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Arlington Often Charges Hefty Fees to See Public Records, Or Fails to Respond to Requests

In recent weeks, Arlington County and its school system have sought to charge ARLnow hundreds of dollars to fulfill public records requests, or simply not responded to them — and others around the county have noticed similar issues accessing public documents.

The county has asked for more than $1,140 in all to provide records in response to three requests by ARLnow under the Freedom of Information Act, using accounting practices that raised eyebrows at one of Virginia’s open government watchdog groups. In another case, Arlington Public Schools has gone more than a month before providing any response to an ARLnow FOIA request, missing a state-mandated deadline by weeks.

Other reporters and political activists told ARLnow they’ve received even larger bills, or similarly been stumped by radio silence from the county on the requests.

Virginia’s FOIA, designed to open up public documents for public inspection, has frequently been criticized by transparency advocates for its litany of exemptions allowing government officials to withhold vast swaths of information from disclosure. Rather than claiming any of those exemptions in these instances, however, the county could be running afoul of the law itself.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, was particularly taken aback by the size of the fees the county has sought to assess ARLnow. While the FOIA does allow government agencies to “make reasonable charges” to offset costs associated with tracking down the necessary documents, Rhyne expressed bewilderment at some of the county’s tactics for calculating those fees.

For instance, in response to one ARLnow request for six months worth of data on Arlington Transit service, the county estimated that a “management analyst” would need to spend 13.5 hours searching for records that could match ARLnow’s request, at a rate of $40.39 per hour.

Then, the county said an “associate planner” would need to spend three hours on the request, at a rate of $35.95 per hour. Finally, the “acting transit services manager” would spend an hour on the work, to tack on another $40.76.

“That’s a LOT of time,” Rhyne wrote in an email. “And what will the ‘associate planner’ need to take three hours to do different from the analyst? And then the ‘manager.’ What do any of them DO as part of this process? That’s three layers, with more than 17 of those hours going to people all making over $74,000/year.”

Rhyne points out that “the amount of the fees charged does not tell the whole story,” noting that what’s really important is how the county arrived at those figures. But if Arlington is adding unnecessary steps to the process, she says that wouldn’t match up with the law’s requirements.

“Fees must represent the actual cost to the government, and the costs must be reasonable,” Rhyne said.

It’s difficult to pin down, however, just how often the county is assessing such large fees for FOIA requests.

Logs released through a separate ARLnow FOIA request show that the county charged an average of $28.50 to respond to records requests over the first six months of this year — however, those logs do not include fees assessed on requests that weren’t completed, meaning people could be choosing not to move forward with a request if the price tag is too steep. The logs do show that the county’s completed five requests with fees of $100 or more from January through the end of June, including ones with fees of $316, $550 and $614.50.

Other would-be requesters around the county say such large fees are not unusual, however.

Matthew Hurtt, a local Republican activist, says the county sought to charge him more than $1,100 when he asked for email correspondence related to Arlington’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. He says even a “significantly refined” request came with a fee north of $900.

Jonathan O’Connell, a reporter with the Washington Post, says the county wanted to charge him $319.55 for Amazon-related documents — and even if he’d paid, officials informed him they’d be claiming an exemption to withhold all the information anyway.

“Arlington actually gave me a pretty similar response to what other Virginia jurisdictions gave me, which is nothing of value,” O’Connell told ARLnow. “I didn’t pay them because they told me they weren’t going to to give me anything related to HQ2.”

In other cases, the county’s responses have been confusing or non-existent.

Roshan Abraham, an activist with Our Revolution Arlington, filed a request on July 30 for documents related to the county’s incentive package to bring Nestle to Arlington, but didn’t hear back from the county for weeks. When informed by ARLnow that documents posted to the county’s website on Aug. 17 could match his request, Abraham said he never received any communication from the county about it, and that some documents he’d asked for remain missing.

Similarly, county transit bureau chief Lynn Rivers told ARLnow in early August that staff had erred when they attached a $323 fee to a June 29 request for two months’ worth of Arlington Transit data. She pledged to deliver the documents free of charge, but even after several calls and emails seeking clarity, ARLnow hasn’t received any response.

And in the case of the school system, officials have yet to respond to a July 30 request from ARLnow seeking documents related to plans to rename Washington-Lee High School.

The FOIA calls for officials to respond to requesters within five “working days,” and either detail whether the records are available or ask for more time to track them down. Linda Erdos, Arlington Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for school and community relations, wrote in an email on Aug. 21 that she’d provide such a response the following day.

