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by Mark Kelly May 17, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

The Arlington County Board has announced a series of Big Idea roundtables which are supposed to spark conversations “beyond a specific project or proposal to big-picture conversations about our County’s future.” Even more specifically, the conversation is supposed to center on the question “How should Arlington grow?”

The first big idea could be that county leaders start talking less and doing more. Every new County Board Chair talks about community engagement. Often, it is in response to pushback the Board receives from the community on unpopular decisions. But honestly, would more talking have substantively changed any of the outcomes?

Certainly, these discussions will produce some interesting dialogue. But to keep up in an increasingly fast-paced world with broadband Internet and nearing 5G wireless systems, the discussion should point the Board toward action and results.

So what is the big idea? Make Arlington one of the best places in America to do business.

Arlington has one big advantage over many communities. The federal government provides an underlying economic base that is unlikely to go away any time soon. It is not just the federal employees, but the trade associations, lobbyists, lawyers and tourists who bring money from all over the U.S. to Arlington.

Our county also boasts an airport, a highly educated workforce and a good school system. Yet, our commercial vacancy rate remains high.

Businesses do take community factors like schools and location advantages into consideration, but they are ultimately driven by the bottom line. Arlington has been offering incentive packages to big employers, but considering the overall tax treatment and regulatory environment would matter more to the economy as a whole.

The Board can create an action plan that ensures our zoning ordinance and permitting processes results in more efficient interactions with county staff and makes it a priority to ensure costs associated with housing construction are more affordable.

The Board should develop a transportation plan that doesn’t increase traffic congestion. If your plan creates more idling, longer commutes and increases in traffic cutting through neighborhoods, you are not making things better, just creating a different set of problems.

The next capital plan should pay for more projects as we go and reduce our ratio of debt service to spending. Just because we can borrow up to 10 percent to keep the highest bond rating does not mean that we should. If we are growing, we should leave ourselves maximum flexibility to address future needs.

Creating the most favorable business environment possible would provide more jobs at higher wages. And it would ensure we are even less dependent on the federal government for our economy.

by Mark Kelly May 10, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

There has been no shortage of advice and criticism about the newest iteration of the County’s community engagement process.

A lot of words are used to discuss the input at the front end, but it is essential to ask what are our specific goals and how do we measure results in attaining them.

Is our county making good long-term financial decisions? For years, County leaders touted the bond rating as a measure of our fiscal health. That rating is primarily determined by two things: (1) annual debt service less than 10 percent of annual spending and (2) the County’s willingness to raise taxes to make sure the debt service level stays there. The County Auditor’s office still has not been given the resources to aggressively look into county programs.

Is our business environment attracting and retaining existing businesses and encouraging the creation of new businesses, and can they do it without offering massive subsidies? The commercial vacancy rate remains high. It is expensive to build it. It is expensive to lease it. And it is expensive to do business in the county.

The County touts are schools and our workforce, but those are not the only pieces of the puzzle when businesses are looking for a home. Arlington still has a big advantage in the marketplace, location, location, location. But we cannot take it for granted any longer.

Are our schools adequately preparing our kids to enter the workforce or college in the 2020s and 2030s? Next year our schools will spend more than $22,700 per child on their educational experience. Our standardized academic measurements are doing fine.

But who is asking the questions about whether our kids should worry more about measurements scaled to college preparedness or should we also spend more time considering how kids who want to go straight into the workforce are prepared?

On transportation, what Metro reforms are we insisting on and are we improving traffic flow or restricting it for those who choose to drive? In Board Chair Katie Cristol’s speech upon taking the gavel in January, she called for action on Metro. What has the Board done thus far under her leadership?

I went back and watched each of the County Board members give their January opening speeches for the year. Another goal from Board Chair Katie Cristol included changes to how the county regulates child care. How is that process going five months into the year, and how will that be measured on January 2, 2019?

Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey wanted affordable housing, specifically mentioning the permitting process and making it more affordable to build new housing. What changes has he proposed to make housing construction more affordable?

