After a summer lull, politicking in Arlington is back in full swing.
For candidates, the first big stop on the campaign trail was an in-person and virtual forum hosted by the Arlington County Civic Federation, or CivFed, last night (Tuesday).
Democrat and Republican candidates for the state legislature outlined their top social and economic goals, while the four Arlington County Board candidates, meanwhile, were quizzed on more local topics, including government transparency — a key issue for CivFed that roiled the organization earlier this year.
State senate challengers emerge
Two Republicans are challenging Arlington’s two long-time incumbent Democrat state senators: Sophia Moshasha, vying for the 39th District seat against Adam Ebbin, and David Henshaw, going up against Barbara Favola for the 40th District seat.
Last night, the four candidates staked out their party-line positions on center-stage social issues, including abortion, gun violence, public education and crime.
Favola and Ebbin say they are both focused on codifying abortion rights and banning “assault-style” weapons.
Ebbin said his other top priorities “are a state government that fights for Virginians and an economy that works for Virginia, but we need to keep improving our K-12 public education system.”
Both incumbents pointed to their years of experience legislating under Republican and Democrat governors as reasons voters should re-elect them.
“I have always been very pragmatic,” Favola said. “I think I’m one of the more successful lawmakers in terms of gaining bipartisan support for my bills, and actually having my bill signed.”
Both Republicans styled themselves as “political outsiders.” Echoing similar language from GOP Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin during his race and tenure, the candidates called on the state to safeguard the rights of parents to “have a say” in their child’s education. They both also called for increased funding for law enforcement to address crime.
“I am concerned — and a little bit upset — with the direction that our country and our state are going, particularly with regard to education, the high cost of living and crime,” Henshaw said. “Arlington deserves a choice in the election coming up.”
Criticizing Favola’s support of abortion rights, Henshaw said he supports a 15-week abortion ban, with exceptions for the health of the mother as well as rape and incest, as well as lower state taxes.
Moshasha, meanwhile, has made technology and science a marquee issue. Going up against Ebbin, who chairs two senate committees focused on technology, she says she will push for more STEM programs at all educational levels and more policies to attract emerging industries to Virginia.
“I am not a career politician. I focus on the things that we need to move our economy and our community forward,” she said. “I think it’s time to get a fresh voice, a fresh perspective and an innovative mindset with the energy that will get things done on behalf of the greater community.”
Arlington County Board candidates on transparency
The County Board forum began with topics such as police staffing and the office vacancy rate, but heated up during a later question about transparency.
(Updated at 4:25 p.m.) After lockdowns, a fatal, apparent drug overdose, a racist threat of gun violence, and additional threats and gun-related incidents — all within the past few weeks — parents and teachers say they want more information from Arlington Public Schools.
But there’s a document floating around — outlining how School Board members should talk to the public, school staff, other board members and members of the media — that they say encourages the Board to be less transparent.
June Prakash, the president of Arlington’s teachers union, the Arlington Education Association, bashed the document as part of her remarks outlining steps APS can take to improve school safety.
“We need to tear up this ‘How We Work’ document from Board Docs,” she said in a School Board meeting on Thursday, garnering applause from people who attended the meeting.
It tells members to:
- Avoid conversations about workplace conditions with staff members without appropriate union representatives present.
- “Err on the side of vague” when talking to the community. Officials should refer them to previous public discussions where possible and if none exists, say they’ll bring the issue to the rest of the Board.
- Tell the Chair if they “are contemplating” responding to press inquiries and instead let the School & Community Relations staff advise them.
“The document was a discussion guide prepared by the Board Chair to advise Board members about responding to questions about topics that they don’t have full information on,” APS spokesperson Frank Bellavia told ARLnow. “The Board receives many questions about pending decisions or other operational topics that they have yet to be fully briefed on. The guidance meant that it is okay to say, ‘I don’t know and I will get back to you,’ versus a specific response each time.”
