County Officials Defend Amazon FOIA Deal — “The Arlington government’s top attorney says there’s nothing improper about part of the county’s incentive deal with Amazon that gives the company notice of Virginia Freedom of Information Act filings related to the agreement.” [InsideNova]
Pedestrian Struck in Virginia Square — Police, firefighters responded to a pedestrian struck by a vehicle on Wilson Blvd at N. Oakland Street Tuesday morning. The vehicle was turning and struck the pedestrian, who suffered minor injuries, we’re told. In Arlington, pedestrian-involved crashes like this are common, occurring almost every day, though most — like this incident — result in non-life-threatening injuries to the victim. [Twitter]
Smoke Fills Lee Highway Building — Firefighters responded to an under-construction commercial building on the 5800 block of Lee Highway yesterday afternoon to investigate smoke in the building. It was determined that the smoke came from a malfunctioning HVAC unit. [Twitter]
(Updated at 10:45 p.m.) About a year ago at this time, Arlington looked to be in serious trouble down in Richmond.
In mid-March 2018, county officials faced the decidedly unpleasant prospect that they’d come out on the losing end of a bruising legislative battle with two local golf and country clubs.
One of the county’s foremost foes in the General Assembly had engineered the passage of legislation to slash the clubs’ tax bills, potentially pulling more than a million dollars in annual tax revenue out of the county’s coffers.
Arlington had spent years tangling with the clubs, which count among their members local luminaries ranging from retired generals to former presidents, arguing over how to tax those properties. Yet the legislation from Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District) would’ve bypassed the local dispute entirely, and it was headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.
That meant that Arlington’s only hope of stopping the bill was convincing the governor to strike it down with his veto pen.
In those days, long before evidence of Northam’s racist medical school yearbook photos had surfaced, the Democrat was well-liked in the county. He’d raised plenty of cash from Arlingtonians in his successful campaign just a year before, and had won endorsements in his primary contest from many of the county’s elected officials.
Yet the situation still looked dire enough that the County Board felt compelled to take more drastic steps to win Northam to their side. The county shelled out $22,500 to hire a well-connected lobbying firm for just a few weeks, embarking on a frenetic campaign to pressure the governor and state lawmakers and launch a media blitz to broadcast the county’s position in both local and national outlets.
“It became apparent to all of us that every Arlingtonian had something at stake here,” then-County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “At a time when we were making excruciating decisions about our own budget, the idea that you would take more than million dollars and put it toward something that wasn’t a priority for anyone here was so frustrating.”
An ARLnow investigation of the events of those crucial weeks in spring 2018 sheds a bit more light on how the county won that veto, and how business is conducted down in the state capitol. This account is based both on interviews with many people close to the debate and a trove of emails and documents released via a public records request (and published now in the spirit of “National Sunshine Week,” a nationwide initiative designed to highlight the value of freedom of information laws).
Crucially, ARLnow’s research shows that the process was anything but smooth sailing for the county, as it pit Arlington directly against the club’s members. Many of them exercise plenty of political influence across the region and the state, and documents show they were able to lean heavily on Northam himself.
“One would expect a Democratic governor to be highly responsive to one of most Democratic jurisdictions in the state,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “But this was a matter of great concern to a bunch of very important people in Virginia, and that may well be the reason why additional efforts were necessary.”
And, looking forward, the bitter fight over the issue could well have big implications should similar legislation ever resurface in Richmond.
“Structurally, this bill could absolutely come back someday,” Cristol said. “And the idea that a bill that has such deleterious consequences for land use and taxation in jurisdictions across Virginia could come back and garner support because of an effective lobbying interest is very much a real threat.”
A risky precedent?
Hugo kicked off the fight over golf course taxes in the state capitol by filing his bill in fall 2017, but the dispute had been percolating long before then.
Both the Army Navy Country Club (located along I-395 just past Pentagon City) and the Washington Golf and Country Club (near Marymount University along N. Glebe Road) had been fighting with the county’s real estate assessor for years.
Arlington officials sought to value the clubs’ based on the “highest and best use” of the land: in this case, as space for residential or commercial properties. That meant the county assumed that each square foot of land was worth about $12 — the two clubs control more than 370 acres of land, combined.
The county reasoned that land is exceedingly valuable in the 26-square-mile locality, where officials have trouble finding sites for schools and other public facilities, and ought to be treated as such. Residential properties near each club have often been valued at many times that amount, for comparison.