Every County Board member should go back and read their kick-off speeches and see how they are doing so far in 2018. And if they are so inclined, they should give us an honest assessment of their progress.

by Mark Kelly May 3, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Last night, Scott McGeary was inducted into the Arlington Business Hall of Fame. McGeary was recognized for his significant contributions, not only to the business community, but to Arlington as a whole. It was a well-deserved honor.

McGeary currently serves as secretary of the Arlington Electoral Board, but has also been a leader in the Civic Federation, Committee of 100, Arlington Chamber and Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He was a member of Arlington’s Board of Zoning Appeals and served on George Mason University’s Board of Visitors.

He’s well regarded across the political spectrum for his work ethic and for the professional and respectful manner he has gone about both his work and community service for the past three decades. Not only do our elected leaders know him, but he has built relationships with them.

He is exactly the type of person who would make a great county board member, but his longstanding association with the Republican Party would make such a run an uphill climb.

Speaking of the County Board, local Democrats hosted a forum last night for their candidates to take on incumbent John Vihstadt, who, like McGeary, made a name in the community long before his surprise wins in 2014.

Common themes at the forum included a “tough” budget, economic growth, housing, transportation and education. The forum questions also touched on the gondola, guns and immigration.

Tough budgets, economic development and transportation have recently been addressed in this space and are things the County could address in some very common sense ways.

Arlington’s policies on housing have done little to overcome market forces. In addition to our high level of taxation, Arlington also makes it more expensive to build new housing than it should be through its zoning regulations. Those costs are passed directly onto homeowners and renters. The candidates offered little in the way of specifics to change our present course.

One disappointing theme from the opening statement of Matthew de Ferranti invoked the need to run against President Trump this fall. Unfortunately, that strategy probably plays well with party loyalists.

When I campaigned for County Board in 2010, I was told by a voter that Ronald Reagan was to blame for the problems in Arlington. Never mind that he has not been in office for twenty years or that Democrats had controlled the County Board since then.

Chanda Choun closed by saying he should win because he was the candidate who could bring change. Except the Board is controlled by Democrats 4 to 1. If you have a problem with what they are doing, defeating Vihstadt will not really change anything. One could really argue things would be more likely to stay the same because no one from outside the dominant political party will have a microphone or a vote to change it.

Both candidates struggled to answer the questions of what Vihstadt has done, or how he has voted, that they specifically oppose. In other words, he has done a pretty good job, which is precisely why Vihstadt stands an excellent chance of being re-elected.

by Mark Kelly April 26, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

The Arlington Public Schools are in the process of developing new guidelines for the use of technology in schools.

Like other parents with children currently in our school system, technology is on my mind regularly. My wife and I embrace technology as a tool for learning for our kids, but also realize there are plenty of dangers associated with it. It is a balancing act all parents must wrestle with during these formative years.

There is one provision in the newest policy that could use some further clarification.

Students shall not audio-record, photograph, or video-record other students or school employees on school property, on a school bus or at school-sponsored activities without their knowledge and consent, except for participation in activities considered to be in the public arena (e.g. sporting events, public meetings, academic competitions, or public performances). . . . Audio-recording, photographing, or videorecording of others is strictly prohibited in locker rooms, dressing rooms, health offices and restrooms, where individuals have every expectation of privacy.

Protecting privacy, particularly for students, is a good thing.

But what happens if a teacher or other school employee were to begin threatening a student, or vice versa, and another student turned on their camera? What if a teacher launched into a profanity-laced tirade about an elected official? What if a student was committing a criminal act?

In other words, are there any circumstances where an audio or video recording would be appropriate by a student without consent? Would the school discipline a student who recorded such an incident when the recording is technically a violation of school policy? And are school employees covered by a similar policy?

Hopefully the School Board will consider these questions before adopting the policy.

Under the headline, “Following the Golden Rule can pay dividends in Richmond,” local legislators highlighted the need to build greater understanding with their colleagues from other parts of the Commonwealth, including of course Republicans. Great advice to be sure.

Senator Barbara Favola was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s really about building relationships — bringing sincerity and honesty.”

