104°Mostly Cloudy

by Peter Rousselot — July 21, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

On July 19, the County Board approved another extension of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC Program). But, this program no longer can function effectively.

Arlington’s NC Program had a noble objective:

When the program was created in 1964, the goal was to empower residents by having them come together to discuss and share ideas for improving their neighborhoods.

Though nothing could sound more idyllic or representative of the “Arlington Way,” the way NC actually works in practice undermines its lofty goals. NC has problems in three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.

Discussion

Equity. NC’s principal inequity — a crippling one — arises because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are being denied timely neighborhood infrastructure improvements since they live in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association. (Belonging to a civic association is an NC requirement.)

Many civic associations have modest memberships, representing just a fraction of the community’s population. Most are operated by a handful of volunteers. Quite a few lack functioning, updated websites, and still fewer are capable of producing anything approaching a newsletter. Newsletters distributed to the highest possible percentage of community members are the surest means of effective communication.

Simply put, too few civic associations are truly functional. Many are run by a few people with little knowledge of or consent from those living within the association’s boundaries. Arlington County cannot mandate that every civic association function properly.

Residents without a fully functioning civic association are barred from tapping the NC Program’s roughly $12 million annual budget.

Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive requirements, which include monthly meeting attendance–often for years–to gain “funding points,” and repeated outreach and notification efforts, mean the complete NC “process” can take anywhere from 5 to 10 years. If an association’s NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.

Project engineering, always in short supply, further delays project funding. The current status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.

Cost. Typically, delays make projects more expensive. Earlier this decade, the cap for NC projects was $250,000. Then, it grew to $500,000. In the most recent funding round, improvements to Nelly Custis Park clocked in at almost $800,000.

NC rules also add to costs. For example, NC street projects must contain curb, gutter and sidewalk components, whether or not a sidewalk is needed or desired. With flexible spending caps, expensive add-ons like lighting are common–even though Dominion will install new lights at no charge.

It’s time to provide a more equitable, timely and cost-effective way to provide critical infrastructure to neighborhoods. Back in 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. County staff has the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding.

Conclusion

Over the next two years, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely and re-allocate current NC Program funds.

The Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient. A more flexible Missing Links Program could be another.

The goal should be to fund critical infrastructure equitably, efficiently and in a way far superior to what is possible under the NC Program.

by Peter Rousselot — July 14, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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, my fellow ARLnow.com columnist, Mark Kelly, posted a column that said that living with aircraft and helicopter noise in Arlington was the price we pay for the economic benefits generated by National Airport (DCA) and the Pentagon. In response, Chris Slatt posted this most up-voted comment:

One can fully support the airport and the Pentagon as necessary and integral parts of Arlington while simultaneously questioning whether reasonable measures are being taken to minimize their impact on quality of life.

Chris is right to question whether reasonable measures are being taken. Many measures are.

How the FAA has contributed to increased noise

The increased noise results both from increased numbers of flights at DCA and changes to flight paths.

Last year was DCA’s sixth straight year of record-high passenger traffic. DCA now serves more passengers than Dulles–an airport 14 times its size.

The changes to flight paths are a result of NextGen – the FAA’s modernization initiative for the U.S. air traffic system designed to maximize efficiency.

Congressman Don Beyer has spearheaded initiatives to address DCA aircraft noise

Congressman Beyer:

  • Is an original co-sponsor of HR 3965, the FAA Community Accountability Act. This bill would require FAA to take into account negative impacts on the human environment near airports when considering flight path changes related to NextGen. Currently, FAA is required primarily to consider only safety and efficiency;
  • Sent a May 5, 2015 letter from the Virginia and DC Congressional delegations to Transportation Committee members stating their opposition to changes to DCA slot and perimeter rules;
  • Encouraged FAA to include the DC region in a multiyear study of the relationship between aircraft noise exposure and its effects on communities around airports.

Congressman Beyer also has spearheaded initiatives to address helicopter noise

Congressman Beyer’s office has received complaints related to military helicopter noise since he joined the Congress. These complaints overwhelmingly have related to frequent overflights from the V-22 Osprey, an 85-foot-wide tiltrotor aircraft.

Beyer successfully added an amendment to the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the DOD to work with the FAA to study noise mitigation solutions to military helicopter noise.  He spearheaded a National Capital Region letter to DOD Secretary Ash Carter and the FAA Administrator offering to facilitate DOD/FAA outreach to communities impacted by military helicopter noise.

Beyer’s initiatives have not attempted to seek an outright ban on military helicopter flights, but he believes it is irresponsible to ignore his constituents and not seek some mitigation solutions. Beyer has not succumbed to the reasoning in Mark Kelly’s column that nothing can be done simply because the “Pentagon was here first.” Instead, Beyer has proceeded on the premise that homeowners in Arlington and elsewhere should not be forced to anticipate the Department of Defense developing and then routinely flying an Osprey over their homes.

