sheraton hotel at 1800 Jefferson Davis Highway in Crystal City has undergone a $20 million renovation and has now reopened as the Westin Crystal City. The hotel has “220 luxurious guest rooms and extensive meeting facilities.” [eTurbo News]
Arlington Taking Neighborhood College Apps — Arlington County is accepting applications for its Neighborhood College program through Sept. 29. The eight-week “civic engagement and leadership development program” teaches students “how to advocate for your neighborhood and effect change.” [Arlington County]
Photo courtesy Peter Roof / Alt Gobo MediaWorks LLC
‘Blog Comment Sections’ Hurting Arlington Way? — The “Arlington Way,” Arlington’s unique system of civic engagement and participation, needs to be revamped, suggests a contributor to the county’s Mobility Lab blog. The Arlington Way is “falling short,” resulting in “the drumbeat of criticism and opposition to all manner of needed investments,” writes urban planner Lisa Nisenson. She argues that the downfall of the Arlington Way is fueled by, among other factors, “the rise of unfiltered blogs” and “blog comment sections.” [Mobility Lab]
Route 50 Bike Path Now Open — A new bike path along Route 50, between Pershing Drive and Queen Street, is now open. However, riders should be cautious since “the path currently has a fair amount of debris on it.” [Ode Street Tribune]
Arlington Hosts Capital Bikeshare ‘Fiestas’ — In August, Arlington County launched a series of five special events dubbed the Capital Bikeshare Fiesta. The events allowed Capital Bikeshare representatives to reach out to Spanish speakers in Arlington with information and promotional giveaways. [Car-Free Diet Blog]
Photo courtesy Danielle Newcombe Horvath
What is the “Arlington Way,” exactly?
It’s essentially an open conversation between the local government and the people who live and work in Arlington. But the Arlington Way can mean different things to different people, as the video above seems to prove.
Last month, under the leadership of County Board Chair Mary Hynes, Arlington held launch events for the PLACE (Participation, Leadership and Civic Engagement) initiative. PLACE is Hynes’ effort to “refresh and reinvigorate” the Arlington Way.
The video above was created as part of the PLACE launch events by the Arlington Virginia Network, the county’s cable TV channel.