He added that the memo “is not and will not become policy,” and that community members have several ways to engage directly with School Board members, including member office hours.
Media inquiries are handled through dedicated APS staffers for efficiency’s sake, but this approach is reviewed annually, Bellavia noted.
Prakash, however, tells ARLnow that the AEA is disappointed in the document, while the APS watchdog group Arlington Parents for Education says these instructions will erode the trust parents have in their elected officials.
“How can you ethically say, ‘Don’t talk — or even listen — to staff members about working conditions? You need to visit the schools, you need to listen to talk to the students and the staff. When you start listening, they’ll start talking,” Prakash said Thursday.
Last year neighboring Alexandria’s public school system was roiled by a series of events that included a School Board policy — since revised — that discouraged members from talking to the media, and the superintendent advising members not to talk to the media about a fatal stabbing. Superintendent Gregory Hutchings abruptly resigned shortly thereafter.
During the Arlington School Board meeting, members discussed how the guidance in the document applied to collective bargaining discussions but not regular engagement with staff, according to Bellavia.
“There is no direction for the Board not to listen to staff, or any other members of the community,” he said. “In fact, the Board has affirmatively stated that they want to hear from staff. The Board Chair acknowledges that it was poorly worded in the handout.”
Arlington Parents for Education said in a statement that the memo “reflects a keen reluctance to engage in clear, honest and frank discussion with the APS community, including parents, teachers and administrators.”
“We urge the Board to commit itself to a greater level of candor in its dealings with all stakeholders, and to publicly disavow the guidance and the sentiment behind it, which implies that community members are problems to be managed and not stakeholders who the Board is elected to represent,” APE said.
Arlington maintains a sizable network of traffic cameras, but a significant portion of those cameras have been “temporarily unavailable” in recent weeks.
It’s a problem that the county county is promising to fix.
The publicly viewable feeds of conditions on Arlington’s main roads help with real-time reporting on breaking news of crashes or hazardous driving conditions, such as heavy snow. The feeds also allow residents to check conditions before heading out.
Arlington County has more than 200 traffic cameras trained on its roads. As of last weekend, at least two dozen were out. A few weeks ago, in Pentagon City and Crystal City alone, about 40% of cameras were out, according to public safety watcher Dave Statter.
For comparison, it looks like only about 10% of the traffic cameras @VaDOTNOVA has along the entre length of I-395 in Virginia aren't working. That seems a lot more reasonable. https://t.co/RpSD8MWQ4G
— Dave Statter (@STATter911) October 21, 2022
The outages have a variety of explanations, but the county is working on addressing them, according to the Dept. of Environmental Services.
“A camera feed can stop working for several reasons like equipment failure, communications issues, or planned construction,” spokesman Peter Golkin said. “Sometimes only a camera’s public feed is impacted while the internal feed continues. Although a single camera supplies both feeds, they can be independently impacted — especially in older analog cameras.”
Thanks for responding. Would also be interested in knowing what rules/guidance the County has issued on the operation of the cameras.
— Dave Statter (@STATter911) October 24, 2022
Public feeds are produced by the DES Transportation Engineering & Operations (TE&O) Bureau. Feeds are also shared internally with the county’s emergency services agencies.
He said while TE&O’s first priority is maintaining the internal feeds that support critical county services, given limited staff and resources, the bureau is “still stepping up its checks of the public feeds.”
“Many public feeds have been restored in recent weeks,” Golkin said. “To avoid confusion, staff are looking at ways to differentiate long-term, planned outages from temporary outages on the public website.”
The outages compound another issue: the county’s policy of censoring public feeds during incidents — from minor crashes to major public safety incidents. Turning off the feeds makes real-time reporting more difficult for ARLnow and other news outelts.
@ReadyArlington If you could rotate the traffic camera there that would be appreciated
— Arlington Now (@ARLnowDOTcom) October 21, 2022
Arlington says it controls what is relayed via traffic cameras during certain incidents to protect privacy.