Conclusion

Noise mitigation measures may include federal legislative or regulatory actions that actually will lower the aircraft noise levels we are experiencing today. At least with respect to DCA air traffic growth, it is hard to envision how this will be realistically possible unless the DCA air traffic share is lowered and the Dulles share is raised.

Preferably, DOD and FAA will adhere to good neighbor policies that will quiet the skies.

by Peter Rousselot — July 7, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal criminal bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts observed:

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” Roberts wrote. “It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

Heeding the advice of former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, I’m not going to discuss whether the Court’s decision in the McDonnell case was wise because, as Jackson said, “we are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” Nor am I going to predict whether the federal government will attempt to re-try McDonnell or whether Congress will attempt to amend the federal bribery laws.

Instead, let’s focus on the implications of the McDonnell decision for further Virginia ethics reform.

Bob McDonnell’s 2014 bribery conviction spurred grudging reforms to Virginia’s ethics laws in the next Virginia legislative session. One of the key arguments for the 2015 reforms was that McDonnell’s conduct was then legal under Virginia state law. However, several leading Virginia legislators made it clear in 2015 that they were only supporting the reforms because of media pressure. The highlight of the law passed in 2015 was the creation of a $100 annual limit on gifts from lobbyists and some others to any single public official.

Perversely, now that the Supreme Court has ruled that McDonnell’s conduct did not violate federal criminal law, some of the same Virginia legislators who never wanted to reform Virginia’s ethical practices in the first place have started dropping hints that they would like to loosen things up again. That would be a grave mistake.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the McDonnell case makes it clear that the states retain the power to decide whether politicians who do what Bob McDonnell did should be:

  • excused for having done something that is just part of the normal political process (“they all do it”), or
  • subject to significant penalties for doing something that the public has decided is wrong.

Virginia Democratic Delegate Marcus Simon recently drew the correct lesson, “the fact that he didn’t break any laws doesn’t mean that our ethics laws aren’t broken.”

In the 2017 Virginia legislative session, the 2015 ethics reforms should be further strengthened not weakened. Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, its Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:

  • A civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the conflict of interest law or the financial disclosure law, and
  • A maximum civil penalty of $25,000 for bribery.

Conclusion

They all shouldn’t do it. Virginia should strengthen significantly its penalties for conduct like Bob McDonnell’s. Our legislators should be able to find a model for Virginia that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.

by Peter Rousselot — June 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

In a recent Progressive Voice column, Larry Roberts presented the case for Yes in My Backyard (or “YIMBY”) development as a better alternative than NIMBY. However, many issues relating to future development in Arlington will not present a clear YIMBY or NIMBY choice. The best initial answer will be MIMBY (Maybe in My Backyard).

Discussion

Arlington is forecasting, and our Comprehensive Plan now enables (often on a by-right basis), an estimated additional 75,400 people living here by 2040.

For analytical purposes, it is helpful to subdivide the potential for new Comprehensive Plan development into at least two broad categories: (1) by-right development and (2) development that can only occur via affirmative government action to change existing zoning.

By-right development

A local government like Arlington has limited legal power to constrain plans by a private land owner to develop land according to existing zoning as provided in Arlington’s General Land Use Plan (“GLUP”). Arlington thus lacks the legal power to impose a moratorium on such development just because it might negatively impact schools, parks, or other public infrastructure. If marketplace conditions are right, this kind of development will take place in your backyard or someone else’s whether you like it or not.

What Arlington should be doing right now is to utilize the best available forecasts of population growth to estimate quantitatively where and when this development is likely to occur throughout Arlington. (Recently revised Sector Plans for Rosslyn and Crystal City exemplify plans that substantially increased authorized density under the GLUP.) Next, Arlington should use the best available financial modeling tools to estimate and make public the incremental extent and associated costs of all new public infrastructure (e.g., schools, fire stations, roads, parks) that will be required to serve the forecasted population growth.

Development that can only occur via affirmative government action

Armed with this baseline information, Arlington will have the best available database to determine the impact on the community each time Arlington is asked to take affirmative action to enable new development that exceeds applicable by-right zoning, whether that development is confined to a single site, a localized region around a site, or an entire sector. The proposed increase in density currently envisioned in the Lee Highway corridor is a good example.

Before any kind of new up-zoning is approved, Arlington should make available to the public an estimate of both (1) the incremental public infrastructure costs that would be incurred if the requested zoning change is authorized compared to the public infrastructure costs that would be incurred if the land were developed in accordance with existing zoning and (2) comparable estimates of incremental tax revenues. Loudoun County and many other jurisdictions routinely perform and publicize these project-by-project impact analyses.

If the net incremental public infrastructure costs of approving the up-zoning substantially exceed the net incremental tax revenues, Arlington could choose among a number of different options, including conditioning approval on an agreement by the private developer to pay a portion of the net incremental public infrastructure costs. If this really is not legally possible (which is dubious), more outright denials of requested zoning changes may be the only responsible option.