After two follow-up emails to Erdos since then, ARLnow still has yet to receive any answer.

File photo

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County Hands Over Half of Cash Incentives Promised to Nestle for Rosslyn Move

Nestle is now in line to earn half of the $4 million in local grants Arlington promised the company in exchange for moving to Rosslyn, after meeting the county’s targets to qualify for the incentives.

In all, the packaged food giant will receive $12 million in cash and infrastructure improvements after agreeing to relocate its corporate headquarters to 1812 N. Moore Street last February. But the money did come with some strings attached, forcing the company to prove that it will create 748 new jobs with an average annual salary of $127,719 in the county and lease at least 205,000 square feet of office space by the time 2020 arrives.

Only $4 million will come from the county itself, through a “Economic Development Incentive” grant, while a $6 million state grant and $2 million in nearby infrastructure construction round out Arlington’s deal with Nestle. Even still, the grants have become a hot-button political issue around the county, with plenty of observers questioning whether the incentive money might’ve been better spent elsewhere.

So far, at least, the company seems to be holding up its end of the bargain. According to documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request, Nestle has created and maintained 358 new jobs at the Rosslyn office, and has leased 229,000 square feet of space in Rosslyn through June 30. Daniel Nugent, chief legal officer and general counsel for the company, signed a July 18 affidavit attesting to those statistics.

That means the company has well exceeded its office space requirement to earn the grant money, but fell just short of the 374 new jobs it needed to create by the time June 30 rolled around.

However, Cara O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Arlington Economic Development, noted that the company only needed to hit 90 percent of the grant’s requirements to earn the money. Accordingly, the county will now release $2 million to Nestle.

“This year, Nestle achieved 95 percent of its new jobs target and 111 percent of its facility lease target, well above the 90 percent required in each category,” O’Donnell told ARLnow. “They are currently meeting targets as required.”

Josh Morton, a spokesman for Nestle, added that the discrepancy in the job figure is because “the number is always changing as more people are hired in Arlington.” In July and August alone, he says the company hired another 125 employees.

Though she generally remains “skeptical” of such relocation incentives, County Board Chair Katie Cristol thinks “it’s great, but not a surprise to know that Nestle is performing consistently with those expectations.” She attributes that to the work of county staff to “develop an incredibly conservative incentives program where we can see a very clear and really significant return on investment in any incentive we make.”

“We’re not going to do something speculative where we’re giving away the public’s money without a lot of confidence that we’ll see that money return to us well in orders of magnitude beyond what we invested,” Cristol said.

Cristol is well aware what kind of controversy the Nestle incentives kicked up after the Board approved them last year, and how the prospect of similar grants going to Amazon to bring HQ2 to Arlington has roiled the community.

So while she does remain “a little uneasy” about the prospect of “a community like Arlington, that has so much else to offer, seeking to offer cash incentives,” Cristol thinks the Nestle deal does show that these grants can work, if managed properly.

“We’re delighted to have Nestle here, they’ve been a great partner in the community already,” Cristol said. “And in the long term sense… we’re going to be really gimlet-eyed about continuing to look at all over those targets and looking at the return on investment over the life of any deal we put together.”

Nestle will next report back to the county on July 15, 2019 to affirm that it’s indeed created all 748 jobs it promised for the Rosslyn office.

File photo

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Morning Notes

County HQ Renovation Vote Delayed — The Arlington County Board last night agreed to defer consideration of renovations to county government headquarters until April. The Board will discuss the “‘opportunity costs’ for the $10 million in rent abatements that will fund part of the renovation project,” in the context of the current county budget discussions, according to Board Chair Katie Cristol. [Twitter]

Arlington Declines Amazon FOIA Request — A Freedom of Information Act request for more information about the county’s Amazon HQ2 bid, sent from the Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell, was denied on the grounds that the information was “exempt from disclosure.” At the County Board meeting this past weekend, several speakers called on the county to release more information about what it has offered Amazon. [Twitter, WTOP]

Letter: APS Should Revise Gym Shorts Policy — Eighth-grade students wrote a letter to the editor encouraging Arlington Public Schools to revise its policy on girls’ gym shorts. Per the letter: “The shorts we are required to wear by the school system cause many of us embarrassment because the wide, open legs allow others to see our undergarments, especially during floor exercises. Additionally, the current gym shorts are too big for petite girls.” [InsideNova]

Arlington TV Now in HD — “You can now watch Arlington TV (ATV), the County’s government cable channel, in high definition (HD) on Comcast Xfinity. From live County Board meetings to original programming about Arlington, viewers with HD sets can now watch the same programming on Channel 1085 on Comcast Xfinity’s HD tier.” [Arlington County]

