Pop quiz: Of the four candidates on the Nov. 2 County Board ballot, which one – the Democratic incumbent or the trio of outsiders challenging him – says the county government has struck the right balance in creation of a new panel that will provide oversight of the police department.
If you guessed the incumbent – Takis Karantonis – you’d be right.
In a Sept. 20 online forum sponsored by the Arlington branch of the NAACP where the issue loomed large, Karantonis initially equivocated – suggesting it “aligned mostly” with his vision – before moderator Wilma Jones stepped in to hold his feet to the fire.
“Yes or no?” she said to Karantonis, pressing him whether the policy adopted by the board aligned with his vision.
“Yes,” Karantonis replied.
For his opponents, that was the wrong answer, although they came at it in different ways.
“It fell pretty far short of what we really need,” independent Adam Theo said of the package adopted by Karantonis and other board members.
“It really needs to be independent,” Theo said of the new panel. “We need some serious, major, radical changes.”
That view seems to correlate with that of the NAACP leadership, which was vocal that the County Board’s action in creating the oversight panel several months ago did not go far enough.
But another candidate on the ballot, independent Michael Cantwell, said the body’s powers could well be too strong, and said the voters need to put in place elected officials who are serious about instilling a sense of responsibility throughout the government ranks.
“Elections are where you should hold people accountable,” Cantwell said, noting that he previously had called for a citizen-led commission for oversight of all public-safety agencies.
Critics of the new oversight panel have argued that it remains beholden to County Manager Mark Schwartz. Karantonis initially had voted against the panel because of concerns it did not go far enough.
“We fixed that to a great degree” as the process moved forward, he said.
The fourth candidate on the ballot, independent Audrey Clement, scoffed that things had been “fixed.” She called the oversight body “a toothless tiger” and wanted a police auditor “who is not beholden to the county manager.”
Karantonis, who as the Democratic incumbent has been accepting body blows from challengers throughout campaign season but had yet to be too bloodied in the process, agreed with Clement that the auditor should be independent of the government hierarchy.
“It is a flaw,” he said, pointing the finger of blame at the General Assembly.
The NAACP forum was the third major gathering of County Board contenders during the fall election season, following forums held by the Arlington Committee of 100 and the Arlington County Civic Federation.
The civil-rights organization opted for a more aggressive approach to candidate questioning than the previous two groups. Eschewing opening statements, it went right to the question, and Jones went after candidates on an equal-opportunity basis – whenever one attempted to avoid answering the question to her satisfaction, Jones pressed them to get back on track.
“We’re going to stick to the questions,” she said at one point. “Make sure our candidates address the issues that are important to our NAACP members.”
Over the past few years, the Arlington NAACP has become more vocal in criticizing what it considers the policies of the all-Democratic County Board that are not moving the community in the right direction.
“There is a lot of injustice, and there are so many people left behind,” chapter president Julius “J.D.” Spain Sr. said prior to the forum. “They’re counting on us to be that voice to challenge that oppression. We are here to ask the tough questions. There’s a lot more work to be done.”
The forum was cosponsored by the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.