Conclusion

Arlington and its citizens need to understand the incremental cost and revenue impacts well before the County Board votes on any future up-zoning request. With that information, the community is best positioned to approve or reject discretionary development.

by Peter Rousselot — June 16, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Donald Trump’s campaign has suffered severe damage over the last several weeks.

Four out of ten GOP party insiders are seriously exploring ways to dump Trump as the GOP nominee, but a majority of GOP insiders still believe that would be disastrous because it would flout the will of the people who voted for Trump.

Refusing to be part of any Dump Trump movement, however, is nowhere near the same thing as the type of solid party support that is typical this many weeks after clinching the nomination. As Virginia GOP insiders put it:

“Republicans can’t do anything to hurt Trump now without knee-capping our other GOP candidates up and down the ballot. … It would be like Coca-Cola admitting that Coke Classic is toxic and expecting it not to hurt the sales of Diet Coke. For better or worse, we’re all in this together now. … Let him have it. But Republicans should have nothing to do with him or his campaign. Walk away. Let him lose, in spectacular fashion, on his own.”

Prominent Virginia Republicans, like 10th Congressional District Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, have been highly critical of Trump, describing him as:

“A casino owner who bankrupted casinos … Daddy gave him his money. He played with it … He doesn’t know anything about the economy … I don’t think he believes in anything aside from himself.”

Representative Comstock has returned a $3,000 contribution Trump made to her campaign, but still hasn’t definitively ruled out the possibility that she might endorse him for President.
Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli admitted to NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood that unconvinced Virginia conservatives might just stay home in November, and longtime Northern Virginia conservative activist and former GOP member of the House of Delegates, David Ramadan, said he has suspended his party membership because of Trump’s candidacy.
Signs of serious trouble for the Trump campaign in Virginia already were evident back in April when a Virginia poll found that:

[R]oughly 30% of likely Republican voters in Virginia are unsure whether they would vote for GOP front-runner Donald Trump in the general election if he is their party’s nominee. In contrast, 90% of Virginia Democrats polled said they would support Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the general election, even if they are currently Bernie Sanders supporters.

An examination of voter turnout patterns in the March Virginia Republican Presidential primary confirms that Trump’s likely support in voter-rich areas such as Northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs will be sustantially weaker than Mitt Romney’s was in 2012 when Romney lost Virginia to Obama. For example, John Kasich received a substantial percentage of the vote in the Republican primary in Northern Virginia, including 23 percent each in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church. Given his recent performance on the national stage, Trump’s appeal to those Kasich voters is likely to be significantly lower today than it was in March.
Mitt Romney himself has stated he will neither support nor vote for Trump because a Trump Presidency would be characterized by “trickle down racism,” “trickle down bigotry,” and “trickle down misogyny.”

Conclusion:

The Trump brand is toxic. The Trump brand sure isn’t Coke Classic. It’s New Coke.

by Peter Rousselot — June 2, 2016 at 2:30 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

By some measures, Arlington parks are doing well, but without changing course, we’re falling behind.

Arlington Parks are Ranked 4th in the Nation…

Congratulations to Arlington County on our park system being ranked as 4th among the nation’s 100 largest cities by the authoritative Trust for Public Land (TPL) in its ParkScore® index, based on the three factors of Park Access, Park Size, and Facilities and Investment.

But, Our Parkland Acreage is Already Inadequate for Current… and Future… Population

As I detailed in earlier columns, our public parks and recreational facilities are a core government service. They provide social, health and environmental benefits critical to the quality of life in our community. Unfortunately, as a snapshot in time, the ParkScore® index doesn’t reveal that current demand in Arlington for active and passive parks and recreation already far exceeds current resources. County land acquisition has not kept pace with population growth, resulting in increased shortages and overcrowding of all forms of recreational and outdoor space.

Over a 20-year period, Arlington County acquired an annual average of 3.8 acres of new public parkland. The most recent trend has been lower — just 0.63 acres were purchased in 2015. The result is an ongoing decline in the ratio of parkland per 1,000 residents, declining from a ratio of 10.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents in 1995 to 7.9 acres per 1,000 residents in 2015 with a considerably lower average in our high-density corridors.   Our neighbors are doing much better: D.C. has 13.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents; Fairfax County has over 20 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and is planning to purchase an additional 2,015 acres for parks.

Yet, our Comprehensive Plan contemplates the addition of 35,300 households or an estimated additional 75,400 people by 2040, a dramatic increase of 36%. What is now an acute shortage in active and passive park and recreation resources will turn into a crisis by 2040 unless the County accelerates its parkland acquisition now.

We need increased CIP Funding

Unfortunately, the County Manager’s proposed CIP includes only $3 million of parkland acquisition funding for fiscal years 2017 and 2018, at p.B-5, well below funding levels before the Great Recession.

Between 1995 and 2008, funding for parkland acquisition per two-year park bond cycle was between $4.0 and $8.5 million, with most cycles at $8.5 million. Yet between 2008 and 2014, a six year period, parkland acquisition funding, from both bonds ($3.0 million) and budget allocations ($5.47 million), totaled only $8.47 million.