Auditor Releases Report on ECC Overtime — Arlington County Auditor Chris Horton has released a report on overtime incurred by the county’s Emergency Communications Center, which handles 911 calls and dispatches first responders. The ECC’s overtime costs were about $1.4 million last year. Horton found that “a more efficient training process could result in greater staffing efficiency, and potentially reduce overtime expenses.” [Arlington County]

Four Phases of Snow Removal — For those who need a reminder after this anemic winter, a YouTube video explains the county’s four-stage snow removal process. [YouTube]

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Morning Notes

Instant Runoff Bill Fails in Richmond — It appeared to be headed toward potential passage, but a bill to allow Arlington County to hold instant-runoff elections for County Board was referred to another committee on a 51-49 House of Delegates vote and is effectively dead for 2018. [InsideNova]

Arlington Denies Request for 911 Recording — “Arlington County has denied a request from the family of Bijan Ghaisar to release the 911 call made after a hit-and-run crash he was involved in, before a police chase ended with U.S. Park Police fatally shooting him.” [Covering the Corridor, WTOP]

ARLnow on Kojo — ARLnow founder Scott Brodbeck will discussing the state of local news on the Kojo Nnamdi Show today. The show airs at noon on WAMU 88.5 FM. [Kojo Nnamdi Show]

A-SPAN Celebrates Quarter Century — The Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, which started as a grassroots effort to address local homelessness, recently marked its 25th anniversary with a fundraiser and celebration in Rosslyn. [InsideNova]

Email List Hits 10K — ARLnow’s email newsletter mailing list crossed the 10,000 mark on Monday. Thank you to all of our subscribers, who are receiving our headlines free of social media filters. (ARLnow’s Twitter account reached 40,000 followers in December and our newly-verified Facebook account is on the verge of 24,000.)

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Morning Notes

ARLnow’s Eighth Birthday — Today is the eighth anniversary of the founding of ARLnow.com. Here is our first post ever.

Sexual Harassment FOIA Folo — In a follow-up to our FOIA request seeking any records of sexual harassment or assault allegations against senior Arlington officials since 2000 — no such records were found — we asked about any such cases, against any county employee, that were handled by the County Attorney’s office over the past decade. The response from the county’s FOIA officer: “There are no records responsive to your request because no such cases exist.” The last publicly reported case was that against an Arlington police officer in 2007.

Vihstadt Launches Re-election Bid — Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt made it official last night: he is running for re-election. Vihstadt, who is running as an independent, has picked up at least one Democratic challenger so far. However, he again has the backing of a number of prominent Democrats, including fellow Board member Libby Garvey, Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and Treasurer Carla de la Pava. [InsideNova]

County Accepts Millions in Grant Funds — “The Arlington County Board today accepted $17.85 million in grant funding from three transportation entities that will be used for transit, bridge renovation and transportation capital projects in the County.” Among the projects is a new west entrance for the Ballston Metro station. [Arlington County]

County Board Accepts Immigration Donation — “The Arlington County Board today accepted a resident’s anonymous donation for a Citizenship Scholarship to help Arlingtonians pay the $725 federal application fee charged to those seeking to become U.S. citizens.” [Arlington County]

Man Convicted of 7-Eleven Robberies — A man arrested last year for a string of robberies has been convicted by a federal jury of three armed robberies and an armed carjacking. Among the crimes were two armed robberies of 7-Eleven stores in Arlington. [Alexandria News]

Arlington Lauded for Solar Program — The U.S. Department of Energy has named Arlington County a “SolSmart” community “for making it faster, easier and more affordable for Arlington homes and businesses to go solar.” [Twitter, Arlington County]

Flickr photo by John Sonderman

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County: No Record of Recent Sexual Harassment Cases Involving Senior Officials

Arlington County’s Dept. of Human Resources has no record of any allegations of workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault against senior county officials over the past 18 years.

That’s the response ARLnow.com received to a Freedom of Information Act request, filed in the wake of a wave of sexual misconduct allegations in Hollywood, politics and the news business.

The recent #MeToo awakening started with explosive allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and has since spread, with dozens of prominent men from Kevin Spacey to Matt Lauer to Rep. John Conyers Jr. facing accusations that have led to firings and resignations.

One common thread: often the men accused of serious wrongdoing — from rape to harassment — were in positions of authority, which they used against their victims.

