Arlington, VA

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In the race for County Board, Libby Garvey, who courageously bucked her party and backed Independent John Vihstadt, is on the ballot this year.

Let’s face it. She is going to win. Her opponent is perennial candidate Audrey Clement, and Democrat turnout will be through the roof. Democrat loyalists will vote largely according to their sample ballot — hypocrisy on the redistricting amendment aside.

If you haven’t voted yet, consider writing someone else in for County Board.

Why cast what amounts to a protest vote? First, while Libby Garvey had often taken a cautious approach on gold plated community projects, the impact seems to have waned since John Vihstadt’s departure. Recently, she cast the lone vote to continue the rushed, poorly conceived, and eventually unenforceable sidewalk gathering ordinance that all four of her colleagues rightly chose to jettison. The Board, under her leadership, still took an August break rather than working through the challenges raised by COVID-19. The budget process is more uncertain than ever, yet the Board is backing even more debt.

So, if you want to send a signal to the County Board that we are watching how they run the county during these uncertain times, register 30% of the vote for someone other than Libby Garvey.

There are even bigger issues at play as we move into 2020 election and beyond. In the Progressive Voice column yesterday, there were a number of suggestions of what Republicans are for versus Democrats.

A philosophical point was made, and one that we hear a lot, that Republicans allegedly want to create an environment where people disdain government. Democrats on the other hand, according to the article, want a bigger, stronger government.

There is no doubt that as a party Democrats favor bigger government.

What most Republicans want is efficient and well-run government, appropriate and limited to its role at different levels. There are things local governments should do, state governments should do and the federal government should do. And we prefer that all levels of government empower the people as much as possible.

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Right Note: Back to School?

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Thumbs up to the School Board for announcing the pathway for bringing kids back to school in person this year. According to the most recent update, Arlington Public Schools are on track to bring back students who need direct support this month and begin the in-person hybrid learning option in early December. After the false start this summer and a refusal to disclose specific metrics for the return, APS has a big communications hurdle to overcome over the next two months.

As parents continue to work through the logistical issues around their ongoing “home e-learning academies” and balancing their own work responsibilities, APS also put forward its proposed boundary changes for Fall 2021. According to APS, 1,400 students from Ashlawn, Science Focus, Glebe, Long Branch, McKinley, Taylor and Tuckahoe schools would be impacted, and the School Board will approve the changes December 3rd. There is no good time to finalize boundary changes, but the middle of pandemic school from home seems less than ideal.

Also of note, APS stated that the “data used in this process comes from elementary school enrollment on September 30, 2019.” First-day enrollment this fall was 911 fewer than a year ago. And APS has not yet announced the September 30th number for this year. Nothing in the announcement discussed how APS is taking into account any decrease in enrollment this September, or which schools are most impacted by it. We can only assume they believe enrollment will bounce back, but it is a question the School Board should answer before moving to a final vote.

Interested parents can join the first virtual meeting on the changes Wednesday evening and ask questions.

Thumbs up to the County Board for voting to end the sidewalk gatherings ordinance. Four members of the Board rightly recognized the ordinance as constructed was unworkable and did not continue to forge ahead anyway. The Board should consider looking for other unworkable ordinances to get rid of in the future.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

At this month’s September 12 meeting, County Board members initially expressed general support for changing the county logo.

At the September 15 recessed meeting, the Board announced it would start a process to not only change the logo, but look at any name throughout the county that may need to be renamed or symbol that needs to be changed.

After three days of reflection, the Board seems set to move forward with the logo change. Instead of moving expeditiously to do so, the Board decided to make it part of what is almost certainly going to be a drawn out decision making process.

There are two practical questions that have to be answered considering the extensive use of the logo throughout Arlington: how much would changing it cost and how long would it take?

Once the Board knows the answer to these questions they should be able to announce the process, timeline and cost to select a new logo and put it in place. Instead, we are weighing into a nebulous timeline of the “Arlington Way” which will not start until 2021. It will drag this process out and almost certainly ensnarl it in controversy with any number of other things people will want to see replaced or renamed — see the renaming of Washington-Liberty High School.

As part of this process, one can only imagine that the name of our county will also be up for debate. We are named after the Arlington plantation that contains the house the County Board is now objecting to as a logo. The County Board will almost certainly face that question as part of this process. And if they think the same logic does not apply, then they should state why.

Hopefully the County Board members will rally around the idea that our foundational principles give us the opportunity to redeem past failures and move forward to create a more perfect union. Arlington County can stand as a place that does not need to change its name in order for it to be known as a place that unequivocally rejects racism. We can focus our time and efforts on lifting people up in our community by providing access to educational opportunities and reducing governmental barriers to economic opportunity.

