Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Last week, Donald Trump presented his first budget blueprint.
Regardless of its prospects, this blueprint is important because it offers the most detail to date regarding what the President wants to see happen. It exposes Trump’s values and priorities.
Trump’s budget is a moral failure
Although numerous other examples are discussed, one illustration of Trump’s budget’s moral failure is his proposal to cut funding upon which the Meals on Wheels program depends. CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump’s Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, whether the budget was hard-hearted:
“No, I don’t think so,” Mulvaney replied. “I think it’s probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.”
“To cut programs that help the elderly and kids?” Acosta asked, incredulously.
“We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place,” Mulvaney explained. “And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.'”
WRONG. There’s not an ounce of compassion here. That single mom in Detroit, a New York billionaire in Trump’s cabinet and all other federal taxpayers should continue to share the responsibility to use their hard-earned money to help fund Meals on Wheels — and many other programs from which Trump’s budget would cut funding.
Asked what she would say to Trump, one Trump voter responded: “What if it was your mama?”
Trump’s budget hurts Virginia
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has prepared a lengthy fact sheet listing Trump’s budget cuts that would hurt Virginia. A small fraction of those cuts are:
$2.6 billion cut to the Environmental Protection Agency could jeopardize:
- The Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Program, which would be cut entirely under Trump’s budget. The program has reduced pollution, bolstered oyster and crab populations, and driven tourism and outdoor recreation.
- The Clean Power Plan and climate change research, which is critical to combatting sea level rise in Hampton Roads and climate effects across Virginia.
$2.4 billion cut to the Department of Transportation could jeopardize:
- Metro capital investment, which helps Metro reduce its maintenance backlog.
Proposed cuts in the Department of Homeland Security could jeopardize:
- The budget proposes cutting FEMA preparedness grants for state and local entities by $667 million. In 2016, Virginia received more than $18 million in FEMA preparedness grants for counterterrorism efforts including local law enforcement equipment and training and transit security.
- The TSA’s VIPR program, which conducts targeted operations at transportation hubs including Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, and Virginia metro stations.
$100 Million cut to NASA could jeopardize:
- STEM Education in Virginia. Trump’s budget would eliminate NASA’s Office of Education ($115 million), which has supported scholarships and educational opportunities for thousands of Virginia students, particularly minorities and women. (Moving Virginia backward toward the Hidden Figures SAD.)
Trump’s budget hurts Virginia Trump voters
Voters in Appalachian areas of Virginia would be particularly hurt by Trump’s proposal to completely defund the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Of the 420 counties served by ARC, 399 voted for Trump. You can review the ARC Virginia programs that would be defunded.
Trump’s budget is mean-spirited, harmful, and counterproductive.
Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
At its January organizational meeting, the County Board approved a new policy governing its consent agenda.
At any County Board meeting, all consent agenda items — representing as much as 80 percent to 90 percent of the Board’s entire agenda — are passed as a group by a single Board vote and without any further review or public discussion.
In describing that change, the Arlington Sun-Gazette reported:
No longer will members of the public be able to remove any item from the County Board’s “consent agenda” for a full airing. While they will still be able to seek full discussion of items that are subject to Virginia’s public-hearing rules, in other cases members of the public will need to convince at least one board member to pull the item for discussion.
Under the current consent agenda policy, new items can be added (or changes to existing items made) and posted online less than 24 hours prior to a meeting’s start time — leaving the public and Board members with little opportunity to review new materials or changes and leaving citizens with insufficient time to ask a County Board member to pull any item now categorized as a “nonpublic” consent agenda item.
Significantly, consent agenda items may be added to the Board’s agenda in an incomplete form — for example, items may lack staff reports or essential supporting documents and information, may contain material omissions or errors of fact, or may not have met the Board’s guidelines for a full public process or review.
The County Board should reconsider its January decision
Until January 3, any member of the public could pull any County Board consent agenda item for any reason, thereby shifting that item to the regular agenda and providing an opportunity for public comment and Board discussion. To pull an item, a citizen needed only to be physically present on Saturday morning to submit a request prior to the Board’s vote on the consent agenda.
The Board changed the consent agenda policy to prevent what it considered abuse by a small number of citizen-activists. However, its new policy provides too few safeguards and too little transparency in limiting or eliminating all citizens’ ability to comment on certain items before a vote is taken.
The Board failed to seek public input or feedback before passing this significant procedural change. Had it done so, it would have been reminded of multiple historical examples documenting how important public policy matters initially placed on the consent agenda subsequently proved to merit a full Board hearing or deferral based on citizen-supplied comments or questions.
On March 7, the Arlington County Civic Federation unanimously passed a resolution asking the County Board to reconsider its new consent agenda policy. The ACCF resolution:
asks the Board to seek input and suggestions from the public and civic groups to create an alternative policy that allows the Board to conduct orderly meetings within a reasonable timeframe while also meeting the Board’s stated goals of improving government transparency and encouraging greater public participation in Arlington County government.