With land in Arlington costing on average at least $4 million per acre and increasing every year, the $3 million of land acquisition funds now proposed for the CIP for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 will potentially purchase approximately only three quarters of an acre of parkland! This is woefully inadequate to meet current, no less projected, demands for passive and active recreation in our County.

Conclusion

The County Board needs to dramatically increase the parkland acquisition funding in the 2017-2018 CIP to at least $8 million, the same approximate level as prior to the Great Recession, for inclusion on the November 2016 ballot.

Let’s ensure that we have adequate parkland for all of our people in the future… and that Arlington continues to rank highly in the ParkScore® index.

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.

by Peter Rousselot — May 26, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

On May 9, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy presented his preliminary recommendations regarding how APS’ Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) could reduce APS’ 4,600 total seat deficit in 2025. Murphy’s preliminary recommendations reduced only 53% of that deficit.

On May 17, the School Board (SB) reviewed and discussed Murphy’s recommendations. Dissatisfied with Murphy’s priorities, the SB adopted its own series of “key points,” including:

  • Increasing enrollment in the Arlington Tech Program at the Arlington Career Center.
  • Other options that place a higher priority on reducing the projected 2,775 HS seat deficit in 2025.
  • Possibilities for using the Reed building and site to develop a new elementary school to help reduce the projected 1,387 ES seat deficit in 2025.
  • Future additions at several North Arlington elementary schools further to relieve elementary overcrowding.

On May 24, in a joint work session with the County Board, the SB made significant further proposed changes to its CIP. These had not been posted on the County’s website when this column was submitted.

As a top instructional priority, APS should commit to a fourth comprehensive high school

The SB was correct to place a higher priority on solutions for the HS seat deficit, and the SB’s May 24 presentation claims to eliminate that deficit by 2025. However, the SB has not yet committed to making a fourth comprehensive HS part of the solution. It should.

In an earlier column, I outlined the case for a fourth comprehensive HS, including the extensive academic research documenting why 3,000 seat comprehensive high schools are a bad idea. Arlington cannot and should not rely solely on other initiatives like Arlington Tech, online learning, university partnerships, double shifting, or extending the school day.

On its own, and working collaboratively with the County, APS must significantly reduce the per-square-foot cost of new facilities construction

Under the CIP scenario presented on May 24, there are still significant elementary and middle school seat deficits in 2025, and those assume that actual enrollment does not exceed projected enrollment.

APS needs to adopt new approaches to reducing per-square foot costs:

  • In consultation with disinterested outside experts, APS and the County should conduct a stem-to-stern review of all aspects of APS’ procurement, bidding, design, and construction practices. If Arlington continues to pay for APS’ current version of new facilities customization, overcrowding will grow and instructional quality will erode.
  • Other school systems are embracing new modular school technologies. APS staff insists modular isn’t a good option in most Arlington circumstances. Do disinterested outside experts agree with APS?

In exchange for APS’ agreement to significantly reduce the per-square-foot cost of new facilities construction, the County should provide APS with land and a higher % share of bonding capacity

If APS commits to a new era of more frugal construction through standardization, the County — within the constraints of its “10% rule” on debt service — should give:

  • APS county land (but not current parkland), and
  • a higher % share of total Arlington bonding capacity.

To finance this commitment, the County should defer some proposed County investments until later in the CIP planning period.

Conclusion

Adopting a more frugal approach to procurement, bidding, design and construction, in exchange for county land and greater bonding capacity, will get us much closer to eliminating our current capacity crisis at a price we can afford.

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.

by Peter Rousselot — May 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 month, Arlington County unveiled its latest proposal for an Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park. The County has dropped a few of the more excessive features from its last public proposal, but only after a firestorm of justified public opposition. The County also has acknowledged that the facility should be “community” focused, highlighting the relative lack of aquatics resources in South Arlington.

The latest Aquatics Center concept presents multiple unanswered questions needing resolution, e.g. who are the most likely users, has the clear demand for aquatics resources been equitably addressed? Fortunately, the County Board need not rush to judgment in the short period until the July adoption of the next CIP. Instead, the Board simply should incorporate into that CIP an appropriate dollar cap on what Arlington should spend on the revised Aquatics Center, permitting several more months of community discussion followed by a fall decision.

Discussion

A fundamental disconnect remains between the latest Aquatics Center base proposal and the aquatic resources Arlington most needs: community pools

Arlington primarily has followed a model of distributed park and recreation resources, endeavoring equitably to locate such resources within reasonable access of the surrounding neighborhoods. The “community” for the proposed Aquatics Center should be southeast Arlington–with the exception of the 50-meter pool. If a 50-meter pool is indeed needed in Arlington, that pool should be located at this site because we probably don’t have space elsewhere.

Consistent with a southeast Arlington focus, the Aquatics Center should be down-sized by deleting certain elements from the latest base proposal

Assuming that the 50-meter pool is retained, then the 25-meter “leisure” pool at Long Bridge should be dropped because the dollars saved can better be spent for another 25-meter pool in a different South Arlington location.