But last fall, at a campaign rally for the Democrat ticket, Senator Favola said about Republicans, “They’re evil. We’re the good guys.”

So the question is, which is it Senator Favola? Do you think Republicans in Virginia are evil or worthy of building relationships with? Or does it depend on whether you are trying to whip up Democrat partisans to vote in Arlington versus getting legislation passed in Richmond?

by Mark Kelly April 19, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Last fall, the County Manager informed the Board of his intention to recommend that the county no longer pursue a black box theater project that was required as part of a Virginia Square site plan.

The theater was to be approximately 13,000 square feet with 150 seats, and the space provided essentially rent free to the county for up to 45 years.

This project was put into the site plan in 2012 even though at the time the Artisphere project was flailing and the Signature Theater was preparing to seek a bailout. The county promised a business plan for the new black box theater which would essentially provide maximum benefit and minimum cost to the taxpayers. Many of us wondered at the time if that was possible.

After two failed business plans, County leaders closed the Artisphere in 2015. And by the end of 2014, the County Board had approved $661,000 to pay unpaid taxes, canceled 19 years of rent payments, and provided a $5 million loan for the Signature Theater.

There were several reasons offered by the Manager for this latest move, including the fact that the developer still has not provided a timeline to move forward on what was to be an office building. With the commercial occupancy rate what it is, that construction delay is understandable.

Chief among the rationale was both the cost of building out the interior, at $3 million, and at least $570,000 annually in ongoing operations costs the Manager called “unsustainable.”

It seems as though county officials have finally concluded there is no business plan they can present that will make sense to county taxpayers. And it looks like that decision may be finalized as part of the upcoming County Board meeting.

One topic of discussion at the October 2017 meeting where the Manager first broached this subject publicly was creating for community use additional theater space in new public school buildings.

This same approach could have been applied to the aquatics center. A joint venture at a new school building would almost certainly reduce the overall cost of the project. And, it would open up more space for future lighted soccer fields at the Long Bridge site.

There is little doubt that had the developer moved forward before 2017, county taxpayers would own the costs of this theater and we would be facing how to either pay for the build out or its ongoing operations for the FY 2019 budget.

With the lessons learned from the Artisphere and Signature, our county officials should be commended if they exercise their option to get out of the project, even if that decision was a little slow in coming.

by Mark Kelly April 12, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

The Arlington Chamber came out against the parking rate and hours of enforcement increases this week.

Almost certainly, it is a way for the county to keep ratcheting up spending without hitting property owners with a tax rate increase. The parking changes are estimated to bring in $2.2 million per year.

According to the Chamber, the revenue grab was done without any outreach to local businesses. Just last month the County Manager just made a big deal out of new public engagement process for capital projects.

If the Chamber’s concerns about the lack of outreach are true, it would only reinforce the concerns about the seriousness of the County Board and staff when it comes to how they consider negative public feedback.

As the County Board continues to finalize the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, there are many short-term considerations like these. There is also a need to continue the conversation about long-term economic development.

It was suggested by the Chair of the Economic Development Commission in the Progressive Voice last week that our tax rate was “highly competitive.” Our persistently high commercial vacancy rate tells a very different story. And coming full circle, it is a good bet that increasing the cost of parking to visit one of Arlington’s restaurants in the evening will not help.

The Economic Development Commission’s strategic plan does state that “a stable and predictable regulatory climate is fundamental to providing superior service.”

But as existing businesses in the county see the incentives being offered and given to big businesses looking to relocate, they are wondering why more is not being done to make the business environment better for everyone.

Did anyone on the EDC really ask the fundamental question, why would a business looking at our business environment choose come to Arlington if we did not offer them an incentive package? In other words, is there a big “open for business” sign here or does it look like a high tax environment and difficult bureaucracy to navigate?

The EDC suggested continued improvements in areas like how businesses can interact with the county during permitting and licensing processes. Talking to people who do business in Arlington, there is still room for improvement here.