A final note on the logo. At the Board meeting, Takis Karantonis held up his business card to the camera and said the logo “doesn’t represent me.” If Mr. Karantonis or any of the Board Members object that strenuously to the logo, they should stop using the taxpayer-funded cards immediately and purchase their own without the logo until the change is made. That would be a real protest.

The Board also received an update on the budget impacts from the pandemic. The projected slow down in revenue is within a range where the Board can make smart financial decisions utilizing close-out and contingency funds without piling a tax increase on our community as we continue to recover next year.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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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 November 3rd, Virginians will have the opportunity to vote for a constitutional amendment requiring an independent redistricting commission.

After years of campaigning for it  and eventually passing it through the General Assembly on a bipartisan basis, Democrats across Virginia have reversed course. They are tripping all over themselves looking for an excuse to vote against it. Arlington Democrats rejected the yearslong efforts of Delegate Rip Sullivan and will ask voters to oppose it on their November sample ballot.

Some of us have maintained for quite some time that the idea was a false promise of reform. Map drawing commissioners would not be directly accountable to the voters, and elected officials could shrug off blame if the results from a commission were tilted in favor of one party or the other. Moreover in places like California, “independently” drawn maps do not necessarily result in districts that reflect the makeup of the state. Democrats there successfully pressed for their favored map.

Over the years in Virginia, Democrats suggested Republican opposition to a commission process was political. They argued that a Republican majority in Richmond simply wanted to maintain a partisan advantage. “Politicians want to pick their voters,” they would say.

However, nearly a decade ago a Senate Democrat majority drew the current Virginia Senate lines. They lost the majority under those lines in 2011 and 2015, only to gain it back again in 2019.

House of Delegate Republicans drew most of the current lines (judges redrew some of them prior to the 2019 elections). While the GOP held the majority for much of the decade, including a number of Republicans sitting in seats won by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, they lost it in 2019.

Now that Democrats are on the verge of the redistricting commission becoming law, they are claiming the amendment is not quite good enough. In other words, if Democrats defeat it now they can rewrite the proposed amendment and tilt it in their partisan favor since they do not need to rely on Republican majorities controlling the General Assembly in order to pass it.

In the meantime, if they are successful in defeating the amendment the Democrats have the added bonus of being able to draw all the lines themselves without any Republican input. They can lock in General Assembly majorities and safe Congressional seats by picking their voters in 2021.

This politically driven about-face screams hypocrisy of the highest level.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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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.

In a hastily called meeting before their traditional August break, the Arlington County Board passed an emergency ordinance that prevents groups of four or more from standing closer than six feet to each other in marked public spaces. There was no public discussion or input prior to the surprise announcement.

Under the ordinance, my family could not wait at a traffic light together even if we are wearing face coverings, without the risk of a $600 fine. However, we could walk into a restaurant and sit together without face coverings. Fellow columnist Chris Slatt rightly called it a mess.

The County Board should call another emergency meeting and withdraw the ordinance. If they cannot bring themselves to do that, they should consider rewriting it before the September meeting. It must be made clear whether family units are subject to fines. The Board must also make clear whether it applies to protests or marches.

The final point here is that the County Board should not be taking a break this August. They passed an emergency ordinance in the name of an ongoing public health emergency, but they are not planning to formally meet for nearly eight weeks. It sends mixed messages about how serious they are taking COVID-19 right now in Arlington.

Speaking of mixed messages, the Arlington Public Schools superintendent updated the community about the APS back to school plan in a presentation to the Arlington School Board.

In the presentation, Mr. Durán announced that APS was planning to make child care available to teachers with kids ages four to 11. While Durán acknowledged that child care was a pressing issue for parents as well, the schools are promising to use extended day staff in school buildings throughout the county as child care facilities for teachers. Presumably, these APS staff members will be making sure the children placed in APS provided child care are taking part in their online instruction.

When online learning begins September 8, parents will have to balance their own jobs with making sure their kids are logging in and participating in their school schedule. If your job requires you to be physically present outside the home, you will have to make alternative arrangements. Teachers with the same age kids will have a taxpayer-backed staffer and building available to do it for them.

Also, the Arlington Education Association stated that safety was the paramount concern when they demanded APS reverse course on in-person instruction. Have they weighed in on the safety concerns for the staff and possibly 1,000 children taking part in child care at the schools?