I agree. The Board should seek citizen feedback on its current consent agenda policy. Possible adjustments to this policy include limiting citizens to pulling only one item per speaker per meeting.
Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
ARLnow.com reported last week that the County Board has approved the County Manager’s request to advertise a property tax rate for 2017 up to 2 cents higher than the current rate and potentially the highest tax rate since 2001:
County Manager Mark Schwartz said the hike would pay for what he described as the “extraordinary circumstances” facing the board in increasing costs for APS and Metro.
Failing to Carry Over Last Fall’s Close-Out Surplus
The Manager’s proposed FY 2018 budget is supposedly driven by “extraordinary circumstances” attributable to increased funding demands from APS and Metro. To close this “gap,” the Manager’s proposed budget incorporates a 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million.
The Manager fully highlighted these “extraordinary circumstances” last fall, but he and the County Board failed to act then to address that potential budget gap.
Metro is critical to Arlington and our entire region, and our critically-important schools are experiencing dramatic enrollment increases. Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlington’s property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.
However, any need to increase that rate in 2017 is entirely attributable to Arlington’s failure to follow recommendations that John Vihstadt, the Civic Federation, I and others made regarding last fall’s $17.8 million “close-out” surplus.
In a column last October, I proposed that the Board defer almost all of the proposed expenditures that the Manager recommended for that $17.8 million surplus, and hold in reserve virtually all those funds for first-priority use to bridge any budget gap for FY 2018. Instead, the Board approved spending almost all that surplus. That was a mistake that should not be repeated.
Necessary Changes at APS
As John Vihstadt noted at the County Board’s February 25 meeting to advertise a 2017 tax rate, APS’ exploding enrollment will require substantially increased funding over time, but APS should no longer be permitted to rely on a blank check from the County to provide funds for APS enrollment growth just because our schools are — and we want them to continue to be — top ranked.
Instead, the time has come for the County Board to condition increased funding on APS’ willingness to implement changes — particularly with respect to new school construction — to reduce substantially the per-student cost of new seats.
Current APS practices regarding per seat construction costs for new schools are neither necessary to sustain excellent schools nor fiscally sustainable unless other core County services are to be “crowded out” and/or we are to incur successive annual property tax rate increases that further degrade affordability for all Arlington residents.
Necessary Changes at Metro
Arlington should go on record now in support of fundamental reforms of Metro funding and governance at the interstate compact level, such as those recommended by the Federal City Council.
Before the FY 2018 budget review process ends this April, the County Board should:
- direct the Manager to reserve almost all of any fall 2017 close-out surplus to lessen upward pressures on the 2018 tax rate,
- condition any increased APS funding on APS implementation this year of reforms to lower per-seat construction costs substantially, and
- express support for Metro reforms at the interstate compact level.
Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
Arlington County is proposing to rely on private funds raised by a sports lobbying group to install an additional artificial turf field at Gunston Middle School.
Arlington should not rely on private funding raised by a sports lobbying group to install artificial turf. Taking such funding is contrary to the overriding interest of Arlington citizens to receive from their local government an unbiased and transparent assessment of the health and safety risks of using artificial turf.
Just as it faces explosive growth of APS student enrollment, Arlington also faces exploding demand for sports use of field space. The allure of private dollars to help fund the installation of more artificial turf is strong.
Arlington should resist this temptation.
Health and safety risks of artificial turf
As I wrote last year, the newest, most credible evidence suggests that artificial turf fields utilizing crumb rubber are unsafe and unhealthy. The evidence is carefully summarized in an online petition currently signed by 325 supporters and available here.
Montgomery County, MD passed a unanimous Council vote to ban crumb rubber and implement the use of plant-based alternatives such as coconut fiber, cork and rice husk blend. Hartford, CT, Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York City Parks Departments already have banned the use of crumb rubber.
See also this Mount Sinai children’s health study.
Don’t wait for Trump EPA study
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in partnership with other federal agencies like the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is still studying the health risks of artificial turf fields that use re-cycled crumb rubber. Arlington has heavily relied on the lack of a definitive EPA conclusion to this long-ongoing study to justify Arlington’s continued use of artificial turf fields. Arlington’s reliance on the ABSENCE of such a conclusion is misplaced.
Sports lobbying groups like those upon whom Arlington is proposing to rely to help fund the Gunston project are also active at the federal level. At that level, these lobbyists are also seeking to promote artificial turf against claims of health risks:
The principal information the CPSC uses to assess the health effects of synthetic turf is supplied by industry lobbyists, according to internal records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Emails and other records obtained by PEER in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit detail how these lobbyists are allowed closed-door briefings and other direct contacts with key CPSC staff assigned to investigate their products.
Arlington need not and should not wait for the final conclusions of this joint federal government study–now led by the Trump administration. Instead, Arlington should follow the lead of Montgomery County and other local jurisdictions by committing now to replace all its artificial turf fields that currently use re-cycled crumb rubber when the useful lives of those fields end.