(Update on 5/13/16 — “A 25-meter pool is not part of the new facility plan as recommended by both the Long Bridge Park Advisory Committee and the County Manager,” says Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish. Responds Rousselot: “The 10,000 square foot second pool being proposed by the County is indeed not precisely described as a ’25 meter pool,’ but instead is described as ‘A multi-purpose pool’ or a ‘Combined Teaching and Family Pool,’ etc. However, the 10,000 square foot size assigned by the County to this second pool was the basis for my rough estimate of $5.7 million potentially saved by the deletion of this second pool at Long Bridge.”)

Using a rough dollar-per-square-foot cost based on County staff’s cost projections, dropping the 25-meter pool could save potentially $5.7 million. In addition, the 10,000 square feet proposed for fitness activities in the latest Aquatics Center base proposal should be reduced to no more than 5,000 square feet, a space much more consistent with the average of 3,000 square feet of fitness areas in most other County community centers. Such a reduction potentially could save an additional $2.9 million.

These two proposed changes could result in a total saving of $8.6 million, reducing the estimated total “low-end” project cost of the Aquatics Center base proposal from $42 million to $33.4 million.

The $8.6 million saved by downsizing the base proposal should be re-allocated as core financing for another community pool and enhanced fitness resources in another, more central South Arlington location

A new community pool and enhanced fitness resources could potentially be located at Gunston or Drew, each recently considered as a site for a new/revised elementary school center. Other South Arlington locations should be investigated.

Conclusion

Arlington should engage in several more months of community discussion, followed by a fall decision, about equitable distribution of fitness and aquatic needs. By reallocating scarce parks capital to a second community pool in south Arlington, we can achieve a “win-win”.  Proceeding this way will further more equitable access to our limited parks resources, encourage a more transparent and appropriate cost recovery model, and promote realistic community-focused access.

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.

by Peter Rousselot — May 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

On April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court held an oral argument on former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal criminal corruption conviction. Press reports on the oral argument suggest that the Supreme Court might end up overturning McDonnell’s conviction.

If the Supreme Court does rule in McDonnell’s favor, the average citizen should be justifiably outraged that what McDonnell did isn’t illegal. It reminds me of these lyrics.

Well there oughta be a law against what he’s done
Stole my heart and away he run
Didn’t leave me a thing but misery
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me

What did Bob McDonnell do?

Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, accepted multiple expensive gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the boss of a dietary supplement manufacturer known as Star Scientific.

These gifts included several expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, a $20,000 shopping spree, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, joy rides in Williams’ Ferrari and tens of thousands of dollars in private loans. McDonnell promoted a Star Scientific product known as Anatabloc, hosted an event at the Governor’s mansion for the product, passed out samples, and encouraged research about the product by Virginia universities. In one case, McDonnell emailed Williams asking about a $50,000 loan, and six minutes later sent another email to his staff asking for an update on Anatabloc scientific research.

Discussion

In 2014, a federal jury convicted McDonnell and his wife on multiple counts of extortion under the Hobbs Act, a federal criminal statute prohibiting political corruption, and of “honest-services” fraud. The jury concluded that there was sufficient evidence of a connection between the actions the Governor took and the gifts and the other favors Williams provided.

The oral argument before the Supreme Court suggested that several Justices were skeptical that the jury should even have been allowed to reach these conclusions. As Dalia Lithwick, a veteran Supreme Court watcher, observed:

It will be an amazing thing if — in a year when voters across the spectrum are infuriated and sickened by the influence of money in politics — the Supreme Court decides that poor Bob McDonnell should be let off the hook because he only did what every politician does every day: Take a lot of money to open doors for a rich guy. But maybe the line between money and influence is too fuzzy and ubiquitous to even be said in words anymore. 

What about Virginia law?

At the time Bob McDonnell did what he did, there is a general legal consensus that no Virginia criminal statute would have prohibited his conduct. Moreover, at that time, there were no limits on the dollar amount of gifts that could be given by a donor to members of the executive branch or their families.

Conclusion

Only the stupidest gift giver or public official is likely to prepare a written record documenting that the donor of a Rolex watch is providing it to a public official in exchange for favorable government action by the public official. That should not be the only circumstance enabling a successful criminal prosecution:

Well there oughta be a law…
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me.

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.

by Peter Rousselot — April 28, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

On Friday, April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of approximately 200,000 Virginia ex-felons. Governor McAuliffe made the right decision.

Background

“Virginia is part of a national trend toward restoring voter rights to felons … Over the last two decades about 20 states have acted to ease their restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University,” reports the New York Times.

According to Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Election Project at the Brennan Center, “what this will do is move Virginia, which was among the worst of the worst in terms of disenfranchising people, to a much more middle-of-the-road policy.”

