Arlington 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.
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]
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.
Instead 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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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]
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.
After 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?
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
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.
(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.