Other Gunston Considerations
Gunston already has the indoor “bubble” synthetic turf field plus an additional outdoor synthetic turf field.
The artificial turf industry lobby knows how to privately market its product to local municipalities. Given the children’s health and safety risks of artificial turf, Arlington should:
- reject private money,
- appoint a new citizen-led task force to re-examine where Arlington should go from here.
The FAC report discusses the pros and cons of many alternative locations and scenarios to enable APS to add 1,300 new high school seats by 2022. The School Board (SB) has stated that it would like to make a final decision by June 2017.
The 37-page FAC report itself, together with the scores of comments submitted to the ARLnow.com story, illustrate the complexity and importance of this 1300-seat decision.
To allow adequate time for full public discussion of the alternatives, and to maximize the ability to get the best possible advice from the new Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC), the SB should modify its schedule to narrow the field to three currently-APS-owned sites by June, and select the final location and scenario by December.
Comprehensive or Option High School
SB members continue to deny publicly the persistent rumor that APS already has decided that the 1300 seats will be for an option high school on the Ed Center site at W-L. It would be very unwise for the SB to make any final decision without extensive community feedback.
At least one unscientific poll I have read, and many community conversations I have had, suggest that there is much stronger parent support for a comprehensive high school.
Indeed, the top-voted comment to last week’s ARLnow.com story (from “Reality Check”) supported a comprehensive high school, noting:
APS should plan for a full-size 2,000 student high school to cover the needs of 2022 and the decade after that. By the time they build this school, they will already need to start planning for another school or additional expansions. … APS should be proactive and look at this as an opportunity to create a long-term solution that will set aside the high school issue for years to come.
While there is only enough money in the current (2017-2026) CIP to pay for 1300 seats by 2022, I agree with the commenter that APS needs to plan now for the decade after 2022. For reasons I explained earlier, by 2032 APS will need to have two more high schools than it has today.
To take greatest advantage of public input on the pros and cons of whether the first 1.300 new seats belong in a comprehensive or option high school, the SB should select as its June finalists 3 school sites each of which could serve as a location for either a comprehensive or an option high school (e.g., Kenmore, W-L, Career Center).
Numerous activists have wondered why JFAC shouldn’t be given the time to fit this 1300-seat decision into a much longer-range land-use plan. One veteran activist phrased it this way in a social media post:
The underlying problem is indeed the time frames, in that the student population has grown so quickly that every response is presented as immediately necessary with decisions to be made tomorrow based on options available right now. That is not comprehensive planning.
A six-month delay to give time for more JFAC input (and learn more info about the status of sites like the VHC site on Carlin Springs Road) is warranted.
A decision this important merits a thorough and thoughtful public review.
In January, I discussed 10 steps that the County Board should take in 2017 to improve Arlington’s model of civic engagement. I noted that the goal should be to reach the broadest possible consensus and ensure a legitimate, fact-based process to inform real-time decision-making.
To achieve this goal, the County Board should adopt an additional reform often called the “72-hour rule.”
During their 2015 election campaigns, County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol and County Board member Christian Dorsey each expressed support for the 72-hour rule. In January 2017, County Board member John Vihstadt supported an alternative version he described as the 48-hour rule.
The County Board should formally adopt the 72-hour rule for all significant Board votes.
Under this rule, all critical supporting documents underlying any agenda item for which a significant Board vote is scheduled must be sent to all Board members and posted on the County website at least 72 hours before the meeting at which the vote is scheduled.
At a minimum, a “significant Board vote” should include votes on any of the following:
- Approval of any contract, agreement, appropriation, grant, plan, project or budget committing $1 million or more of taxpayer funds,
- Site plans/amendments review,
- Ordinances, plans and policies, and
- Acquisition of private property or the sale/vacation of public property.
At a minimum, “critical supporting documents” should include all information, reports, presentations and recommendations from County staff, consultants, advisory bodies or applicants. Any history of previous Board votes on the item should be included.
Once approved and if County staff fails to comply with the 72-hour rule, then postponement of the Board’s vote on the item would be required unless at least four Board members vote to waive the 72-hour requirement in case of emergency.
Why should the Board adopt the new rule?
Arlington citizens, taxpayers and Board members themselves have a right to receive transparent, complete and timely information before significant government decisions are made and actions are taken. Without timely access to complete information, the public lacks a reasonable opportunity to communicate with elected officials before a vote is taken.
Seventy-two hours permits elected officials sufficient time to review all supporting agenda documentation–running anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pages–for final and last-minute changes before making decisions. Based on past experience, significant Board votes almost always rely upon very extensive and complex documentation.
Likely arguments against the new rule lack merit.
The County Manager, County Attorney and staff might oppose the new rule, arguing that it might require extra work. Such arguments lack merit. No extra work will be required. The same work simply needs to be completed earlier. If that is not feasible in a particular case, then the vote should be postponed.