The EDC should go out and talk to business owners of all types and sizes. And here is a revolutionary question for the EDC to ask as they do: would our economic prosperity be better off if our government did less, not more?

by Mark Kelly April 5, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

On Tuesday night, the County Board room was packed with people asking for budget dollars.

Granted, a large number of police officers and firefighters were in attendance to make the case for higher pay, a cause certainly worthy of consideration. However, it is not an uncommon occurrence for the Board to hear about multiple ways to spend more taxpayer dollars.

With the tax rate question settled — unless the Board wants to lower it, which would be fine with many of us — the Board has a relatively big, but finite universe of spending to do this year. I have already made the case that the auditor’s office needs additional resources to truly be effective.

If we want to help relieve future budget constraints, let’s speed up the process of reviewing how the County spends our money.

The County Board should also constrain the closeout process now, as part of the budget. Calls in this column for the closeout funds to be used to lower tax rates have amounted to nothing. But what about an approach that takes our expenditures, tax rates and debt into account?

Total debt for FY 2019 is projected to reach nearly $1.2 billion by the end of the fiscal year. That is $5,193 for every Arlingtonian. Debt service is projected to cost taxpayers about $126 million in FY 2019 between the schools and the county government.

That is 9% of the county budget, which is close to the 10% threshold credit rating agencies look at when evaluating whether we maintain our high bond rating. And with upward pressure on interest rates, the days of uber-cheap financing may be coming to an end.

Here is a suggested constraint on the County Board’s year-end actions for the next five years:

25% of closeout funds, for unforeseen needs in the county or school system.

25% of closeout funds set aside in a reserve fund and earmarked to pay cash for some or all of a future school building.

25% of closeout funds set aside in a reserve fund and earmarked to pay cash for some or all of a major project in the Capital Improvement Plan.

25% of closeout funds given back to homeowners as a tax rebate.

Meeting unforeseen needs, saving to pay cash for purchases instead of putting them on the “credit card,” and giving money back to the people paying the bills sound like a pretty reasonable allocation of excess resources.

by Mark Kelly March 29, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Last week, County Manager Mark Schwartz put out a new “Six-Step Public Engagement Guide for Capital Projects.” The county press release called it a “major milestone.”

County staff will find no objection to a more clearly defined path to consider large scale infrastructure projects. And the process will certainly provide a good path for projects that everyone will generally agree on the need for, but maybe need just need a little tweaking that comes from public input.

But as Mike Tyson once said about boxing, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In other words, the true test of the guide is what happens when a project turns out to be controversial.

In the case of a controversial project, how will county staff address negative feedback that present major obstacles to move through the six steps?

If, at the end of the engagement process, the staff and elected officials are unable to address concerns in a way that the community feels good about, will county staff just step up the public relations effort to tell Arlingtonians why the project is a good thing? And under what circumstances will the County Board move forward with the project anyway?

What about putting a policy in place to bring the biggest projects to a straight up or down vote with the public? A standalone vote at a threshold borrowing amount of $25 million for a single project does not seem too much to ask. If a majority of the voting public feels the project is worthy, they will approve it.

Finally, what accountability is there for a project that doesn’t live up to its promises? For example, what if the county subsidy for a new aquatics center doubles, or triples over estimates? This is the type of thing that happened when it came to the Artisphere.

Over the years, we have heard a lot about how the government will listen to the public and be held accountable to the public. Every time a member takes over the gavel to chair the County Board, the subject is incorporated into their speech.

Two years ago, the County Board unceremoniously terminated a proposed “Blue Ribbon Panel” that would have provided independent citizen input into county priorities up front. The county auditor has not been given adequate resources to embark on a scope of work that would result in real accountability.

The true test for the County Board moving forward is how they take into account advice, input and accountability that is truly independent of the county manager, not whether there is an avenue to offer it.

by Mark Kelly March 22, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

The Washington Post, referred to by one commenter as the “Amazon Post,” failed to get any answers about the offer made to attract the new Amazon HQ to Arlington. The County denied the FOIA request and said the requested information was not subject to disclosure.