ARLnow wanted to see if anyone in a position of high authority within Arlington County government has been accused of sexual harassment or assault since 2000. At first we asked a county spokeswoman, who then directed us to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

Here’s the response we received to our FOIA filing:

This letter is in response to your Virginia Freedom of Information Act request for details of any allegations, known to Arlington County’s Human Resources Department, of sexual assault or sexual harassment against Arlington County elected officials or senior staff members (director level or above) since 2000.

Please note, pursuant to Virginia Code Section 2.2-3704(B)(3) the requested records could not be found or do not exist.

Thank you for contacting this office.

Sincerely,

Ina Chandler
Arlington County FOIA Officer

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Here’s a Glimpse at the Schedules of Arlington County Board Members

County Board member Libby GarveyArlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey recently started a discussion about whether Board members should be better paid.

County Board members make just over $50,000 a year for what is considered part-time work. But in reality, Garvey says, Board members spend full-time hours studying and discussing the issues, attending community events and taking meetings, in addition to the long hours spent conducting County Board meetings and work sessions multiple times per month.

With Arlington’s high cost of living, a $50,000 a year salary may give otherwise qualified County Board candidates a strong economic disincentive to run.

(It should be noted that the earliest the County Board could enact a pay raise for themselves is 2020.)

On the other hand, some argue that there have been no shortage of candidates running for County Board and that the office does not necessarily have to be a full-time endeavor.

So what are County Board members spending their time on? A daily schedule for County Board members, obtained by an Arlington resident under the Freedom of Information Act and provided to ARLnow.com, provides a glimpse of Board members’ working schedules during the last three months of 2015.

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Morning Notes

View of 23rd Street in Crystal City, from the top of an office building

Groundbreaking for Hotel Project — Developer B.F. Saul broke ground yesterday on a new hotel project. A 10-story Homewood Suites hotel will be replacing the former Colony House Furniture store at 1700 Lee Highway near Rosslyn. Demolition of the store is now proceeding, five years after it closed its doors. [Washington Business Journal]

Kojo Controversy Defused — Arlington County Board candidate Erik Gutshall wasn’t happy with the choice of political operative Ben Tribbett as a call-in guest for a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment on the County Board race — and the candidate made his feelings known via Twitter. Tribbett had done some paid polling work for incumbent Libby Garvey earlier this year, Gutshall pointed out. In the end, Gutshall himself joined the segment as a call-in guest, along with Tribbett and ARLnow.com editor Scott Brodbeck. [Storify]

Arlington Posting FOIA Responses Online — Arlington County is now releasing its responses to Freedom of Information Act requests online, for all to see. The first posted response is documents and emails related to NOVA Armory. Said County Manager Mark Schwartz: “My overarching goal is to increase government transparency. This is one simple way that we can share information that we have already collected… which already has some interest from the community.” [Arlington County]

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Artisphere Spent $1 Million Marketing to Arts Aficionados

Artisphere during the Silver Clouds exhibit

Artisphere hosted its final performances this past weekend, as it prepares to close for good at the end of the month. Supporters decry the closure as the county government prioritizing penny pinching over the arts. But Artisphere’s financial losses may have been secondary to another problem: lack of community engagement.

The cultural center in Rosslyn spent more than $1 million on marketing over four and a half years, largely targeting D.C. area arts aficionados with newspaper ads. The strategy paid off with sold-out niche concerts and events, but failed to attract the loyalty of many Arlington residents who have a more casual appreciation for the arts.

Our Lady of the Vanishing Arts, photo courtesy of ArtisphereInstead of the original vision of a hub for local arts groups and a community hangout, complete with a WiFi cafe, Artisphere became more of a regional draw for one-off performances. Some 75 percent of its audience came from outside Arlington and 83 percent of its artists from outside Virginia, according to a 2014 report.

After hastily opening on the novelty date of 10/10/10, before an executive director or a marketing director could even be hired, Artisphere’s finances proved to be a fiasco. Wildly over-optimistic expectations gave way to the realization that the center would only make a quarter of its projected visitor revenue in the first year. That, in turn, sparked community criticism, set off backtracking by policymakers and led to a series of changes that watered down community participation.

The cafe closed, Artisphere focused more on event rentals and a popular local theater company was booted out.

It didn’t help that Artisphere’s multitude of performance venues were small and, as officials figured out after opening, couldn’t host simultaneous events due to noise bleed.

The relative lack of participation from taxpaying Arlington residents and artists, in the end, may have been Artisphere’s biggest downfall. When Artisphere hit the chopping block, few residents showed up at County Board meetings to speak in its defense.