Though the Manager and staff also might argue that Board members already receive briefings much earlier than the 72-hour rule would require, this argument misses at least two critical points:
- Even if such briefings occur, without this rule the public lacks the 72-hour minimum access to review the underlying documentation, and
- Last-minute, substantive changes in the underlying documentation often deny Board members sufficient access.
Adopting the new 72-hour rule offers far greater benefits–transparency and accountability–than any costs it might entail.
APS needs independent professional help on enrollment forecasts (and closely-related issues like per-seat construction costs). Since literally tens of millions of our tax dollars are at stake, properly designed consultant studies can produce benefits that far exceed the costs. As a community, we need a fully-transparent conversation on these issues.
December’s HS boundary decision
The period leading up to APS’ December decision to adjust the boundaries for Arlington’s three current comprehensive high schools (Yorktown, W-L, Wakefield) was plagued by many enrollment data errors that savvy parents identified and called out. Doubts justifiably were cast on the competence and credibility of APS staff who prepared the data.
Last week’s Discovery Elementary meeting
Last week, the Discovery Elementary PTA hosted an important meeting to discuss policy issues surrounding APS’ booming enrollment. Over 100 people attended. Once again, savvy and engaged parents were quick to spot new errors and inconsistencies in some of the APS slides presented at the meeting.
Discussing her reactions on social media, one parent captured the sentiments of many when she observed:
I hope parents will push for full transparency in the projections going forward. While it’s ridiculous that parents have to be the ones to catch the mistakes, it’s even worse when APS hides the numbers and the methodology so that no one can even see the errors. During the boundary process, many of us thought that Yorktown’s projections looked way too low, and it appeared that APS was making wacky assumptions as to how many kids would transfer out of YHS in order to make their numbers “work.” But APS wouldn’t release their transfer projections and they still won’t. If they had released them during the boundary process, perhaps this mistake could have been fixed before they voted to change boundaries.
January’s consultant study
The best enrollment forecast study prepared to date is a consultant study presented at a joint County Board-School Board meeting in January. A related joint study presented at that meeting concluded (at p. 23) that Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030.
The County and APS should continue to refine the methodologies and conclusions of January’s consultant study as we move forward.
As I discussed last week, the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) has an important role to play with respect to county-wide facilities planning decisions. JFAC should play a leadership role in fostering continuing updates and improvements to January’s consultant study.
Arlington needs to make the best possible policy decisions regarding what new schools, parks, and other public infrastructure we will need, and when and where we will need them. To do that requires us to have the best possible forecast data for these purposes.
As I noted in December, Arlington must demonstrate to the public that it has fiscally-sustainable plans to accommodate the substantial development and population growth that Arlington says will occur between now and 2040.
It is neither prudent, realistic nor fair to fail to plan for this growth because some people think or hope that it might not occur. Instead, we must plan now for the consequences of our most accurate forecasts.
ARLnow.com reported last week that local developer James Burch proposes to “build a 325-foot Space-Needle-like tourist destination, dubbed the Spirit of America Tower, in Rosslyn.”
The tower would be built on currently open-space, VDOT-owned land. In one of more than 25 comments he personally posted to that story, Burch (using the last name “Bureh”) revealed “we have been working on this, quietly, for about a year and a half.”
After ARLnow broke the story, Washington Business Journal (WBJ) reached out to a VDOT spokesman who acknowledged VDOT had met with Burch, but denied VDOT had made any commitments. And, County Board Chair Jay Fisette described Burch’s proposal as a “fantasy”.
While Burch’s proposal deserves scorn, his quiet pursuit of it highlights the need for a long-range (out to 2040) strategic plan, prepared jointly with VDOT and other interested stakeholders, regarding how best to utilize the air rights throughout the I-66 corridor. That plan should include the VDOT parcel in Rosslyn with respect to which Burch currently seeks a long-term lease.
I-66 Air Rights
If we allow piecemeal, scavenger development of important individual parcels to occur in the absence of such a long-range plan, by the time we get around to it, the plan that’s best for Arlington will be hopelessly compromised.
This past October, WBJ reported that both Arlington and VDOT temporarily had suspended such planning, but that both sides still were open to it:
[A] VDOT spokeswoman … said Arlington has chosen not to pursue air rights development “to date,” but VDOT “would continue to work on any requests to explore other opportunities and locations.” …
I-66, from Falls Church through Rosslyn, acts as a “gash through part of our community,” said Arlington Board Chair Libby Garvey. Filling it in, she said, is a “long-term thing,” but the discussion is worth having, whether in Rosslyn or East Falls Church (where Garvey envisions a deck with parking below and a field above).
There may well have been good reasons for the temporary suspension of talks, but Arlington County now needs to work hard to:
- quickly resolve any remaining obstacles,
- further develop its own long-range land-use vision and negotiating strategy, and
- then resume the conversations with VDOT.