With the latest back and forth, there are two questions that come to mind for me:

  1. Is Arlington’s commitment to transparency and accountability good enough?

Arlington does have a robust website where you can find a good deal of information about the county. We have an independent auditor now who reports to the County Board. A study of overtime at our emergency communications center was just released and is valuable information.

However, the auditor’s agenda is far less than robust with no real financial resources on the way to make it better. According to the proposed budget offered by the County Manager, there will be no new personnel to expand the scope of work in this office.

With $1 million dog parks and bus stops in our recent past, the $11,000 proposed increase demonstrates there is no commitment to making this office effective in more quickly evaluating how our $1.3 billion annual budget is spent.

  1. Why does it cost so much to make a FOIA request?

According to those asking for more information about the Amazon deal, the FOIA request would have cost anywhere from $319.50 to over $1,000.

First, the county should explain this cost quote discrepancy. Certainly county policy is not to discourage a regular Arlington resident from filing a FOIA request by quoting a higher potential cost than it would to a member of the media?

A few years ago, the County attempted to charge residents $2,858 for a FOIA request on the Columbia Pike streetcar project. The quote did not appear to be in line with what was allowable under Virginia law because county staff was attempting to charge for work done by consultants.

Whether it’s $300 or almost $3,000, it seems to be a lot of money to receive information that already exists. This is particularly true since so much of the information is already available in electronic form and could be produced with a few mouse clicks on a computer.

Gone are the days where you would have to pay a staff member to stand at a copy machine or scanner in order to reproduce information. The County Board should explore whether Virginia law allows it to direct county staff to lower the cost barrier for FOIA requests.

by Mark Kelly March 15, 2018 at 3:55 pm 0

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

The Virginia General Assembly has passed legislation to allow local school districts a little more time to let elementary kids go out and play. Count me as someone all for it with one big caveat. If it means more of the schoolwork is going to be coming home to be done in the evenings, then please don’t do it.

I have written about ending the practice of assigning homework into some point in middle school. It not only causes unnecessary stress at home, but several studies have found it may not be doing anything academically for our kids.

Since we are on the subject of what goes on in the classroom, it is time for the next progress report on the math done by Arlington County on per pupil spending.

The School Superintendent announced that under his proposed budget per pupil spending would come in at $19,235 for the 2019 school year for the anticipated enrollment of 28,027 students.

When you pull out your calculator and divide $636.7 million by 28,027 students, you arrive at $22,717 per projected student in Arlington Public Schools. That’s a difference of about $3,482 between total and reported per pupil spending.

Arlington’s reporting of per-pupil spending does not take certain spending into account. Common sense should call for greater transparency.

When you compare Arlington’s per pupil spending with other school districts in the region using the Washington Area Boards of Education formula, we are currently spending $1,121 more than the second highest spending jurisdiction in Falls Church. Based on our current enrollment, spending the same per-pupil as Falls Church would save taxpayers about $30.2 million this year.

Every jurisdiction’s needs are different, and in Arlington, we have set high expectations to go along with our increasing enrollment. But, there are two points to be reminded of as the School Board moves through the budget process.

First, please stop leading people to believe the number you publicize is total per pupil spending when it’s not. Second, when you are able to spend 6 percent more per child than the next highest jurisdiction in the region, it may be a challenging job for a lot of reasons, but not for lack of resources.

by Mark Kelly March 8, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

The County this week announced the opening of its online portal for permit applications and payments. It is too early to know how the system will work or if it will make the permitting process any better for applicants, but the county should be applauded for moving past the paper only option.

Arlington Economic Development is holding an event next week to teach businesses how to do work for Arlington County.

More transparency is always good news. This type of event opens up the county procurement process to more businesses which should encourage competition and discourage cronyism. In theory, this is good news for the taxpayer. One has to ask though, is it really so hard to figure out how to work with the county that it necessitates a training session?

Arlington officials have been at odds with the county’s two country clubs over how to tax the properties. According to the Sun Gazette, the courses combined are taxed at a rate equal to the next 11 country clubs in Northern Virginia combined.