While APS is resisting the idea of setting forth metrics for reopening, the calls for specifics may grow when parents discover teachers are being treated differently when it comes to child care.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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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.

Two weeks ago, Arlington Public Schools abruptly reversed course and decided to start the school year with all virtual learning.

As a reminder, in a June school survey 73 percent of Arlington parents indicated they would be comfortable sending their children back with safety protocols in place. As of mid-July, approximately two-thirds of parents had already signed their children up for the hybrid in-person model.

APS announced they would re-evaluate the decision for October and beyond. According to the APS website, they are committed to resuming instruction in the classroom “as soon as possible.” With that in mind, it is time for APS to answer the following:

  1. How does APS plan to measure the impacts of the all distance learning model on academic progress?
  2. What specific COVID-19 related metrics will the APS use as a basis for a decision to return to in-person instruction and how will those be communicated to students, parents and teachers?
  3. What guarantees do parents have that APS will not reverse course on a future reopening decision that meets the metrics, supporting scientific studies, and CDC and Virginia Department of Education guidelines at the behest of the Arlington Education Association?

Last week the Arlington County Board voted to join the lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s move to exclude those without lawful immigration status from the apportionment count. It took less than one minute to pass. It was not on the agenda. There was no real debate about why Arlington should join one of multiple lawsuits. There was no mention of how much it might cost the Arlington taxpayers.

For those who do not follow constitutional terms of art for a living, apportionment is the way states are allotted seats in the United States Congress. It has a corresponding impact on the Electoral College.

Constitutional experts on both sides have argued, and will continue to argue, whether this move will withstand Supreme Court scrutiny. If it stands, however, it would not impact how states can use Census data to draw congressional or state legislative districts. The Virginia Code says we have to use the most recent decennial population figures from the Census. In other words, Arlington would not lose any strength of representation in Congress or in Richmond unless the Democrat-controlled General Assembly changes the rules.

Excluding those without lawful immigration status from apportionment also does not impact the overall Census count. The Census Bureau is continuing the effort to count everyone, including the use of in-person visits beginning in August. As federal programs use population counts not apportionment, Arlington’s $50 million annual assistance for transportation, housing, emergency services and school lunch programs will see no impact from the change.

You may agree with the decision to join the lawsuit. You may not. But why were our County Board members unwilling or unable to spend even one minute each articulating the rationale for a decision to join a congressional apportionment lawsuit prior to taking a vote?

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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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.

After the sudden school closure and the controversial decision not to teach any new material to our kids this spring, Arlington Public Schools have been wrestling with the question of what school will look like this fall.

According to the recent APS surveys, 73 percent of parents are comfortable with sending their children back to school with safety measures in place. Just 9 percent of parents said they were not at all comfortable. Conversely, only 38 percent of teachers want to go back while 39 percent said they were not comfortable going back to school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that the goal should be for students to be physically present in school this fall. The benefits of, among other things, face-to-face learning, nutrition, social skills, counseling services and physical activity contribute to the overall health of students. The report weighed available scientific evidence of the impact of COVID-19 on kids:

Although many questions remain, the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection. Policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home.

In late June, APS announced a compromise position. They created a hybrid learning model so kids could get back in the classroom two days per week. They also gave parents the ability to elect an all distance learning plan for their kids. Thousands of parents had already signed their kids up for their preferred option.

Arlington teachers began pushing back almost immediately. The pressure culminated in a statement by the Arlington Education Association yesterday which called for APS to abandon its plan and conduct classes in the fall by online-only learning.

Today, new APS Superintendent Francisco Durán abruptly reversed course. In an email to parents, he announced school would resume online only in September. And instruction will not begin until September 8th, two weeks later than planned.

Parents, particularly single parents, who do not have the option to telework will have to decide on how best to ensure their kids are cared for, and participating, during online learning. This would have been difficult three days a week, and it just got harder.

Hopefully Superintendent Durán will provide a more complete explanation in future communications. And hopefully our students will not be put at too much of a disadvantage because of today’s decision.

Disappointing GOP Performance

The Arlington voters have been open over the years to competing points of view on local decisions. While Democrat Takis Karantonis ultimately took 62% of the vote in last week’s County Board special election, the performance of Susan Cunningham proved that there is still some appetite for an independent voice. But after Republican Bob Cambridge received just 5% of the vote, the Arlington GOP has some serious work to do moving forward.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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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.

Back in mid-March, no one could have fully predicted just how long or extensive the lockdown for COVID-19 would be.