JFAC Community Facilities Plan
JFAC’s overall mission importantly includes a directive from the County and School Boards to:
Place a special emphasis on long range planning for future County and APS facility needs…. Big picture, visionary thinking is encouraged, and the Commission should be a forum where fresh and creative ideas can be discussed freely.
Arlington County and JFAC should indeed engage in “big picture, visionary thinking” by carefully exploring all opportunities for Arlington to acquire new land either via air rights from VDOT, a land swap with VDOT, or some combination. The long-range plan for air rights in the I-66 corridor should be made available to JFAC.
Burch commented last week that “with our proposal, it is not costing the state or the county anything, and the project provides millions of dollars in tax income.” Despite such siren songs from Burch — or anyone else — Arlington should complete the two long-range planning studies described above, and discuss them thoroughly with the community, before making any deals that could undermine our long-range best interests in the I-66 corridor.
As ARLnow.com previously reported, Representative Don Beyer’s office announced earlier this month that the FAA had scrapped a proposal to transition to a new departure procedure for northbound planes leaving National Airport. The proposed path, known as “LAZIR B,” would direct flights directly over Rosslyn, moving planes further away from Georgetown and restricted airspace around the National Mall.
The problem LAZIR B created
The region has had a growing problem with noise caused in part by recent changes to the regional airspace mandated by the FAA’s NextGen program. In October 2015, a Community Noise Working Group was established with appointees representing communities in Virginia, DC and Maryland. In December 2015, the group recommended the LAZIR B departure procedure to maximize flight time over the Potomac.
How Don Beyer helped
Following the working group’s recommendation, Rep. Beyer wrote a letter to the FAA asking for a more thorough analysis of the noise impacts, and telephoned the FAA Administrator to voice his concerns with the proposed flight path.
Rep. Beyer also was a leader in the effort to find new ways for Arlington citizens to provide feedback directly to the FAA about the increased noise levels they were experiencing. He helped facilitate communication between airport area neighborhoods, local government, and the FAA.
As part of this new community engagement process, the FAA held a September 2016 workshop at Washington-Lee High School to listen to Arlington citizens. At the workshop, Arlingtonians explained their frustrations. Some questioned why Arlington should be subject to more noise so that D.C. residents could have more peace and quiet.
How Arlington County Board members helped
Rep. Beyer certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for the FAA scrapping LAZIR B. The Arlington County Board also deserves credit. Board members Libby Garvey, Katie Cristol, and John Vihstadt attended the community meeting at W-L, and Garvey wrote a letter to the FAA on behalf of the County Board, expressing concerns about aircraft noise in Arlington:
Arlington County firmly believes that improvements for both those on the ground and the flying public are possible and necessary,” the letter says. However, “it does not seem reasonable to the County that local communities, who are not experts on the needs, constraints and opportunities with regards to aviation, should be tasked with solving this problem.
Rep. Beyer and his regional colleagues in Congress worked collaboratively with the County Board to make FAA more responsive to community concerns.
The flaws exposed in NextGen
All this heightened public scrutiny of NextGen exposed a serious problem. Although its goal for NextGen was to improve efficiency, the FAA used what many consider to be a flawed procedure to estimate the likely noise impacts of the flight-path changes NextGen produced. While the FAA did perform an environmental review of the new flight path, noise impact testing was done through modeling, rather than through in-field testing, without using an agreed upon established baseline noise level.
A much more extensive review of Rep. Beyer’s leadership on these issues can be found here.
As is evident from its decision to scrap LAZIR B, FAA now is listening to and considering community input. This would not have happened without Rep. Beyer’s leadership. Moving forward, the FAA working group will continue to evaluate proposed changes.
The start of the 2017 Virginia legislative session has brought with it a batch of proposed bills relating to voting rights.
Many of these bills address issues that have been raised in the recent past, and have — rightly or wrongly — provoked hyper-partisan arguments between Democratic and Republican legislators and governors. Well-known examples include bills on voter ID requirements and re-enfranchisement of convicted felons who have served their sentences.
After the passionate arguments on both sides have been made, it won’t be surprising if the current law on issues like those specified above remains the same after the 2017 Virginia legislative session ends.
Both Democrats and Republicans should support no excuse absentee voting
No excuse absentee voting has been enacted by a majority of U.S. states — both “red states” and “blue states.” You can see which states have adopted no excuse absentee voting here.
Like other voting rights issues, Arlington voters could only obtain the right to no excuse absentee voting if that right is enacted at the state level because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state.
Virginia has developed a series of 15 narrowly-defined “excuses” that entitle voters to vote absentee. Unless your reason for wanting to vote absentee fits squarely within one or more of the 15 categories on the authorized list, you can’t vote absentee. Review the 15 categories here.
No excuse absentee voting is good for Virginia
Virginia’s current system should be changed. It should be replaced by a system that permits any qualified voter to vote absentee without first having to provide any excuses.