Unfortunately, the county was either unwilling or unable to find a way forward on how to lower the tax on the open space, so the General Assembly has entered the fray. A bill with overwhelming majorities in both chambers is on its way to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk to dramatically scale back the allowable tax rate. It remains to be seen whether an intense lobbying effort, similar to last year’s decision on the towing ordinance, will impact our new governor.

Also on taxes, the county manager’s proposed budget may not include a property tax rate increase, but it does include an increase in other taxes and fees. Going up are utility taxes, parking meter rates, parking tickets, certain building permit fees, among others.

If you read through the proposed cuts to the budget, many come from not filling currently vacant staff positions. However, one cut would be to end the printing of the Citizen Newsletter. At $82,088 per year, it won’t make or break the budget, but it probably was past time to stop sending that information through the mail.

by Mark Kelly March 1, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Delegate Patrick Hope’s bill to give Arlington the authority to hold school board elections is on its way to Governor Northam. The legislation is an acknowledgement that no one is quite sure whether the authority to elect a school board really existed in Arlington.

It may or may not call into question any previous School Board actions from a body that could very well have been elected without specific statutory authority. As such, someone should get a legal opinion on what exactly this all means, including whether there needs to be an immediate election of all five School Board members to new four year terms, rather than waiting for their current terms to expire.

In January, Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol indicated the county would be able to disclose its offer to Amazon to bring the online retailing giant to the county. Now, she seems less sure of when or if that will happen.

Activists, and businesses not receiving special deals, are rightly asking questions about the incentives being offered to Amazon and the level of transparency the county will provide.

The Board should figure out exactly what it can say now to speak to the offer, and say it. In the future, they should not sign any non-disclosure agreement that would keep the public completely in the dark about what kinds of offers are being made. And the Board should continue to look for ways to make our economic environment more friendly to everyone who wants to do business here.

On more than one occasion, backers of the Columbia Pike streetcar project speak of their regret that Arlington did not move forward with the project. This week, news reports surfaced out of Washington that reminded us that promised results from such a project can go awry.

It seems that just two years after the first passenger trip on their initial $200 million streetcar line, DC officials are contemplating a total replacement of their streetcars as they cannot get their hands on parts to make needed repairs.

And they are still not collecting fares, though they hope to figure out how to start collecting in two to three years. Despite the fact they are still not charging for passengers, the District still plans to spend upwards of $500 million more to create two additional extensions of the line.

by Mark Kelly February 22, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Larry Roberts recently gave up his duties as “editor” of the Progressive Voice to take on the role of Chief of Staff for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

In his farewell column, he made the case for why the column he headed up was needed.

Based on his words in the column, the authors who have participated, and the opinions expressed therein, it was to give a voice to those who generally embrace the direction taken by the Arlington County Board.

Since all but one of our elected officials in Arlington are Democrats, it is fair to say that those who share Mr. Roberts views are already well publicized throughout the community. Democrats not only control the outcome of all the votes, they control all of the information flow as well.

With near universal control by the Democrats, it is good for the public discourse for someone on the right to continue talking about the issues from this perspective. The 300-500 words written through the prism of fiscal conservatism in this forum each week may be the only time some in Arlington ever read that type of perspective.

While the voters have generally continued to provide big margins for Democrats at the polls since I started writing this column, they have elected an entirely new County Board. Included in that new roster is the first non-Democrat to be elected to a full term in nearly three decades. The County did withdraw from what many residents felt was a boondoggle streetcar project.

Instead of pushing for even more funding for a pool project, the County scaled it back. The County hired a new auditor, albeit one who needs some additional support to truly be effective.

These were “wins” for the taxpayer, but there are still many ways the County could improve the way it serves Arlingtonians.

Roberts’ column also caused me to look back over the past five years and scroll through roughly 250 columns or 100,000 words. Looking all the way back to my first column, I wanted to end with a reminder about how the right views local government:

What cannot stand is the notion that all, or even most, fiscal conservatives are anti-government.

