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ArlingtonChallengers see positives, negatives to governance proposals

Challengers see positives, negatives to governance proposals

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Whether it’s a good idea to change Arlington’s 90-year-old governance structure – and if so, how to do it right – could end up becoming a key issue in the 2022 County Board race.

And two challengers for the seat currently held by Democrat Matt de Ferranti have decided views on the matter.

Audrey Clement, a familiar name on election ballots over the past decade, said existing proposals for change will only nibble around the edges unless they take a major leap: Switching to district-based representation.

“I oppose County Board’s at-large system of representation, because it is as undemocratic in its operation as it was racist in its origins,” Clement told the Sun Gazette.


Arlington (known until 1920 as “Alexandria County”) did have district-based representation from 1870 to 1932, when the existing three-member Board of Supervisors was supplanted by a five-member, at-large County Board.
Supporters of that change say Arlington is too geographically small to merit balkanization into districts.

The idea of reverting to districts has been floated occasionally in recent years, but generally has run up against public apathy and opposition from the ruling Democrats, who fear it might dilute their power by allowing other candidates to focus on geographic-specific concerns of communities.

Moving from at-large seats to districts was not included among the proposals made by the Task Force in Governance and Elections [TiGER] group of the Arlington County Civic Federation, whose final recommendations were slated for consideration this week but have been held back until fall so there can be more time to evaluate them and gather more feedback.

The TiGER group, whose recommendations are merely advisory in nature but may help guide future conversation on the matter, did propose adding two seats to both the County Board and School Board; changing elections from the current method where at least one board member is on the ballot each year; and encouraging the bodies to allow their chairs to serve for multiple years, rather than rotating in for one year at a time.

Adam Theo, a self-described progessive libertarian, likes a lot of what is in the proposal, saying the “TiGER team did a fantastic job with all of its recommendations, with every suggestion being realistic and likely to be effective if implemented.”

He was not necessarily convinced all the recommendations would be enacted, however, saying the County Board “is quick to adopt changes that increase their wealth and power, but slow-walk the ones that risk their re-election chances.”

(County Board members already have taken action on one of the proposals emanating from the Civic Federation group: Giving themselves $20,000-a-year pay raises, with more on the way in coming years.)

Theo last year ran as an independent for County Board in a race that featured Clement, Michael Cantwell and Democratic incumbent Takis Karantonis. Karantonis won handily, taking about 60 percent of the vote.

To Clement’s proposal for a district-based election scheme, Theo had his doubts.

“Voting by district is appealing on paper but very messy in practice, [and] would not result in the positive outcomes which people hope it would,” he suggested. “Ranked-choice voting is a much better way to achieve more diverse and independent voices in our leadership, by ensuring broad support of a winning candidate.”

Arlington leaders in 2020 were given the authority to enact ranked-choice voting, but thus far have declined to do so, citing procedural hurdles and a need for community conversation. And in reality, given the strongly Democratic leaning of the Arlington electorate, it seems unlikely changing to that format would have much effect on general elections; even with four contenders in the race last year, Karantonis garnered a majority and then some.

The change in format likely would have its biggest impact within the Arlington County Democratic Committee, which generally has used winner-take-all state-run primaries to select its County Board nominees.

Legislation authorized by the General Assembly would allow localities to switch to ranked-choice voting in primaries as well as general elections.

As the Sun Gazette has reported, some of the changes proposed by the TiGER group would require approval from Richmond, which would require the local government finding common ground with the Republican governor and House of Delegates.

“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, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Theo said. “And it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t implement the reforms we can do now.”

Asked last month how the General Assembly and governor might respond to proposed changes if requested by Arlington, Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) – the lone legislator to respond to a Sun Gazette query – expressed optimism. He also suggested there should be a broader look at Arlington’s governance structure, rather than a piecemeal approach.

Clement didn’t seem to have much faith that the county’s legislative delegation would address what she considers the biggest problem.

“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,” she said. “I would demand to know why Arlingtonians aren’t militating for a district system that would better represent their interests.”

De Ferranti, who was first elected to the County Board in 2014, had no intra-party opposition this spring and automatically advanced to the general election. All other candidates have until June 21 to have their paperwork in order to get on the ballot.

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