Artisphere visitors FY 2014“That’s exactly part of the issue,” said retiring Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan, in a May interview. “At some levels, it wasn’t reaching our community in such a way that won their support.”

(An online petition to save Artisphere gathered nearly the same number of signatures as a recent petition to save a large oak tree on N. Nottingham Street.)

Donnellan and the County Board faced criticism in the local arts world for the decision, with letters to the editor, the chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts and even a Washington City Paper cover story implying that the Board was naive in closing Artisphere just because it was losing money.

“Artisphere’s closure is symptomatic of a much larger political view of culture in which the arts are important to community building, but funding them is not,” the City Paper wrote. It along with the Washington Post were the beneficiaries of 55 percent of Artisphere’s marketing budget.

But there was more that went into the decision to close than just dollars and cents. Arlington County Board Chair Mary Hynes said Artisphere was “able to create some wonderful shows” after “‘we got some of the right programming people in place,” but “there was a struggle in terms of what type of place [Artisphere] was going to be.”

Photo from the Here Cafe + Bar opening at Artisphere“Within our Cultural Affairs department there was a real desire to be cutting edge and to fill a niche they perceived in the D.C. arts scene,” Hynes said. “So people on the way up” were booked, but “those are people who who are developing an audience, not those who have an audience.”

There was discussion of hosting “community Saturdays” — with performances from school groups and other community-driven activities — “where we get people familiar with coming here because their kid is performing here.”

“But that didn’t fit with the image of what people thought of as [Artisphere],” Hynes said. “So I do think that audience was pretty constrained in terms of all of Arlington.”

“In the end we collectively didn’t see as much of an opportunity for full community participation here than we see in some other things we do,” Hynes said of the decision to close Artisphere and send about half of its budget back into other arts programming around Arlington. “When a locality is putting its tax money into helping the production of art, we have some obligation to consider how we give as many people in our community as possible the opportunity to consume good art.”

Artisphere and Rosslyn signs on a streetlampArtisphere’s regional focus was a carefully thought-out feature, not a bug. In addition to its artistic goals, Artisphere was also conceived as an economic development tool for Rosslyn. The Rosslyn BID contributed $1 million to the center’s startup costs and another $300,000 per year to its operating budget for that purpose. Artisphere’s FY 2014 annual report highlighted that it’s “a regional draw… underscoring Artisphere’s role as an economic driver for its community.”

Barry Halvorson, Artisphere’s Director of Communications and Marketing, defended the decision to focus on regional arts consumers and unique programming instead of a more mainstream or more community-focused strategy.

“We are trying to serve a community of arts-goers and we’ve been very successful in doing that and we’ve gotten a lot of attention in the press,” Halvorson told ARLnow.com in April. “If you go to the Washington Post or the Washington City Paper, there’s just a ton of coverage that we’ve gotten on our programming in large part because it’s so novel in this market.”

Opening of "Frida Kahlo: Her Photos" at Artisphere“I think maybe the readership of ARLnow might be a bit different than maybe the arts section of the Washington Post,” Halvorson continued. “We’re trying to go after the people who are reading the arts section. That might be the reason why ARLnow commenters are not seeing our materials. Because we are out there, editorially and advertising-wise. We’re reaching the arts market here.”

Halvorson said Artisphere was an artistic success, with critically acclaimed programming and shows averaging 70-75 percent audience capacity, above industry averages, since the center’s inception. Most of its spring shows were sold out.

“That is a misperception in the community that our events are not well attended,” he said. “All throughout our nearly five year history [events] have been very well attended. If anything right now we’re riding this great wave where we’re really firing on full cylinders.”

Halvorson was emphatic that the focus on Artisphere’s finances by the media missed the point.

“When you really look at the editorial about Artisphere, how many times has the phrase ‘the money-losing Artisphere’ been used?” he asked. “You wouldn’t refer to the Kennedy Center as the ‘money-losing Kennedy Center,’ when in fact it is losing money. Every arts organization in town is in fact a money-losing venture. That’s just the nature of being a non-profit. Every arts organization has a form of subsidy, including donations from private donating. In the case of the Artisphere, that’s taxpayer funding.”

Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds at Artisphere“I have to be brutally honest that your publication has not been terribly helpful in that regard,” Halvorson added. “When you’re talking about an arts organization, there are many different measures of success,” including attendance and artistic impact.

(A total of 288 ARLnow.com articles include a reference to Artisphere. Most were previews of events, exhibits or concerts taking place at the facility.)