That means Army Navy was generally assigned a value of well north of $100 million over the years, with an annual tax bill hovering around $1.5 million, county records show. Washington Golf ranged in value from $42 million to $60 million, with a tax bill of $838,000 for 2017.
The clubs argued those tax bills were wildly unfair compared to other Northern Virginia golf courses, some of which are valued at a much lower rate. They claimed the high tax bills were forcing them to raise membership rates, putting a strain on members — in Army Navy’s case, many are active duty military or veterans.
So Hugo filed legislation to slash the valuation rate to around $0.50 per square foot, reducing the clubs’ annual tax burden by roughly $1.5 million, combined. The clubs also filed suit against the county in December 2017, challenging their 2014 property assessments.
But it was the legislative push that unnerved county officials the most. Losing the court case would impact just two property assessments in isolation (albeit valuable ones) — seeing the legislation pass could’ve opened the door for other landowners to follow the same playbook, they feared.
“It would set a risky precedent where any property owner who does not agree with their assessment could run to Richmond for a legislative fix,” then-Board member John Vihstadt warned a state Senate committee in February 2018.
Smooth sailing for Hugo’s bill
Cristol says the Board took the prospect of Hugo’s bill passing “incredibly seriously” from the moment it was introduced. She remembers the entire Board frequently checking in with the county’s state legislative delegation, and other lawmakers representing Northern Virginia, to make the county’s position clear.
Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District), who represents parts of Arlington, spoke forcefully against the bill in a Feb. 7, 2018 committee hearing in the House of Delegates. At the time, Sullivan said he “probably spent more time on this bill than any other bill this session.”
“To my way of thinking, a resolution between the parties is always better than this body imposing an outcome,” Sullivan told his colleagues on the House finance committee. “I believe the parties are on course, pardon the pun, to a resolution of this.”
Sullivan cited “ongoing, good faith negotiations” between the clubs and the county, arguing that two sides were in the process of settling the valuation dispute and averting the need for any lawsuit.
At the time, however, Arlington had yet to offer a settlement of the lawsuit to the clubs, or hold extensive negotiations with them.
A timeline drafted by County Attorney Steve MacIsaac for use in later lobbying efforts notes that the county didn’t hold its first sit-down meeting with club officials until mid-March. The two sides discussed some inspections of the properties over the month of February, while the legislature was in session, but offered no terms to resolve the matter until later.
And Hugo argued that his legislation was the only reason any negotiations were happening at all.
“The ‘ongoing talks’ never really started until the bill was introduced,” Hugo told the finance committee.
Hugo’s colleagues saw things his way. The bill easily passed the committee with bipartisan support, passing both the Senate and the House with a mix of Republican and Democrat votes a few weeks later. The bill was sent to Northam by March 16.
Four days earlier, the County Board signed a $15,000 contract with Capital Results, a Richmond lobbying firm, documents and emails show. The firm’s past clients range from the National Rifle Association to Major League Baseball to Tesla Motors, according to state records.
Capital Results’ duties would include “message development,” “thought leader engagement,” and “media relations,” according to the contract. Partner Bea Gonzalez took point on the operation.
Cristol says the decision to hire the firm was partly out of desperation, as the Board recognized that heavily Democratic Arlington might have trouble winning sympathy from the Republican-dominated General Assembly without some extra help.
“We knew we’d need members of the majority caucus, which can be a little hard for Arlington,” Cristol said. “This was an opportunity for some outside help to reach some in the other party.”
Plus, the county had to face off against plenty of lobbying from the clubs themselves — Washington Golf employed two lobbyists for the legislative session, while Army Navy retained four of its own, state records show.
Gonzalez gets going
Emails show that, by March 14, 2018, Gonzalez had leapt into action.
She began coordinating closely with both Cristol and Pat Carroll, the county’s main government affairs staffer in Richmond, with one main opening goal: funneling a slew of letters opposing Hugo’s bill to Northam’s office.
Not only did Gonzalez help draft a resolution for the Board to pass condemning the bill, but she helped craft letters for all manner of Arlington politicians and community leaders about the country club legislation.
Sheriff Beth Arthur, Clerk of Circuit Court Paul Ferguson, County Treasurer Carla de la Pava, former Del. L. Karen Darner, the School Board, the heads of firefighter and police unions and local PTA presidents all communicated with Gonzalez about sending letters to Northam.