“Arlington County upholds its values of transparency with public safety information beyond camera footage, including daily crime reports, press releases, emergency alerts, and EMS/fire event summaries,” the county said in a statement. “Camera access furthers our transparency but must be balanced with community privacy concerns.”
ARLnow was provided the following criteria that go into evaluating when to stop publicly broadcasting a traffic scene.
Cameras are diverted to protect:
- Health information: This includes identifiers related to a potential patient, like their face, demographics, and health condition. This is all protected information until the person is determined to no longer be a patient, which occurs after they sign a refusal to be assessed or transported.
- Law enforcement tactics and officer identity: The County protects the identities of law enforcement personnel who serve in plain clothes or undercover roles. Cameras may also be diverted during an active incident, such as an Emergency Response Team (ERT) response, to safeguard tactical information and ensure the safety of all present.
- Victim and witness privacy: Victim and witness privacy protection is always central, but especially if there are juveniles present — something responders wouldn’t know for sure until arriving at a scene. The County also seeks to protect victim and family privacy and dignity by diverting footage in a medical incident, especially when next of kin must be notified of a significant event.
It’s unclear how much identifiable information can be obtained, however, given the relatively lower resolution of the feeds.
A man accused of raping a teenager in Arlington 13 years ago will be going to trial later this month.
The two-year-long process to bring him to trial in what was once considered a cold case may be facing delays, however, after a mistrial was declared last week.
Efren Cruz, 43, is accused of rape and sodomy. He fled Arlington sometime after the rape in 2009, authorities say, and the investigation went cold until the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers found and arrested him in 2016.
Cruz is a Honduran citizen who came to the U.S. in 1998, according to ICE. He was extradited back to Virginia and arrested in March 2020. A grand jury indicted him on rape and sodomy charges in August of that year.
His initial trial, which began last Monday (Feb. 28), ended a day later when the presiding judge declared a mistrial. The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Arlington Public Defender Office both declined to comment on why this happened, citing professional obligations given that the case is still pending
We are told, however, that the court proceedings somehow lacked transparency and the judge declared the case a mistrial in an abundance of caution, allowing a new trial to be scheduled.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors met today (Wednesday) with Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise M. DiMatteo and rescheduled the trial for Monday, March 21. An attorney speaking on behalf of Senior Assistant Public Defender Lauren Brice, who is representing Cruz, told the judge this would be enough time for Brice to file new motions in the case based on forthcoming transcripts documenting “whatever happened” in the courtroom last week.
Addressing the prosecution, DiMatteo said she imagines “the remedies that need to take place” after last week are “happening right now.”
The Cruz case dates back to Aug. 28, 2009, when a teen girl told the Arlington County Police Department that a man had sexually assaulted her in her in the 3500 block of S. Ball Street, near Crystal City. Different documents say the alleged victim, named K.C. in court documents, was 13 or 14 years old at the time.
Court records indicate the teenager underwent a physical exam so DNA could be collected. Eventually, a forensic analysis from 2017 determined Cruz “cannot be eliminated as a contributor” of the DNA evidence that was found on her.
The day after K.C. went to ACPD, a felony warrant was issued for Cruz, a then-30-year-old Woodbridge resident and construction worker. Cruz fled to the Houston area sometime between the rape and December 2010, when he was convicted in Texas on charges of criminal mischief and evading arrest and detention charges under a different name, according to court records. At the time, local law enforcement apparently did not know he was a wanted man in Virginia.
Struggling to find Cruz in the months after the rape, detectives in Arlington requested the public’s assistance in a press release dated Nov. 6, 2009.
Without any leads as to his whereabouts, the case in Arlington eventually went cold. It was reassigned in late 2015 to the U.S. Marshals Service, which worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to locate him, according to a press release from ICE.