Over the past three months, the County Board moved the most essential functions of governing to online platforms. Essential services and public safety continued largely without interruption. A modified budget moved through a revamped public comment process, though not without a couple blips. For example, the county’s pay plan set to take effect on July 1st still says County Board members will receive a raise. There has been no public announcement on how they will deliver the promised fix to prevent the raise from taking effect.

On June 9, the chairs of 25 county advisory groups wrote to the County Board and raised concerns that these avenues for public input were unnecessarily lying dormant. Despite plenty of online options, meetings were not happening at all. It was not until May that county officials unveiled a plan to determine how staff and other resources would be allocated as well as how meetings would be prioritized. Based on the county guidance, many groups may effectively be shelved for the remainder of the year.

The defenses of the County Board on Saturday rang a little hollow to the thousands of county residents who have been successfully teleworking for the past 90 days. Most of us participate in multiple video conferences every week — often multiple times on the same day. Meetings that used to take place in person simply moved online. Screen sharing is enabled. “Rules of the road” for recognition to speak are quickly developed. It has changed the way we exchange information.

Surely Arlington officials could do better than “we’re working on it” by now.

Restricting public input in this way is one concerning trend. On today’s County Board agenda is a report on the County Auditor’s work plan that should also raise some eyebrows.

For fiscal year 2021, the County Auditor is proposing new audits into COVID-19 cost reimbursement, non-profit funding allocations, housing grants, and risk management. These are all fine areas to look into for a robust audit function.

Unfortunately, the County Board never fully embraced the auditor’s role to identify waste and efficiencies on behalf of the Arlington taxpayer. They have not dedicated significant staff resources to evaluate a $1.5 billion budget on a regular basis. As a result, there have been just a handful of audits produced thus far.

According to the draft work plan for the coming year, the Auditor is suggesting they stop the audit of economic development incentives — presumably without a report. The audit was supposed to be done by the end of last year and feature a look into the taxpayer-subsidized Amazon deal. It was taking the place of a jettisoned audit of business improvement district activities which should have been done as well. If no audit is ever produced on the Amazon deal, it represents a disturbing loss of promised transparency. And it is being quietly jettisoned during this time of a pandemic and civil unrest.

The work plan is also proposing that an audit of real estate assessments and appeals be postponed until some unknown date in the future. The message from the County Board appears to be: taxpayers will just have to wait on accountability if they get it at all.

Surely the County Board can do better.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

“Today may we all rally to the side of justice for the victims, to the side of using peaceful protests to effect change, and to stand against those who would use this tragedy as an excuse for violence, destruction and further division.”

Yesterday in the Progressive Voice, Delegate Rip Sullivan opined on the “virtues” of voting by mail. For Sullivan, first it was gerrymandering that made our elections unfair. Then it was having to show a government issued ID, free if you need it, to prove you were who you say you were.

Now voting in person is on his radar to be eliminated. What will it be next? Maybe voting by mail will be too hard because it requires someone to walk to the mailbox, so we should let them vote with two clicks on a smartphone?

We should ask ourselves if we want to make it harder and harder to identify who is actually casting the votes in elections?

In California, it is legal for someone to submit your ballot for you. Volunteers can pick up hundreds of ballots and drop them off with local election offices with no accountability in between. You may have read about this, it is known as ballot harvesting. In an April story, one Democrat strategist even suggested they would come and take ballots  out of mailboxes.

What would Delegate Sullivan say about that? Where would he draw the line?

For those with health concerns about voting in the Arlington County Board special election in July or the general election in November, our absentee voting system will accommodate you. Right now you can vote in person in advance, or you can vote by requesting an absentee ballot by mail. In the fall, you will not even need to provide a reason at all. You can just vote early because you feel like it.

Delegate Sullivan suggests he supports moving to all mail-in voting permanently. However, mailing a ballot to every registered voter on a list is problematic in an of itself. Voter registration lists, like any mailing list, are always out-of-date. People move, and sadly, people die. We would unnecessarily be opening ourselves up to fraud when it is already relatively easy to vote now.

Voting is both a right and a privilege. In fact it is one of the most sacred rights we have in this country. At the same time, you are not required to participate. Many people do not vote because they feel like they have no real choice, or that they feel like politicians on both sides have failed them. That is their right too.

But, your elected officials have an obligation to make it both accessible and secure for all those who do chose to participate. It should be accessible to those who are eligible to vote and secure to make sure those votes are not watered down by anyone who wishes to commit fraud.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

There is a special election to fill the seat on the County Board now vacant because of the tragic death of Erik Gutshall. While the County Board is attempting to push the date for the election all the way to November, voters are likely to head to the polls July 7 or vote absentee in advance of that day.