She drafted the letters and, in many cases, local leaders would send them onto the governor as their own, the emails show.
“At this point it is a numbers game [with] the number of letters and emails received,” Gonzalez wrote to Carroll on March 27.
Gonzalez also worked extensively with state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) to draft an op-ed and then place it in the Washington Post. It eventually ran on March 30, under the headline, “Virginia country clubs don’t need these tax breaks.” Gonzalez also helped Cristol draft her own op-ed on the matter, though it’s unclear if it was ever published.
Farnsworth said that, given the outsized influence of lobbyists around the capitol, it should hardly be a surprise that they may also be doing a little ghostwriting for politicians.
“Lobbyists draft bills, so why wouldn’t they draft op-eds?” he said. “Cynicism with respect to the authors of opinion columns or legislation is not generally misplaced.”
Earning some eyeballs
Earning media attention was another key part of Gonzalez’s strategy. The emails show she worked to secure Cristol interviews with TV and radio outlets alike and prep her for each one — she even worked with county staff to draft news releases on each stage of the legislation’s development.
And Gonzalez also endeavored to generate some more grassroots opposition to Hugo’s bill. While she reached out to a variety of different community activists, she found the most success with Annette Lang, who worked with the progressive group “We of Action Virginia.”
Lang and Cristol had chatted extensively about the golf course issue during the “March for Our Lives” gun safety demonstration in D.C., and Cristol forwarded her contact information to Gonzalez. From there, Gonzalez and Carroll provided her with talking points against Hugo’s bill and Lang whipped up support as part of a new group: “NoTaxSubsidies4Clubs.”
“It struck me that it’s really inappropriate for the General Assembly to step in on something like this, so I got kind of jazzed about it,” Lang told ARLnow. “Which is strange, because it’s a rather dry issue.”
Lang and her fellow activists began writing to state lawmakers about the issue, and sent letters to the editor along to local news outlets. They even took out ads blasting the bill in the Sun Gazette, including one pictured at left.
And when it came time for one of Northam’s regular appearances on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” radio show, Gonzalez convinced Lang to call in, at Cristol’s urging. The hosts took her call during the March 28 broadcast.
“My question is, do you think real estate tax assessments should be established by local elected officials with disputes resolved in the courts, or should they be imposed upon by state legislators with disputes resolved by the state legislators that are not elected by the locality?” Lang asked.
Northam commended her for having a “good grasp of what we’re dealing with right now,” and vowed to “step in and take action” only if the county and the clubs couldn’t strike a deal.
Northam feels the heat
The governor’s tone during the radio show provided a good indication of how his staff was approaching the situation behind the scenes.
Emails show that Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, wrote to Cristol later on March 30 to get contact information for the clubs’ leaders. He said he planned to send an email “out to the group to encourage dialogue between the parties.”
But Northam’s appearance during the WTOP program also hinted at some of the pressure he was feeling to let the bill become law.
“Something I am sensitive to is a lot of these members are veterans,” Northam said. “A lot of them have protected our lives and have limited resources, and so the memberships have gotten fairly unreasonable, and that’s why this needs to be addressed.”
Emails between Gonzalez and Carroll indicate that the governor, himself an Army veteran and Virginia Military Institute graduate, was hearing the argument quite frequently that, without a slash in tax bills, the clubs would become unaffordable for their military members.
“[Former Arlington Del.] Bob Brink says that the governor is hearing from veterans,” Carroll wrote to Gonzalez on March 23. “Not sure yet how many.”
“Yes, veterans are calling in — and all of the VMI network too,” Gonzalez replied.
Cristol remembers being confused at hearing such arguments. “The idea that we would support veterans by giving tax breaks to country clubs, rather than investing tax dollars in services to support veterans felt bizarre to me,” she says now.
Nevertheless, it was clearly a powerful argument in the clubs’ favor. Hugo referenced the issue several times during committee debate; a March 3 op-ed on the conservative Virginia politics website Bearing Drift accused Arlington of “using an unfair application of tax policy to willfully run United States military veterans out of the county.”
Lang recalls several legislators telling her that they’d heard similar overtures. Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District) told Lang in an email that “I am receiving voicemails from veterans urging me to support this bill and angrily demanding to know why I voted against it.”
