Perhaps the best Arlington government officials can hope for out of Richmond in the next few years is the status of “frenemies” with the Youngkin administration and Republicans controlling the House of Delegates.
And if those same local officials desire to adopt changes to Arlington’s governance structure as proposed by the Arlington County Civic Federation, they’ll have to find friends down in the state capital, which while just 90 miles away but, politically at the moment, a galaxy away.
The Civic Federation’s TiGER (Task Force in Governance and Election Reform] body has recommended a number of changes to Arlington’s governance structure, including changing the election cycle. But the most basic tenet – increasing from five to seven the number of County Board members – could determine whether the Republican governor and House of Delegates want to play nice.
Arlington through a voter-approved referendum in 1930 adopted what is known as the county-manager plan of government, one of a number of optional governing systems that the General Assembly had authorized two years earlier. In one fell swoop, Arlington went from a three-member, district-based Board of Supervisors (which had been in place since 1870) to a five-member, at-large County Board.
And so it has stayed for more than 90 years.
The county-manager plan is very specific and unyielding: The County Board must be five members. And the only way a change can be made is through the legislative process in Richmond.
Thinking ahead to 2023 may well be putting the cart before the horse, as the TiGER recommendations at this point have yet to even be adopted by the Civic Federation rank and file (a vote will come later this month). And with one exception (giving themselves a big pay raise), County Board members have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the proposals.
“I’m interested in the TiGER group’s recommendations,” was about as far as County Board member Matt de Ferranti would go in response to an inquiry.
De Ferranti is the lone board member facing the electorate in November. If he and his colleagues decide increasing those who sit on the dais is a good idea, how would de Ferranti handicap the likelihood of its getting passed in Richmond?
“The evidence so far from the governor is that he’s not quite ready for a new day in relationship with Arlington,” he said.
Perhaps true: Gov. Youngkin did seem to go out of his way this spring to veto a number of pieces of legislation patroned by state Sen. Adam Ebbin and Dels. Patrick Hope and Alfonso Lopez, all members of the Arlington delegation.
Despite having felt the sting of the new governor’s veto pen, Hope sees some possibilities in changes to Arlington’s governance structure making it.
“In my view, something like this would pass,” he told the Sun Gazette, adding that he wouldn’t judge the governor’s reaction to 2023 legislation based on his 2022 decisions.
Others are a little more dubious of the prospects.
“The current General Assembly is unlikely to allow us to increase our board size or to elect everyone in two ‘buckets’ instead of spread out over every year [another proposed change], but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” said Adam Theo, an independent making his second bid for County Board. “And it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t implement the reforms we can do now, like ranked-choice voting.”
Another challenger to de Ferranti – independent Audrey Clement – says changing the number of board members while retaining the at-large method of election serves little purpose.
“Board members are not accountable to their neighbors,” she said, saying the at-large method of election in place since 1932 serves “to silence any neighborhood or civic organization that opposes the County Board on any matter, large or small.”
“Adding two more at-large seats to the current mix is a prescription for more of the same undemocratic governance,” Clement said. “If I were a delegate in Richmond, I would demand to know why an at-large board is even permissible under the state constitution, given that it is as unusual in its construction as it is undemocratic in its operation.”
There are other options for Arlington to consider that wouldn’t require Richmond’s approval: The county could change to another optional form of government provided in the Virginia Constitution, or it could opt to use the more traditional Board of Supervisors form that remains in place in most Virginia counties and allows for an elected body of between three and 11 members.
Any change from one form to another would require a voter referendum, but not necessarily approval from Richmond. (If you want to know the ins and outs of the various options, see the Website at https://bit.ly/3adgkeu.)
Arlington also could seek permission from the state government for a county-specific charter, as a handful of other counties now have. Or leaders could, as some have proposed (but TiGER did not), ask Richmond to allow the county to become a city.
Hope said that whatever route might be taken, he would like to see Arlington given parity with other communities across the commonwealth.
“Irrespective of what the Civic Federation is proposing, we shouldn’t have to ask permission to do things other localities already have the authority to do,” he said. “It’s easier said than done, but it would be nice to look at this more comprehensively, instead of these one-offs.”
Yet legislators in Richmond are fiercely protective of their powers, spelled out in that two-word phrase – Dillon Rule – that has kept localities under the thumb of the legislature for more than a century. Even when Democrats have held all the levers of power at the state level, as they did for several years prior to the 2021 elections, there was little thought given to fundamental changes in the long-standing pecking order that puts localities, even large ones whose elected officials sometimes exhibit a wee bit of hauteur, decidedly at the bottom.
As was alluded to earlier by Theo, the TiGER group also has proposed changing the current election cycle, which currently sees one County Board member elected in three successive Novembers and then the two other seats selected in the fourth, to an every-other-other year election cycle where three members (of the proposed seven) would stand one year, then the other four two years later.
The TiGER plan also recommends moving from winner-take-all elections to ranked-choice voting, a power given to Arlington by the General Assembly a few years ago but not yet implemented.