Over the next seven weeks, voters will be able to consider the three candidates running for the position. Here are three big picture questions these candidates should be answering:

  1. Will you challenge the status quo?

Now more than ever, we should not accept the idea that we can keep doing things the way we  have done them in the past. The Board recognized this on an emergency basis as they passed a revised budget April 30th. However, they should use this time to ask themselves what they can do differently in the future. Every program, line item, rule and regulation should be evaluated to help us recover in the short term and make us stronger over time.

  1. Will you work to increase the levels of transparency and accountability provided by Arlington to its residents?

Two weeks ago, I noted a County Board pay raise mistakenly included in the pay plan approved by the Arlington County Board. When it was brought to their attention, they sprang into action to say it was not supposed to be there and would be fixed. Yet, the County Board met on Saturday and is meeting again today, and none of the agenda items listed thus far fix the pay plan to take back the raise. The Board Members who promised this would be fixed need to live up to their word and tell us how they plan to fix it before it takes effect on July 1st.

Also over the last two weeks, the County Board joined with other Northern Virginia jurisdictions to say “no” to reopening Arlington for business last Friday. The Board listed five metrics they were looking at for reopening. Last Friday during their virtual town hall meeting, they also regularly referenced the five metrics. Yet, nowhere on the County Board site can you view a dashboard which discloses how close, or far away, we are from meeting them.

While our ties to the federal government make our community more recession-resistant than most, our economy is still strained and our residents are losing jobs by the day. “Just trust us” should not be acceptable for such a huge decision, particularly in this unprecedented time of crisis.

  1. Will you commit to fiscal discipline as we recover from these challenging times?

Keeping the tax rate as low as possible is a key component for economic recovery. Beyond the costs on housing for our residents, many of whom have lost a job or could in the future, we must keep downward pressure on rents for our employers as well. It means designating 100% of any closeout funds to this purpose for the foreseeable future. It means the Board must also identify and fund only the most essential things in the budget for the next year or two to reduce the need for taxpayer revenue. And it certainly means a delay on the aforementioned pay raise for the Board.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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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 Thursday as I tuned into the County Board’s special meeting to pass the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, I began clicking on the links to the Board reports accompanying the agenda. One of the measures to be voted on was the Pay Plan to take effect July 1. Knowing the Board had originally planned a $10,000 pay raise for themselves, I searched the document to ensure the raise had been scrapped.

In less than 60 seconds, I located County Board pay on page 28. It called for a 3.5% pay raise. I double checked my figures with several Board watchers and online sources to make sure I had it right. Board Members are currently paid $55,147, and the Chair $60,662, and the Pay Plan was set to raise that pay to $57,077 and $62,785.

After no County Board member mentioned the pay raise during the debate on the Pay Plan, I began writing a column giving the County Board a big Thumbs Down on the raise and opining as to why the Board may have been trying to sweep it under the rug. Following submission of my column, ARLnow’s editor informed me that, during a fact check, county officials disputed whether a raise had been approved.

After some back and forth, including a call between me and county staff, I have to take the County Board at their word that they did not authorize any pay raise to be included in the Pay Plan. If it was in the plan, I was informed that there was no money in the budget for it, and it would be fixed.

I was left to wonder though, out of four County Board members it seems like not a single one read the Pay Plan closely enough to notice the pay raise was there. Do we think John Vihstadt would have missed this if he were still on the Board?

You might also wonder, if no one read the Pay Plan closely enough to notice the increase, are there mistakes in the items that were approved on last week’s agenda that will also have to be fixed?

Thumbs Down to all four County Board Members who did not notice the pay raise in the Pay Plan before they voted to approve it last Thursday.

Thumbs Down to County Manager Mark Schwartz for not ensuring the County Board instructions were reflected in the Pay Plan that was approved.a

Thumbs Up to ARLnow for starting the dialogue with county officials, and for what I’m sure will be a follow up to make sure the Board works to undo the raise.

Switching gears, I did want to offer a Thumbs Up to Governor Northam for allowing non-essential medical care to move forward again. With the COVID-19 curve long flattened and no longer threatening to overwhelm our health care system, it was past time to ensure people are receiving the deferred health care they need. It also ensures health care providers, particularly in more remote parts of Virginia, are able to receive the income they need to stay open and keep providing these essential services into the future.

While Governor Northam is moving slowly to reopen Virginia and still has not released the details of his larger plan for our overall economic health and well being, at least his administration retreated from the notion that a first phase could last two years. So a final thumbs up for hope that we can recover, and soon.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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