Halvorson said Artisphere would have been in better shape had its space — provided rent-free by building owner Monday Properties — been smaller and more efficient. Electricity, heating and air conditioning in the 63,000 square foot facility alone cost about $1 million per year.

“This has been a very expensive building to operate,” he said. “The building is 25 years old. Escalators, elevators are breaking down and expensive. It’s been somewhat of a minor miracle that we’ve been able to keep this building running at the level it’s at.”

Donnellan said the decision to recommend closing Artisphere as “a very, very difficult choice,” and she only made the decision after “months” of discussions  with Artisphere staff, Arlington Economic Development officials and Rosslyn property owners, about possible ways to gain a broader audience.

“You have to make decisions that are long term sustainable,” she said. “Artisphere was not gaining money and not sustaining itself. But the main thing was that it had lost the support of the community and the Board and it became very difficult to argue its long term sustainability in these economic times. It wasn’t getting a lot of support… it had never achieved the foot traffic needed.”

Eighth District Congressional Art Competition at Artisphere“Honestly I do believe that it could have been successful,” Donnellan said. “But given the economic times of Rosslyn, with the amount of construction going on down there and the economy in and of itself, it was just not an entity that was going to grow at a pace where it was something that we would have said ‘wow, this is something that we have to keep going.'”

Could Artisphere have gained more attendees and local support with more marketing and more community visibility? It’s unclear.

Artisphere spent only about $200,000 per year on marketing. Over the course of almost five years, most of that went to regional media organizations: more than $400,000 to the Washington Post, $170,000 to the Washington City Paper, $71,000 to WJLA/Newschannel 8, $26,000 to BrightestYoungThings.com, $19,000 to the Washington Examiner, $17,000 to Washington Parent magazine.

(You can view sorted and unsorted PDF copies of Artisphere’s line item marketing expenses, obtained by ARLnow.com under the Freedom of Information Act.)

Halvorson said Artisphere made the most of what it had.

“Our [annual] marketing budget is $200,000 for 140 artistic programs,” he said. “I challenge you to find an arts organization with a lower per program budget. If the question is, if I were to do this over again, would I have gone for a broader more scattershot approach versus a more targeted approach, no I would not.”

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Morning Notes

A tree in bloom in Rosslyn

Streetcar Forum Tonight — The Arlington Committee of 100 will be holding a forum tonight entitled “Streetcar for Columbia Pike: Are the Benefits Worth the Costs?” The forum will be moderated by Sun Gazette editor Scott McCaffrey and the scheduled speakers are Arlington Chamber of Commerce Chairman David Decamp (speaking in favor of the streetcar) and ARLnow.com columnist Peter Rousselot (speaking against the streetcar). The event will take place at 8:00 p.m. at Marymount University (2807 N. Glebe Road). [Arlington Committee of 100]

Pricey Streetcar FOIA Request — Local fiscal watchdog Tim Wise is decrying the price tag attached to a Freedom of Information Act request he made regarding the Columbia Pike streetcar project. The county says Wise’s wide-ranging request will cost $2,858 to process. More than 80 percent of that cost would go to AECOM, a consultant working on the county’s transit program. [Sun Gazette]

Record Temperature Possible Today — The official high temperature at Reagan National Airport might be tied or even broken today. The high temperature at DCA for today, April 10, is 89 degrees, set in 1922. [Capital Weather Gang]

Mary Marshall Scholarship Applications — The Arlington County Commission on the Status of Women is now accepting applications for the 2013 Mary Marshall Memorial Scholarships. The $1,500-2,000 scholarships are intended for Arlington high school graduates who intend to attend Northern Virginia Community College and pursue careers in public service. [Arlington County]

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The Right Note: Trolley FOIA Follow-Up

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Mark KellyAfter last week’s post on the prohibitively expensive FOIA estimate the county gave for documents related to the Columbia Pike trolley project, I did some digging.

According to Virginia law, a public body may make “reasonable charges for its actual cost” and may not charge for any “extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses” related to producing a response to a FOIA request.

If you look at advisory council opinions on the matter, it seems as though those charges can include county staff time to produce FOIA responses. So, the $517 estimated charge from the county for staff time certainly seems in order.

At first the $2,341 charge for AECOM staff time seemed to be included in the estimate largely to make the price tag to view the documents in question out of reach for the person requesting them. This price tag leads many people to think the county may have something to hide about the project.

After reading through advisory council opinions, the county may also need to revisit whether they can even request a fee to pay for AECOM’s services under Virginia law.