The two law enforcement agencies found Cruz — who was on Virginia’s Most Wanted List, according to the article — living in Houston under the alias of Anthony Sanchez. He was arrested without incident in March 2016.
Court records note that Cruz was a serial offender, with a 2009 larceny conviction and an arrest for soliciting a prostitute. ICE officers also connected him to a sex offense against a minor in 2012 in Houston, under his alias of Anthony Sanchez. He was convicted of indecent sexual contact with a child in Texas in 2017, according to court records.
After an Arlington grand jury indicted Cruz in 2020, multiple trial dates were set and then withdrawn, including one instance said to be due to staffing changes within the defender’s office that his attorneys argued would hurt his case.
With a budget well over $1 billion, Arlington’s checkbook can feel a bit overwhelming to the average taxpayer — but the county is launching a new resource to help change that.
The county rolled out the first phase of “Arlington Wallet” yesterday (Tuesday), unveiling a new online tool to help Arlingtonians get a clearer look at how officials are spending money each year.
The website, commonly known as an “open budget” database, will allow users to access budget data in graphs and charts, and drill down into each county department’s budget for a clearer look at Arlington’s expenses and revenues over the years.
The tool also lets users create their own charts and download any of the raw data for themselves.
“There’s no greater obligation we have than to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement. “Arlington Wallet makes it easier than ever for our residents and business owners to see exactly how the county is spending money.”
The database currently contains budget information from fiscal year 2014 through December 2018, though the county has plans to expand it in the future. Officials are also planning to launch a second phase of the tool later this year, with data on individual county transactions.
The county compared the new phase in a news release to a “a personal checkbook or online account statement” that will show “what the county is buying and who it’s buying it from.”
“Arlington Wallet” runs on a platform created by the software company OpenGov, which provides similar services to hundreds of other governments and government agencies. Information on how to access the database is available on the county’s website.
Arlington previously launched an open data portal with a variety of county information available back in 2016, and has since regularly convened meetings of an “Open Data Advisory Group” to guide its transparency efforts.
Photo via Arlington County
In recent weeks, Arlington County and its school system have sought to charge ARLnow hundreds of dollars to fulfill public records requests, or simply not responded to them — and others around the county have noticed similar issues accessing public documents.
The county has asked for more than $1,140 in all to provide records in response to three requests by ARLnow under the Freedom of Information Act, using accounting practices that raised eyebrows at one of Virginia’s open government watchdog groups. In another case, Arlington Public Schools has gone more than a month before providing any response to an ARLnow FOIA request, missing a state-mandated deadline by weeks.
Other reporters and political activists told ARLnow they’ve received even larger bills, or similarly been stumped by radio silence from the county on the requests.
Virginia’s FOIA, designed to open up public documents for public inspection, has frequently been criticized by transparency advocates for its litany of exemptions allowing government officials to withhold vast swaths of information from disclosure. Rather than claiming any of those exemptions in these instances, however, the county could be running afoul of the law itself.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, was particularly taken aback by the size of the fees the county has sought to assess ARLnow. While the FOIA does allow government agencies to “make reasonable charges” to offset costs associated with tracking down the necessary documents, Rhyne expressed bewilderment at some of the county’s tactics for calculating those fees.
For instance, in response to one ARLnow request for six months worth of data on Arlington Transit service, the county estimated that a “management analyst” would need to spend 13.5 hours searching for records that could match ARLnow’s request, at a rate of $40.39 per hour.
Then, the county said an “associate planner” would need to spend three hours on the request, at a rate of $35.95 per hour. Finally, the “acting transit services manager” would spend an hour on the work, to tack on another $40.76.
“That’s a LOT of time,” Rhyne wrote in an email. “And what will the ‘associate planner’ need to take three hours to do different from the analyst? And then the ‘manager.’ What do any of them DO as part of this process? That’s three layers, with more than 17 of those hours going to people all making over $74,000/year.”