Discussion: Why enfranchising ex-felons is the right thing to do

Conservative columnist David Brooks has been among the most eloquent voices supporting the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. In a 2010 column, Brooks summarized the case in favor of their enfranchisement:

There is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote. Once they are back in the community — paying taxes, working, raising families — they have the same concerns as other voters, and they should have the same say in who represents them. Disenfranchisement laws also work against efforts to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to ex-offenders, who have paid their debt, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining.

Last Friday, Brooks re-affirmed his position when asked specifically about Governor McAuliffe’s action in Virginia: “One of the weird things in our whole criminal justice system is, we have got people who are 50, and 60, well past what they call criminal menopause, and they’re perfectly upstanding citizens, and they’re not the person they were at 19, and yet we continue to punish them.”

The historical context in which Virginia disenfranchised ex-felons

Virginia’s record as one of the “worst of the worst” in disenfranchising ex-felons is inextricably tied to its Confederate past. Virginia ex-felons are disproportionately black. As a 2015 article from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia documents, Virginia’s record is long, sordid, and explicitly racist. In advising Governor McAuliffe about his April 22 executive order, researchers turned up a 1906 report:

that quoted Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator, as saying [disenfranchisement] would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”

Legal Issues

A.E. Dick Howard, the legal scholar who is credited as the principal author of Virginia’s current constitution, advised Governor McAuliffe that he had the legal authority to act unilaterally via executive order. Action by the Virginia legislature was unnecessary. Other lawyers disagree, claiming that Governor McAuliffe’s executive order violates the Virginia constitution. Lawsuits and efforts at legislative repeal or amending Virginia’s constitution might happen.

Conclusion

For the last 150 years, first Democrats and now Republicans in the Virginia legislature have compiled a dismal record blocking the restoration of ex-felons’ voting rights. Based on Howard’s legal advice, Governor McAuliffe acted appropriately in by-passing the legislature.

by Peter Rousselot — April 21, 2016 at 3:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

It’s time for Arlington County to conduct a comprehensive re-examination of whether to continue to install new artificial turf fields and if so, when, where, why and what kind.

Background

At its April 16 meeting, the County Board unanimously approved a County staff recommendation to award a $674,000 contract to renovate the synthetic turf field at Greenbrier Park. The field is the home field for Yorktown H.S. It is used for a wide variety of sports and school events.

The current artificial turf field at Greenbrier Park uses a surface containing re-cycled crumb rubber. The new artificial turf field at Greenbrier Park will use an alternative infill, EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer). EPDM is a vulcanized rubber material that County staff believes resembles and plays like crumb rubber, but is not made from recycled materials.

Discussion

All Arlington’s re-cycled crumb rubber fields should be replaced

Arlington should be commended for deciding to replace the crumb-rubber-based artificial turf field at Greenbrier Park.

Arlington County currently has one indoor and 14 outdoor fields with synthetic turf. Thirteen of these 15 synthetic turf fields use styrene butadiene rubber (SBR). This is crumb rubber made from recycled tires. These fields are: Barcroft Park (two fields), Greenbrier Park, Gunston Park (two fields), Long Bridge Park (three fields), Rocky Run Park, Thomas Jefferson Community Center, Virginia Highlands Park, Wakefield High School and Washington-Lee High School.

The newest, most credible evidence suggests that all these Arlington fields containing re-cycled crumb rubber pose too great a health risk. They should be replaced. As recently documented in a Change.org petition:

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.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet definitively banned synthetic turf fields that use re-cycled crumb rubber. But, Arlington need not wait for EPA’s final conclusions. Instead, Arlington should follow the lead of Montgomery County and other jurisdictions by committing to replace all of its artificial turf fields that currently use re-cycled crumb rubber when the useful lives of those fields end.

Arlington should comprehensively re-examine future installation of artificial turf

Arlington County staff currently believes that one of the key arguments in favor of artificial turf is that, although the upfront cost of installing artificial turf is far higher than installing natural turf, it is so much cheaper to maintain artificial turf that artificial turf is overwhelmingly more cost-effective. A Forbes magazine article casts serious doubt on this argument–certainly enough doubt to warrant re-examining it. As part of this re-examination, Arlington should consider a ban on future use of EPDM as has Hartford, CT.

Conclusion

The artificial turf industry lobby in this country is large, well-financed, and eager to maintain or increase the industry’s market share. The artificial turf industry lobby knows how to market its product to local municipalities. Given the potential health risks and dollars at stake, Arlington should appoint a special citizen-led task force to re-examine where Arlington should go from here on the artificial turf issue.

by Peter Rousselot — April 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Jessica Tucker, the new Independent Auditor, is off to a promising start. She was hired in December 2015 and reports directly to the County Board.

An Audit Committee provides oversight and advice regarding Ms. Tucker’s work. The committee held its first public meeting with Ms. Tucker on March 29.

Discussion

Ms. Tucker helpfully identified six metrics as informing what should be audited: cost savings; improved service delivery; revenue enhancement; increased efficiency; transparency and accountability; and risk mitigation. At the meeting, the committee applied these metrics to 33 suggestions for possible audits, pp. 7-11.