The first issue is the definition of “intermediary” as well as the meaning of “its actual cost” as they apply to AECOM. In my brief research, I did not find an advisory council opinion directly on point in regards to paying a consultant. However, one opinion called into question fees for an attorney to review FOIA documents.

It said, “in most situations, if a public body chooses to have an attorney review FOIA requests and responses, it may do so, but should do so at its own expense, or charge no more than it would charge to have administrative or support staff perform the same work.” This begs the question: Can the county charge for AECOM’s work at all, or only charge hours by AECOM employees at the same rate as hours for a county staff member to do the same work?

The second issue is, even if the county could charge for AECOM’s fees, is it reasonable to pay a consultant to search for and produce documents that should already be in the county’s possession? After all, the county was a party to, or recipients of, all the meetings, memos, and emails in question.

The county should be pressed to provide a justification for the AECOM charge. Hopefully, the county will simply drop the AECOM portion and provide the documents in its possession for the more reasonable cost of county staff time.

Transparency is not a partisan issue – it is a good government issue. In this increasingly digital world, it becomes easier and easier to improve the level of transparency our government provides us. Holding back information, like holding one-way trolley forums instead of giving both sides a chance to make a case, is not beneficial for the public good.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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Morning Notes

Molly the Dog by Ddimick

Board Members Want More Capital Projects — Arlington County Board members don’t want to stop new capital spending projects, saying that “now is not the time to stop investing in the future of the community.” Board members say that interest rates are low and the construction market is competitive  making new building projects cheaper than they might be in the future. [Sun Gazette]

Reporter Peeved About FOIA Fees — Connection Newspapers reporter Michael Lee Pope is continuing his crusade against public records practices at the Arlington County Police Department. This time around, Pope notes that the police department has charged or threaten to charge between $31.16 and $573.25 for his Freedom of Information Act requests. Pope writes that “Arlington County’s system of nickel-and-diming the public and the press serves as a barrier to public access.” [Arlington Connection]

Tea Party Wants to Weigh in on Streetcar — The Arlington County Tea Party says it wants to make a presentation at the upcoming March 27 community forum on the planned Columbia Pike streetcar. At least one other anti-streetcar organization has made a similar request. [Sun Gazette]

Moran: Vaccinations Save Lives — Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) is encouraging constituents to get vaccinated. “As Chairman of the Congressional Prevention Caucus, I understand the important role prevention plays in reducing contagious diseases,” Moran wrote in his weekly newspaper column. “Due to the Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2009, most health insurance companies, including Medicare, are now required to cover recommended vaccinations… with no out of pocket cost. Increased coverage for preventive measures is a significant step towards a health care system that truly improves the health of the American people.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Flickr pool photo by Ddimick

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Acrimony Among Neighbors, County Staff During Traffic Calming Fight

Last month, with little fanfare, construction crews arrived in the Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood. By the time they left, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, N. River Street, had two new medians strips, two new speed humps and a trio of intersections enhanced with “nubs” that jut a few feet out into the street.

The changes, designed to slow down drivers on a wide, downhill portion of River Street, can hardly be described as “drastic.” But the two-plus year neighbor vs. neighbor vs. county battle that preceded it can be.

Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by opponents of the traffic calming measures reveal that the fight got so nasty, the acrimony even spread to county staff.

“These people have got to get a life. ‘Inherently unfair.’ Seriously? My 6 year old used the unfair complaint the other night when whining about bedtimes,” a county transportation official said of the opposition’s complaints, in an internal email to a colleague. “I’m sure the residents of extreme North Arlington are routinely disenfranchised. Perhaps they should talk to the Department of Justice about election monitoring and human rights violations.”

But Chain Bridge Forest Homeowners’ Association president Terry Dean, who filed the FOIA request, insists that her group — representing 124 households — had legitimate concerns about being left out of the voting process that cleared the way for the traffic calming. In the end, only the 35 households closest to the River Street changes were asked to vote, instead of the neighborhood at large, Dean said.

“[Arlington County] didn’t believe in participatory democracy… basically, they wanted to do what they wanted to do, and it really didn’t matter what the neighborhood thought,” said Dean, a former congressional staffer. “You see that in banana republics, but it’s not supposed to be happening four miles from the Capitol.”

(Twenty-seven of the 35 households voted in favor of the changes, though Dean says a few votes were miscounted.)

Dean insists that from the outset, nobody was opposed to the idea of speed humps on River Street — the original plan when the neighborhood asked for traffic calming measures. It’s only when the county decided to take the traffic calming further — reconfiguring the entrance to River Street from Glebe Road while adding median strips and curb extensions in an effort to “define the travel lanes, slow traffic and improve pedestrian safety” — did the opposition start to organize.