Rhyne points out that “the amount of the fees charged does not tell the whole story,” noting that what’s really important is how the county arrived at those figures. But if Arlington is adding unnecessary steps to the process, she says that wouldn’t match up with the law’s requirements.
“Fees must represent the actual cost to the government, and the costs must be reasonable,” Rhyne said.
It’s difficult to pin down, however, just how often the county is assessing such large fees for FOIA requests.
Logs released through a separate ARLnow FOIA request show that the county charged an average of $28.50 to respond to records requests over the first six months of this year — however, those logs do not include fees assessed on requests that weren’t completed, meaning people could be choosing not to move forward with a request if the price tag is too steep. The logs do show that the county’s completed five requests with fees of $100 or more from January through the end of June, including ones with fees of $316, $550 and $614.50.
Other would-be requesters around the county say such large fees are not unusual, however.
Matthew Hurtt, a local Republican activist, says the county sought to charge him more than $1,100 when he asked for email correspondence related to Arlington’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. He says even a “significantly refined” request came with a fee north of $900.
Jonathan O’Connell, a reporter with the Washington Post, says the county wanted to charge him $319.55 for Amazon-related documents — and even if he’d paid, officials informed him they’d be claiming an exemption to withhold all the information anyway.
“Arlington actually gave me a pretty similar response to what other Virginia jurisdictions gave me, which is nothing of value,” O’Connell told ARLnow. “I didn’t pay them because they told me they weren’t going to to give me anything related to HQ2.”
>@kcristol Hi! Arlington County FOIA officers tell me *everything* related to the county's Amazon HQ2 bid is being kept secret. I don't know if it that's legal, but it's definitely not transparent government. I hope that changes! @psullivan1 @AEDBizInvest pic.twitter.com/iN41gphiid
— Jonathan O'Connell (@OConnellPostbiz) March 20, 2018
In other cases, the county’s responses have been confusing or non-existent.
Roshan Abraham, an activist with Our Revolution Arlington, filed a request on July 30 for documents related to the county’s incentive package to bring Nestle to Arlington, but didn’t hear back from the county for weeks. When informed by ARLnow that documents posted to the county’s website on Aug. 17 could match his request, Abraham said he never received any communication from the county about it, and that some documents he’d asked for remain missing.
Similarly, county transit bureau chief Lynn Rivers told ARLnow in early August that staff had erred when they attached a $323 fee to a June 29 request for two months’ worth of Arlington Transit data. She pledged to deliver the documents free of charge, but even after several calls and emails seeking clarity, ARLnow hasn’t received any response.
And in the case of the school system, officials have yet to respond to a July 30 request from ARLnow seeking documents related to plans to rename Washington-Lee High School.
The FOIA calls for officials to respond to requesters within five “working days,” and either detail whether the records are available or ask for more time to track them down. Linda Erdos, Arlington Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for school and community relations, wrote in an email on Aug. 21 that she’d provide such a response the following day.
After two follow-up emails to Erdos since then, ARLnow still has yet to receive any answer.
(Updated at 2:50 p.m.) Arlington County’s independent auditor is soliciting suggestions for potential government audits from residents.
Chris Horton, who has been in the job since Nov. 2016 after his predecessor, Jessica Tucker, decamped for California, wants residents to chime in with ideas for transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness measures that should be undertaken. The goal is to uncover suggested audit topics for his 2018 work plan that result in “a broad community impact, a significant financial impact or both.”
“Primarily, we want to find out if there are things that the members of the public, members of the community, are aware of that haven’t necessarily bubbled up to my level or to the board level,” said Horton, noting that having a formal, written process was preferred to individual phone calls.
The previous public call, under Tucker, resulted in approximately 81 submissions. Public comments can be submitted on the county website over the next 30 days, although it may be extended depending on feedback volume. There are no limitations on suggested topics, but anonymous submissions are not accepted and it is recommended that each submission only address one audit topic.