The bedrock reason why the current system should be changed is that experience in other states has demonstrated that no excuse absentee voting offers a greater number of qualified voters the opportunity to choose their elected officials. The broader the base on which our political leadership rests, the more likely that decisions made by our leaders will be respected.
Opponents of the no excuse system have argued that it encourages too many voters to vote too early, thereby foreclosing their opportunity to vote based on late-breaking developments in a political campaign. There is no question that some voters experience such regrets some of the time. Weighing this risk against the depression of voter turnout under the current system, the benefits of providing greater opportunities to vote outweigh the risks that some voters might regret that they voted too early.
Virginia 2017 legislative status
Del. Betsy Carr of Richmond is sponsoring HB 1935, to establish no-excuse, in-person absentee voting in Virginia. However, at least at this writing, no legislation has been introduced to establish no excuse, absentee voting by mail.
The Virginia ACLU properly has pointed out the reasons why no excuse, absentee voting by mail also should be approved for Virginia’s voters:
If Virginia law limits no-excuse absentee voting to in-person only, qualified voters may be excluded from participating based upon a lack of readily accessible transportation, geography, income status, physical disabilities, and the constraints of modern-day individuals and families.
No excuse absentee voting should be a subject on which Virginia Republicans and Democrats can agree. No excuse absentee voting will enable more Virginians to vote. The patchwork quilt of 15 authorized excuses that we have now should be replaced by: no excuses necessary.
The gap between demand and available parkland has resulted in conflicts among users and between users and adjacent communities negatively impacted by intensified use. Examples include controversial conversion of “multi-use” green areas at Virginia Highlands Park to sports uses, limitations on multi-use of a baseball field at Bluemont Park and plans to install new lighting on fields at Discovery ES/Williamsburg MS.
The current approach to resolving these conflicts seems ad hoc, with at least the appearance that those users who are best organized and advocate the longest will prevail. As I noted last month, County staff may not always be serving as neutral facilitators in proposing changes in use and then resolving ensuing conflicts.
The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan, and has recognized the importance of responding to the wide range of park and recreation needs in the community.
Current parkland uses
Although there are many uses of our parkland, one possibly useful perspective is that there are four overall “use” categories:
- (1) natural areas and wildlife habitats,
- (2) designated sports fields and court areas,
- (3) “multi-use” green areas, and
- (4) other use-specific facilities, e.g., dog parks, playgrounds and pavilions.
Staff has undertaken mapping current natural areas, sports fields and other uses in our parks. Completion of this project could provide a baseline against which to assess proposed new uses or changes in current uses.
Guidance as to desired uses
The County has published the results of its statistically valid 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey which indicated that natural areas and wildlife habitats–as well as hiking trails–were two of the three most important outdoor facilities to respondents.
Possible framework principles
Therefore, one core principle for approaching conflicts in use is that we must preserve and enhance our remaining natural areas. Once lost they are unlikely to be replaced. Other core principles are ensuring continued adequate availability of multi-use green areas as well as distributed and equitable access to all park amenities. Finally, with limited park resources, not every possible use can have its own allocated, exclusive space, nor should it.
Longer term approaches
The primary driver of these conflicts remains the demand/park resources gap. The best way for the County to minimize these conflicts is to undertake an aggressive parkland acquisition program, including the Board adopting the goal set forth in last year’s Civic Federation resolution for the County to acquire on average 3 acres of new parkland per year. The Board must then authorize sufficient ongoing funding to support this goal through both planned and opportunistic acquisitions.
Even aggressive land acquisition will not by itself adequately close the demand/resources gap, and the County needs to also “create” new space, especially for sports activities, e.g., basketball and tennis courts and soccer fields in high rises and on top of buildings.
With 63,000 more residents by 2040, people will need parks more than ever. Committing to and funding the aggressive land and space acquisition goals discussed above, and implementing a conflict resolution framework, can convert too limited parkland into diverse and accessible parkland.
In my December 22 column, I highlighted a flawed public engagement process recently employed by Parks & Recreation. I also cited examples of other recent controversial County public processes. These controversies demonstrate systemic problems and the need for Arlington to develop an improved model of public engagement.
Reports such as CFS and PLACE have pointed the way. Now we need a plan for getting there.
This new model needs to be grounded in an overall framework of basic principles, including facilitating the broadest realistic consensus, process legitimacy and real-time fact-based decision-making.
Ten core process improvements that should be implemented by the County in 2017 include:
Standard Models: Develop a limited number of standard public engagement models with clear guidance as to what types of processes require a specific model so that the public understands what these processes should look like. The siting model proposed by the CFS provides a starting point.
Ethical Communication: Arlington County’s Code of Ethics should guide both County staff and Board-appointed volunteers serving on project groups during community engagement. Staff must be neutral facilitators.
Civic Engagement Plans: Each project should include a civic engagement implementation and communications plan approved by the County Manager’s Office.