County staff argued that River Street is too steep between 38th Place and 39th Street to install additional speed humps, and said that the reconfigured entrance off of Glebe Road was necessary to convey to drivers that they were entering a residential neighborhood. Opponents, meanwhile, started to question the necessity and nearly $200,000 cost of the changes, given that the average speed on River Street was clocked at 27 miles per hour. About 15 percent of cars were clocked going more than 32 miles per hour, and attempts at speed enforcement by police yielded only four tickets in five hours on one day, and not a single ticket on another day. One county employee referred to the latter enforcement effort as a “fishing expedition” in an email

Older residents worried that the changes would actually make River Street less safe, Dean said, especially during bad weather when navigation gets trickier.

“They are more concerned about these obstacles in the middle of the street” than they are speeding cars, she said. “I have no doubt someone’s going to hit that median once we have ice and snow on the ground… We hope and pray that nobody will get hurt.”

“From an aesthetic point of view it’s ugly as the dickens… a big, ugly mess,” Dean added.

According to statistics cited by Dean, there have only been three significant accidents on the Arlington County portion of River Street in the past five years. One involved a man who died of a medical emergency while driving; his car ran off the road. Another involved an intoxicated woman whose car ran into a yard on 39th Street. The other involved a woman who was leaning down to pick up a cell phone and drove into the curb, spinning her car. Nobody else was injured in the accidents, Dean said, noting that traffic calming would not have prevented any of the accidents and that traffic calming supporters were “hyperventilating in terms of the danger to their children.”

But another opposition argument seems to have fallen flat. Opponents predicted “compromised accessibility of large vehicles” like school buses. In the FOIA documents, however, the fire department said it would have no problem navigating its big fire engines around the medians and curb extensions. And the hour ARLnow.com spent taking photos revealed no accessibility problems, save a black stretch Ford Excursion limo that tried and failed to navigate around the median at Glebe Road — seemingly the result of a poorly-chosen angle of approach.

Dean said that the medians and curb extensions were actually trimmed back at the Glebe Road entrance due to intervention by VDOT. That, she says, has improved things a bit. Still, she and fellow homeowner’s association members plan to continue fighting. The county now wants to install a street light at River Street and Glebe Road — to allow drivers to  see the newly-installed medians — and Dean says they’re going to fight it on the grounds that some of the necessary equipment needs to be installed on homeowner’s association property.

In the end, though, Dean says she hopes the Chain Bridge Forest community, now divided, put aside their differences and resume neighborly relations.

“The community needs to get past this and come together, but calling people names… is not going to get us there,” she said. “That just needs to stop… you can’t be rude to your neighbors all the time, it will come back to haunt you.”

Dean added that she has been in touch with residents of Arlington Ridge, which recently went through its own acrimonious fight over a traffic calming project.

“Arlington, as a county government, shouldn’t be setting up situations like this,” she said.

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EXCLUSIVE: College Pro Painters Fined Following Electrical Accident

(Updated on 9/30) Citing “serious” violations of occupational safety laws, Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry has slapped Massachusetts-based College Pro Painters with a $14,875 fine for a near-fatal electrical accident in Ashton Heights on June 16.

A painter in his mid-20’s nearly died after the ladder he was using touched 19,900 volt power lines at a home on North Highland Street. The employee was burned and knocked back nearly 9 feet by the electrical shock. He was without a pulse when paramedics arrived on the scene, but was resuscitated and eventually transported to the MedStar burn unit in DC.

At the time, College Pro Painters president Rodney Larmand told ARLnow.com that the company was “deeply concerned” and was “investigating the circumstances” that led to the accident.

According to a citation obtained by ARLnow.com under the Freedom of Information Act, state safety inspectors determined that the company “failed to ensure employees did not perform any work” that would cause ladders or other equipment “to be placed within 10 feet of any overhead high voltage line.”

The company also failed to work with the power company to make temporary safety arrangements before the work was performed, and “did not ensure first aid supplies were easily accessible,” according to state inspectors.

The company has the right to contest the citation, which was issued earlier this month. Larmand declined to comment on the fine, citing a scheduled meeting with state occupational safety officials on Wednesday.

He did, however, point out that College Pro Painters has a safety record that is “significantly better than industry standard.

“Our safety program is excellent and we plan to continue our current program with improvements and updates for 2011 that will take into consideration our learning from this unfortunate incident,” Larmand said.

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