In fact, we believe there is an appropriate role for each level of government. The most important of which, outside of self-government, is local government. It is where our tax dollars meet the asphalt. It is where our children attend school, our homes are kept safe, our water is dispensed, and our trash is collected. It is where we can most easily and directly petition our elected officials for assistance. And, at least theoretically, it should be the most responsive to changing community needs with the smallest amount of bureaucracy and red tape.

We just want to do it in a way that makes the most fiscal sense, is accountable, and serves people efficiently. That is why I continue to write.

by Mark Kelly February 15, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Delegate Patrick Hope unsuccessfully tried to move a bill through the House of Delegates to change the way Arlingtonians vote for County Board.

Hope’s bill would not have required the County Board to adopt the new voting process, it would have just given them the option. It is not an option they should have.

Hope proposed what’s known as “instant-runoff voting” which would give voters the ability to rank their choices when voting. This process has been used by local Democrats in recent caucus voting.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the the second choice of the last place candidate is redistributed to the other candidates in the field based on the ranking. The process repeats until someone reaches a majority.

Having come in a fairly close second (for an Arlington Republican anyway) in the most recent County Board special election which resulted in no one receiving 50 percent of the vote, you might think I would be for this change.

However, in a county where the numerical advantage so overwhelmingly favors the Democrats, removing the ability for a non-Democrat to win a plurality vote means the only real practical impact of the proposed change would be to put Independents and Republicans at a further political disadvantage.

The cynic may say the call for instant-runoff voting, much like redistricting reforms, is most often pushed by those who think the change would tilt the political playing field their way. But let’s give Hope and others the benefit of the doubt, that one of the big goals is to find a solution that creates more “civility” in politics. Poll after poll certainly says voters would prefer a better tone during our elections.

In Arlington, general elections are not really acrimonious affairs. Can someone really say that any County Board races have devolved into mudslinging affairs in recent memory? Maybe the problem is just with the tone on the Democratic side in their primary elections?

Another of Hope’s stated goals is to prevent a “fringe candidate” from winning a crowded field with only 25 or 30 percent of the vote. Someone should ask Delegate Hope which “fringe candidate” who failed to receive 50 percent is sitting in office that he thinks fits the bill?

It is understandable that politicians want to be seen as doing something, but changing the system of electing candidates is unlikely to change the current political environment here in Arlington.

If you want more civility overall as a political leader, recruit candidates who will adopt a positive tone in their campaigns. If you want more civility as a voter, do not reward candidates who run scorched earth campaigns with your vote.

by Mark Kelly February 8, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Arlington’s independent auditor, Chris Horton, is soliciting suggestions from the public on what to audit. Encouraging ongoing participation from all Arlingtonians is a good thing.

The current work plan for the auditor includes fleet management, public safety overtime, Business Improvement Districts and the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Commission. It is a good start, but only two of these audits are definitely slated to be completed this fiscal year.

If you look at the what the auditor has identified as the “Audit Horizon,” it is clear that the office should step up the pace. The Audit Horizon includes affordable housing, capital improvement planning, economic development incentive funding, facilities management, the handling of personally identifiable information, procurement and analysis of the county’s financial condition. And that is just a partial list of important items.

The total budget for the auditor in FY 2018 is about $210,000. The County Board should consider a dramatic increase in the budget and staff allocation for the auditor during the current budget cycle discussions to at least $500,000.

There is too much important work to do to spread the audits out over the next decade, or even longer. If the Board is committed to paying more than lip service to this new level of accountability, then it is time to give the office the resources it needs.

The Electoral Board this week announced a competition to design a new “I Voted” sticker. A goal of the project is to help boost turnout in the 2019 election cycle, the historically lowest turnout year in each four-year cycle.

The idea that more voters should take advantage of their constitutional right whenever it is available to them is certainly a noble goal. As we saw this past November, turnout can be dramatically increased over prior years, but it is primarily driven by the circumstances surrounding a given election cycle.

While the holding the competition will draw some additional attention, it is hard to imagine that the stickers would do much. In New York, a city of 8.5 million people, 700 designs were submitted, but only 10,000 people voted on which design they liked best according to the Sun Gazette article. That’s just a little over 1/10th of one percent of the population.

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