Consultations Hub: Increase transparency and participation with a one-stop-shop online portal to access all ongoing, planned and closed County public engagement processes, including input, questions, survey results and associated documents. These hubs have become standard in government. Three examples: here, here, and here.
Charges: All Charges developed to govern a proposed public engagement process should be published for public comment sufficiently prior to submission to the County Board for adoption.
Disclosure of Material Facts: Disclose relevant material facts upfront, or if arising during a community engagement process, then promptly after being known.
Scientifically Valid Surveys: Surveys conducted by the County need to be scientifically valid. A set of principles for all surveys needs to be published to assure citizens that the surveys are fair, balanced and accurate. Promptly publish all survey results.
Diversity of Views: Project groups should include members with critical or alternative viewpoints. The CFS Residents Forum was a welcome innovation in this direction.
Notification and Minimum Review Cycles: Standardize time periods and processes for notification of stakeholders and for review of decision-making documents. Materials to be submitted by County staff for action should be published no less than five business days and subject to public comment prior to action by Staff or Board. Hold public hearings well in advance of Board consideration, not immediately prior.
Fiscal Stewardship: Project groups must consider best use of resources and be informed upfront of any applicable dollar authorization for their project. Any options considered by the project group must have needs assessments and associated dollar estimates, including maintenance, so that budget impacts are a real-time part of deliberation.
Recent actions by the County, including tasking a senior manager with civic engagement oversight, seem to indicate a willingness to rethink our approach to public engagement. Such rethinking and relevant reforms are vital and long overdue.
Acknowledgement of the community principles and implementation of the core improvements discussed above would confirm that the County is willing to move toward a new model of Arlington civic engagement.
As 2017 looms, the Arlington County government’s best estimate (Profile 2016) is that Arlington will have 63,000 more residents in 2040 (283,000) than we have now (220,000).
That 29% population increase will require substantial investments in new or refurbished core public infrastructure. These investment requirements will extend well beyond the 2026 end date of our current Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).
Arlington prides itself on planning. Writing in last week’s Progressive Voice column, Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz aptly recommended “a special emphasis on long range planning.” I agree.
Longer-term forecasts are subject to greater potential for error. But, flexible longer-term plans can be adjusted as new information becomes available. Flexible longer-term plans are better than no longer-term plans.
Here are 8 of the initiatives that the County Board should pursue in 2017:
- Longer-term financial modeling: Develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least 3 assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). Publish the results and the assumptions. Invite community input, and publicize what the community says.
- Revise the CIP process: While retaining the current practice of formally adopting a new CIP every other year, develop and publish revised CIP projections in the “off” years (e.g., 2017) to show the impact of significant changes since the prior year’s CIP was adopted. Invite and publicize community feedback.
- To protect affordability, maintain stability in property tax rates.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
- Project-specific impact statements: As the Community Facilities Study Group recommended, prepare project-specific impact statements for each special-exception site plan development project. Reject the myth that Arlington lacks the legal power to require such statements.
- Revise Community Benefits Allocation: Link the allocation of “community benefits” to the demonstrable impacts on community services and infrastructure as revealed by the project specific impact statements. In all appropriate cases, community benefits should include compensation from the developer for the costs of incremental school enrollment directly attributable to the project.
- New Arlington high school: Collaborate with APS on APS’ existing plan to decide by October 2017 whether the next new Arlington HS should be a comprehensive HS or a choice HS. Our current CIP is based on the assumption that we will need 1300 new HS seats by 2026. However, if it were to turn out that our best population growth estimate suggests a need for 2000 new HS seats by 2032, how should that 2032 estimate impact our 2017 decision? What is the relative public demand for individual, specialized HS programs vs. comprehensive HS programs?
- Lower per-seat costs of new school construction: Jointly with APS, adopt appropriate revisions to the design standards and community review processes for constructing future new schools, utilizing a mandated specific percentage numerical target for per-seat cost-cutting (say, 25% less per-seat than recent new schools).
- Adopt specific numerical targets for new parkland acquisition: To keep pace with population growth, formally commit to acquiring 3 acres per year for new parkland.
The Arlington County government should make greater use of longer-term planning. Arlington needs to demonstrate to the public that it has fiscally-sustainable plans to accommodate the substantial development and population growth that Arlington says will occur between now and 2040.
Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
On December 8, Jane Rudolph, Director of Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), issued a formal apology on behalf of DPR and the County Manager’s Office. At issue were the ways in which Parks staff interacted with residents last year over a proposed additional playground at tiny Nelly Custis Park:
County staff made statements that were inappropriate and inconsiderate. The engagement within the community was not at the level that Arlington County expects to deliver to their residents. We are sorry. …We will strive to ensure that all members of the community are a critical part of the project moving forward.
Kudos to Jane Rudolph and Mark Schwartz for their forthright apology.