The 33 audit suggestions reviewed by the Audit Committee included the following:

  • Effective and efficient use of park funds
  • Site plan conditions: amendment and enforcement; whether developers are providing the community benefits promised to the County
  • Jail Medical Services (follow-up review of a previous study conducted by the Criminal Justice Institute in 2006)
  • Procurement Process

On March 29, the Audit Committee agreed initially that Ms. Tucker should begin two audits in fiscal 2016. The committee plans to decide upon its final 2017 fiscal year audit plan at its next meeting (tentatively scheduled for July 11). This will allow time for the committee to consider other items on the list of 33 together with suggestions from members of the general public submitted via use of the online “Audit Suggestion Form.”

The first two audits selected on March 29 are those relating to site plan conditions and jail healthcare.

Site Plan Conditions

As noted in a March 4 memorandum submitted by the Planning Commission, site plan conditions reflect the community’s expectations for a particular project. At times, developers subsequently request changes, and not all such requests go back to the Planning Commission or the County Board for review. Some of the changes have greatly altered a project from what was approved originally. The purpose of this audit is to analyze these changes over the years–how many have there been, what types, who actually approved them, and did the changes alter the physical project or the community benefits negotiated compared to the plan the County Board approved?

Jail Healthcare

Despite a series of jail healthcare reforms recommended in the 2006 report, there have been a series of healthcare issues at the jail. For example, a man collapsed and died there in October 2015 . And, a deaf man alleged that the six weeks he spent there amounted to torture because of inadequate procedures to deal with deafness.

Other Matters

The Audit Committee considered asking the Independent Auditor to review the County’s procurement practices given cost overruns and delays with the new homeless services center and several parks projects. Because there has been major procurement staff turnover in the last twelve months, the committee decided that since reforms are already underway, such an audit should be deferred.

The Audit Committee also conducted a lively debate regarding the Independent Auditor’s requested addendum to the County Board’s audit charge regarding free and open access to books and records, facilities and personnel, p. 4. The committee ultimately approved this request in order to send an important signal for the future.

Conclusion

The work of the new Independent Auditor should improve Arlington’s fiscal health.

by Peter Rousselot — April 7, 2016 at 12:30 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

A new report by The 2030 Group recommends strategies that localities in our region should pursue to re-accelerate private-sector economic growth.

The report was prepared under the leadership of Dr. Steven Fuller, a distinguished, long-time — regional economist at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University (GMU). Bob Buchanan, President of The 2030 Group, was a co-leader.

The report was sponsored by a wide range of academic, business, and governmental institutions, including GMU, American University, University of Maryland, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and the Urban Land Institute.

Background

The report documents that cutbacks in federal spending drastically have reduced regional economic growth since 2010. “This pattern of under-performance is likely to continue into the future as long as the region’s economy remains overly dependent for its growth on increases in federal spending.”

The report identifies seven advanced industrial clusters that “represent high value-added and high-growth potential businesses for which the Washington region is a competitive location.” To continue to diversify our economy, the report recommends that we should focus on these clusters: Advocacy; Information and Communications Technology; Science and Security Technology; Biological and Health Technology; Business and Financial; Media and Information; and Business and Leisure Travel.

Discussion

The report identifies four critical business requirements for growth in these clusters: Talent Development, Attraction and Retention; Quality of Life; Transportation Flexibility and Adaptability; and Access to Capital. It also identifies four constraints on business growth: Lack of Regional Branding; Lack of an Entrepreneurial Culture; Competition among Local Jurisdictions; and Public Costs and Disincentives.

Based on interviews with 33 of the region’s top business leaders and CEO’s, the report recommends six action items. The highlights of each action item are:

Talent Requirements: In order to advance the region’s competitive position, it’s essential to invest in the region’s public education capacity to ensure that its graduates have the necessary capabilities to pursue careers requiring advanced education and skills training.

Quality of Life: The region needs to develop regional solutions to its high housing costs and the resulting challenges of affordability. Housing affordability has multiple facets including publicly imposed costs that contribute no real value to the finished product.

Transportation: The ultimate solution is the authorization of a Tri-State (DC, MD, and VA) Transportation Authority (including highway, mass transit and water services) that has the authority to plan, finance, construct and operate the region’s transportation system.

Business Branding: The development of a business brand for the Washington area needs to be initiated by the private sector because the public sector is too fragmented and competitive to come to a consensus on a singular regional brand.

Regional Collaboration among Local Jurisdictions: Establishing a culture of collaboration among local jurisdictions, even within the same state, will be challenging but needs to start somewhere, as the cost of non-collaboration is high and the region’s economic future cannot afford non-collaboration.

Inefficiencies among Multiple Governments: Cost differentials exist within the region and result in business investment seeking locations in lower-cost jurisdictions. Unless these higher costs can be rationalized by the affected businesses, the higher-cost jurisdictions will be viewed negatively and avoided.

