Despite a surprising number of “no” votes that seemed to catch proponents by surprise, delegates to the Arlington County Civic Federation on Nov. 15 capped three years of discussion by approving a package of proposed changes to county governance.
The adopted proposal has no force of law, but it may help set the stage for future discussion with organizations and individuals that hold the power to adopt, or effectively veto, specific recommendations – the County Board, School Board, Arlington County Democratic Committee, other political parties, General Assembly, governor and State Board of Elections among them.
The 57-20 final tally (with seven abstentions) ratified a package that has been developed over the past three years. It includes recommendations to increase membership on the County Board and School Board from five to at least seven and to reconfigure the local-government election cycle, but shied away from more aggressive proposals such as moving to district-based seats; reducing the power of the Democratic Committee’s nomination processes; having voters directly elect a County Board chair; and seeking to convert the county to city status.
“We’re not trying to do revolution here; we’re trying to do what we can,” said Michael Beer, who served on the task force and pressed for adoption of its recommendations as a fair compromise among competing ideas.
The package from the Civic Federation’s TiGER (Task Force in Governance and Election Reform) was voted on as one piece, so it’s difficult to know what caused the votes against it. (“Change is hard,” one proponent sighed after the tally.) Most of the delegates were participating remotely rather than brave the cold, rainy night to attend in person at Virginia Hospital Center, so a post-mortem on who opposed what was difficult to obtain.
Supporters said that, during development of the package, they had not heard much opposition bubble up.
The key components of the proposal:
• Expanding the five-member County Board and School Board to at least seven, while retaining at-large elections.
• Instead of having board chairs rotate annually among members, have board chairs serve at least two years in a row before a rotation occurs.
• Increase salaries for County Board members and School Board members.
• Implement ranked-choice voting in County Board and School Board races.
• Retain four-year terms for elected officials, but eliminate Arlington’s every-year elections, grouping County Board and School Board elections into an every-other-year cycle.
“We’ve spent a lot of time digging deep,” said Whytni Kernodle, a member of the TiGER task force, calling the panel “a group that really wanted to move Arlington in a direction that fits the population we have now.”
A number of the proposals either already have been fully enacted (County Board members this year voted themselves whopping pay raises) or are moving toward enactment (it’s likely that at least County Board primaries next year will be by the ranked-choice method).
But some other proposals likely face uphill battles:
• Changing the number of board members and the current election cycle that has at least one School Board and one County Board seat up for grabs annually would require action by the General Assembly and approval by the governor. Given dominance of Republicans in the House of Delegates, and based on last year’s almost reflexive animosity toward Arlington by Gov. Youngkin, it seems unlikely many favors will be forthcoming from Richmond.
• Having the chairmanship of the County Board and School Board remain in the hands of one person for more than a year is likely to run into opposition from those serving on those bodies, who seem to like the current one-and-done cycle because it gives everyone a chance to be the center of attention, often during the years they are seeking re-election. Years back, when one County Board member informally floated the prospect of keeping the job for a second year, he was roundly, albeit privately, rebuffed by his colleagues.
Whether County Board members, who had to be pushed and prodded for several years to consider ranked-choice voting, are willing to seriously consider meaningful change to the status quo remains an open question, though some have doubts.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever accused our County Board of being bold,” Kernodle said.
Any changes also likely would have to pass muster with the Arlington County Democratic Committee, which maintains a near-monopolistic grip on governance in Arlington and is unlikely to embrace anything that might dilute the power of the Democratic sample ballot in determining the direction of county elections.
Professed good-government proponents might be interested in holding wide-open general elections with no political-party nominations beforehand, but that simply won’t fly, Beer acknowledged.
“That’s a First Amendment issue,” he said. “We’re in not position to tell any group they can’t hold caucuses.”
Some on the task force and in the community have called for moving Arlington from an at-large to district-based system of governance as is the case in most Virginia counties, but the TiGER group decided that was a no-go for several reasons.
One of them? The “hideous stress” of redistricting, said Dave Schutz, who served on the panel.
“If we could dodge that bullet, we wanted to,” he said.
Adding more members to governing bodies might – or might not – add diversity (however one defines that sometimes nebulous term) among those who are representing Arlington’s 240,000 residents. Proponents say adding more members will ease some of the burden of existing board members, although the five members of the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Board of Supervisors seem to do fine while representing a constituency of 9.86 million, or just under 2 million per supervisor – the highest local-official-to-constituent ratio in the nation.
Regardless of how many changes ultimately are enacted, the public should get informed and engaged and advocate for its preferences, said Allan Gajadhar, who in June succeeded Chris Wimbush as chair of the TiGER group.
“We have a once-in-a-generational opportunity,” Gajadhar said.
Efforts of the task force represent “one of the Civic Federation’s most important initiatives in recent history,” organization president John Ford said.
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For full details, see the Website at civfed.org/tiger.