On the very same day, Gillian Burgess, writing in the Progressive Voice column, observed: “Arlington has the opportunity to be a national leader in developing a modern model of community engagement.” I agree.
The proposal was highly contested for several reasons — less green space, proximity to nearby homes, need and equity. Why, some asked, did Aurora Highlands need a 6th playground when 16 neighborhoods have none?
Adjacent neighbors were not notified. Follow-up meeting notifications didn’t occur. From the beginning, it appeared that Parks staff was giving undue weight to some voices, including daycare and commercial users.
Numerous community members suspected that there was something wrong with the community engagement process. This led to a January 9, 2016 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the County. Emails and other documents the County produced in response confirmed these suspicions.
The documents produced showed that:
- County staff failed to follow Arlington’s code of ethics,
- Committees failed to follow their own process guidelines,
- Persons with special interests undisclosed in the NCAC approval process worked nearly exclusively with staff, and
- Numerous efforts were pursued (both publicly and with staff) to exclude, discredit and even falsely campaign against residents including stakeholders, working group members and active civic volunteers.
The Nelly Custis Park project illustrates the serious issues that Arlington faces relating to community engagement. Three other examples are the WRAPS process in western Rosslyn, the fencing of a Bluemont Park baseball diamond and the Williamsburg fields lighting proposal.
The serious community engagement issues highlighted by all these recent controversies include:
- Lack of a needs assessment including demographic information,
- Prematurely deciding that a proposed project is needed at all,
- Properly defining the nature of the proposed project and alternatives to it,
- Providing adequate public notice to close-by residents and all stakeholders,
- Need for properly designed community surveys,
- Undue influence exercised by organized special interests, and
- Lack of fair and neutral stewardship by County staff.
The Community Facilities report analyzed why Arlington needs to do better in this area. The County’s recent hiring of Bryna Helfer as its Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement is encouraging. But the Nelly Custis controversy indicates how much new thinking, processes and leadership are needed in order for Arlington to develop a new model of civic engagement. The County apology indicates progress.
In last week’s column, I explained why Arlington is not ready for a major flood.
On Saturday, December 10, the County Board approved zoning changes to S-3A zoning districts without the safeguards against flood risk that I recommended in that column.
Commenting on my earlier column, Arlington environmental activist Suzanne Sundburg noted County Manager Mark Schwartz’s admission (at December’s Arlington County Civic Federation meeting) that no one in Arlington County government has been assigned the responsibility of assessing Arlington’s cumulative flood risk.
Mr. Schwartz’s failure to assign anyone this important task means that no one is weighing or producing public analyses that encompass ALL of the dynamic factors that can increase flood risk, including:
- Land use changes and increases in impervious and semi-pervious surfaces;
- Climate change, including sea-level rise and higher tides in the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River and therefore, the Four Mile Run watershed;
- Other existing floodplains and historically flood-prone areas;
- The limitations of storm-water management systems for flood-reduction purposes;
- The loss of Arlington’s mature tree canopy, etc.
The more development and the more pavement (aka “impervious surfaces”) added to public parks (including FEMA floodplains, flood-prone areas, Chesapeake Bay resource/riparian protection areas and other portions of our watershed), the greater the risk of flooding.
Arlington’s lack of a “flood czar” and its lack of a comprehensive flood-risk assessment means that we are gambling with the lives and property of Arlington citizens and business owners. The County itself also risks damage to or loss of its own critical infrastructure and assets.
Ms. Sundburg also has asked whether County staff has or can obtain updated local stream gage measurements to supplement those found in a 2004 document: Flood Frequency Analysis for Four Mile Run at USGS Gaging Station 1652500, now almost 13 years old. Updated local measurements may be useful in assessing Arlington’s current flood risk.
A recent Texas A&M study suggests that even in the absence of climate change, cities and urban areas are facing an increased flood risk. So discounting the added impact of climate change doesn’t negate the increasing flood risk that Arlington and other urbanized communities are facing.
Remnants of a 2011 tropical storm that hit us wouldn’t be considered a “100-year rainfall event.” Yet, this storm was sufficient to cause significant localized flooding along Four Mile Run. You can see it in action in this YouTube video.
And the mere presence of flood-protection improvements made in the downstream and upstream Four Mile Run watershed since Hurricane Agnes in 1972 coupled with the fact that Arlington has not suffered comparable flood damage since Agnes are NOT confirmation that those improvements offer sufficient flood protection in today’s environment.
In truth, we have no reliable basis on which to be certain whether these post-1972 improvements are sufficient because:
- Arlington lacks a flood czar to evaluate them, and
- We haven’t had a storm comparable to Agnes since the 1970s.
The County Board should direct the County Manager to:
- Appoint a flood czar;
- Direct that czar to prepare and make available for public review and comment a comprehensive flood risk assessment; and
- Direct that czar to prepare and make available for public comment a flood mitigation plan for Arlington similar to the Westchester County Plan that I discussed in last week’s column.