CONCLUSION

Arlington’s economic future is tied to the region’s economic future. We should pursue sensible strategies that recognize and reinforce our increasing interdependence.

by Peter Rousselot — March 31, 2016 at 11:45 am 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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’s ARLnow.com story about a recent Arlington County survey has reignited a multi-year debate over the wisdom of building an Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park.

For reasons I have outlined in multiple prior columns, that particular Aquatics Center — a facility that is likely to cost much more than $80 million to build and at least $4 million a year to operate — is a foolish waste of taxpayer dollars. This is especially true given the:

  • vastly changed economic circumstances since this project was first conceived, and
  • new competing demands over the next ten years.

Background

From January 2015 until today, the supporters of the original Aquatics Center design have pursued one failed attempt after another to find partners who would help pay for part of the cost of this palatial facility. First, they hoped that the D.C. metro area would get the Summer Olympics. D.C. lost out. Then, they tried to interest Alexandria in a partnership at Long Bridge. Instead, Alexandria is focusing on improving its own existing Chinquapin facility. Now, Arlington is rumored to be wooing local colleges and universities — with nothing yet to show for it.

While all these fruitless efforts were underway, Fairfax County has turned to a private development consortium to build Fairfax’s mega sports-fitness-wellness complex in Springfield.

Discussion

Arlington has spent 15 months focused on trying to salvage as much as possible of the original Aquatics Center design.

It’s time to stop trying to do that.

Far too much County staff time and resources already have been spent on this 15-month quest. Instead, the County Board should direct staff to use the valuable information obtained from the responses to portions of the new survey to produce a bottoms-up new design for a sensible community pool and fitness facility at Long Bridge Park — and potentially other South Arlington locations as well. The Board should provide staff with a budget ceiling for these new initiatives.

Looking for appropriate models for the features that might be included in a sensible community pool and fitness center at Long Bridge Park? Why not start by investigating this suggestion from one commenter to last week’s ARLnow.com story:

I think we need something similar to the Lee District Rec Center in Fairfax County. It has a nice, 50m pool, a big gym, exercise rooms, and weight lifting areas. Simple, but it provides a lot of services to the community. I remember seeing that Fairfax has built new rec centers for ~$24M. If we need more pools, build onto rec centers. Some rec centers (e.g. Barcroft) have room for a pool.

More details on the facilities available at the Lee District Rec Center are here.

Conclusion

Anyone can review the inventory of the facilities available at a location like the Lee District Rec Center, complain that those facilities lack features like Olympic diving platforms or a lazy river, and insist that those features must be added at Long Bridge Park because many people want those features. The County Board should provide staff with a construction budget ceiling substantially less than $80 million at Long Bridge Park. The Board should direct staff to provide as many features as possible so long as the final price is within that ceiling.

by ARLnow.com — March 24, 2016 at 2:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Just prior to its adjournment earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution honoring Arlington School Board Chair Emma Violand-Sánchez. Dr. Violand-Sánchez was first elected to the School Board in November 2008. She plans to retire at the end of this year after completing her second term on the Board.

Discussion

Dr. Violand-Sánchez was born in Bolivia, and has lived in Arlington since 1978. She received her B.S. and M.S. from Radford University and her doctorate in education from George Washington University.

Prior to her election to the School Board, Dr. Violand-Sánchez served for many years as an APS teacher and administrator. During that portion of her career, she developed and implemented a comprehensive English language program which has been used as a national model. She also established the first bilingual GED program in Virginia.

Dr. Violand-Sánchez retired from the APS faculty in July 2007. At the time of her retirement from the faculty, she was serving as the supervisor of the APS English for Speakers of Other Languages/High-Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT) program. For 11 years, she has worked as an adjunct professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.

She was instrumental in the founding of Escuela Bolivia, a student-achievement and leadership program focused on immigrant youth. That program now is known as Edu-Futuro. Through education, leadership development, and family engagement, Edu-Futuro empowers under-resourced Latino and other immigrant youth to become the next generation of professionals who can help to transform their communities.

Dr. Violand-Sánchez also is a founder and a current member of the Board of Directors of the Dream Project. The Dream Project provides scholarships, mentoring, and support to 100 promising immigrant youths, who come from 14 different countries, were educated in 22 Virginia high schools, and now attend 18 colleges and universities in seven states. In 2015, three of the first Dream Project scholars graduated, and 93% of scholarship recipients have been able to stay in college. I previously have written a column about this valuable project.

Dr. Violand-Sánchez is a member of the Board of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Arlington Committee of 100, Donaldson Run Civic Association, American Association of University Women, Arlington Retired Teachers Association, National School Boards Association, Virginia School Boards Association, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, and a former member of the Northern Virginia Community College Board.

She has published several papers on family involvement, multicultural education, language minority education, and learning styles. She has two children, James and Julia, who are also educators and graduates of the Arlington Public Schools. They attended Key, Taylor, Williamsburg, H-B Woodlawn and Yorktown.

Conclusion

The General Assembly was right to recognize the many highlights in Dr. Violand-Sánchez’s distinguished career.

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