“This misleading campaign is hypocritical and disappointing,” she wrote on March 25.
Some of the pressure from veterans was even directed Cristol’s way.
Someone tweeted at her on March 28 urging her to support Hugo’s bill based on what it would mean for veterans. She responded that “I’m honored to represent the >12k veterans living in Arlington County. I don’t think asking them to foot the bill for tax breaks for country clubs is a sign of respect.”
That tweet did not go unnoticed among the country clubs’ supporters. A few days after Cristol’s social media post, Carroll wrote to Gonzalez, saying she’d heard about the tweet directly from Suzette Denslow, Northam’s deputy chief of staff.
Denslow had gotten a call from Edward Mullen, one of the lobbyists representing Washington Golf, who was upset about that message. And Mullen is no stranger to the Northam administration — he served on the governor’s transition team, and personally donated $1,500 to Northam’s gubernatorial campaign.
Carroll wrote to Denslow to reassure her that the clubs and the county were working together and making progress on a settlement.
After the veto, a ‘good relationship’?
Regardless of any heat Northam might’ve been feeling, the governor came through on Arlington’s side by April 9, his deadline for acting on the bill.
He vetoed Hugo’s legislation, but delivered a warning in a statement attached to the decision: “I encourage the parties to continue negotiations to find a solution so that similar legislation will not be necessary in the future.”
This prompted rejoicing from the Arlington contingent, with one cautionary note.
“I spilled blood on this one,” Favola wrote to Gonzalez, Carroll and other county officials. “There is nothing left for a redo, so please reach a settlement with the clubs.”
Cristol followed up the next day with proposed strategies on how to sustain the governor’s veto, fearing that Hugo might try to muster the votes to override Northam’s decision. That would require a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, a heavy lift considering the bill didn’t originally pass with that much support.
Still, emails show Carroll and Gonzalez exchanged ideas about which local lawmakers might be well positioned to whip support for the veto.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez feared that Hugo was marshaling his own opposition to the veto as late as April 16.
“Been texting with Hugo, and he may be leaning on giving a long [floor] speech I think,” she wrote to Carroll. “So we need to be sure to be prepped.”
The county even agreed to extend its contract with Capital Results that same day. Gonzalez charged Arlington another $7,000, documents show.
“The veto being sustained was not at all something we took for granted,” Cristol said.
Ultimately, Gonzalez’s fears weren’t realized. On April 19, she wrote to a group of county officials that Hugo had decided not to contest the veto.
Six days later, the clubs and the county struck a deal to avert the lawsuit, according to an email from Army Navy’s chairman to his members.
The county agreed to reduce its valuation of the courses, and refund some of their past tax bills — the changes cut Army Navy’s tax bill by about $600,000 last year, while Washington Golf saved about $400,000. Word of the settlement made it to ARLnow by May 2.
Cristol says the ultimate outcome was undoubtedly the one the county had hoped for, but she added that there were certainly moments where county leaders felt “great frustration and disappointment” about the how the debate proceeded. Plainly, the whole saga left some hard feelings all around.
“[The clubs] chose, unfortunately, to take their case to Richmond and sue us at the same time,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “Not the way to make friends and influence people, in my view.”
That’s not to say the experience left the clubs and the county entirely on bad terms, however.
“We are trying to maintain a good relationship with the county and hope to maintain that good relationship in the future,” Raighne Delaney, Army Navy’s secretary-treasurer, told ARLnow. Washington Golf’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
That being said, Cristol remains wary that the county could find itself doing battle with the clubs in Richmond once again, should that relationship deteriorate.
After all, she notes that Hugo — a Fairfax Republican who has frequently clashed with the county on all manner of issues — “is still in the General Assembly.”
“People in Clifton or other parts of the state could always decide they know better how to tax open space in Arlington,” Cristol said.
Main photo via Facebook
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.”
>@kcristol Hi! Arlington County FOIA officers tell me *everything* related to the county's Amazon HQ2 bid is being kept secret. I don't know if it that's legal, but it's definitely not transparent government. I hope that changes! @psullivan1 @AEDBizInvest pic.twitter.com/iN41gphiid
— Jonathan O'Connell (@OConnellPostbiz) March 20, 2018
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.
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.
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]
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
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
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.
Arlington County FOIA Officer
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.”
Artisphere’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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.