The Arlington County Civic Federation’s task force on local governance is ready to deposit its recommendations into the court of public opinion.
Civic Federation officials aim to present the findings of the body to the organization’s delegates at the monthly meeting slated for April 12. As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, the meeting will be held online, starting at 7 p.m., and those wishing to watch must register by noon the day before. For information, see the Website at www.civfed.org.
The study group, agreed to by Civic Federation delegates in late 2020, is dubbed “TiGER” (Task Force in Governance and Election Reform). Under the leadership of Chris Wimbush, it has been tasked with proffering changes to the county’s 90-year-old governance structure.
The panel has no statutory authority; Civic Federation delegates are not obligated to accept its recommendations, and whether the county government’s power structure (and the Democratic oligarchy behind it) will embrace any or all proposals is an open question. Some changes also would require General Assembly action, a matter that could be complicated (or, perhaps, aided) by the fact that there now is a Republican governor and Republican House of Delegates.
Among the issues that were considered during the study period:
• Are the five-member County Board and School Board the right size for a geographically small but very densely populated community?
• Should the current at-large voting for County Board and School Board seats be changed to a district-based approach?
• How much should elected officials be paid?
• Should there be term limits imposed on local elected officials?
• Should the county manager be made an elected official?
• Should Arlington consider becoming a city, and if so, what powers should be delegated to a mayor?
From Reconstruction in the 1870s until the early 1930s, Arlington – known until 1920 as “Alexandria County” – was governed by a three-member board of supervisors, elected by districts and serving in effect as laws unto themselves. In 1931, the General Assembly approved a request from Arlington residents to change the government structure to a five-member County Board and professional county manager. On Nov. 3, 1931, Arlington held its first County Board elections.
In both the 1931 and 1935 elections, all five seats were elected simultaneously, with all winners serving concurrent four-year terms. But as 1939 approached, some in the local civic arena thought a change was in order, and convinced the General Assembly to permit Arlington to elect its board members by staggered terms. That election cycle, with one board member elected three out of every four years and two board members elected during the fourth, has remained in place.
In 2010, a coalition that included public-safety unions launched a change-of-government petition drive that, if placed on the ballot and approved by voters, would have turned Arlington’s at-large County Board into a district-based body.
The effort, however, was strenuously opposed by the Arlington County Democratic Committee and failed to reach the electorate, with the petition drive falling about 4,000 signatures short of the 14,350 needed.
More recently, advocates have called for the county government to embrace “ranked-choice voting” for County Board elections. The local government has since 2020 had the power to switch from the current winner-take-all approach to the instant-runoff process, but has chosen not to do so, in part because of perceived splits among the five members on whether such a move should take place and how the technical complexities of doing so should be addressed.
County Board have used the ongoing Civic Federation deliberations as a reason to wait before moving forward on ranked-choice voting, making it unlikely it could be implemented for the November 2022 election, where the County Board seat of Matt de Ferranti is on the ballot.
(Whether ranked-choice voting would have any impact on general-election results is an open question; last year, Democratic Takis Karantonis won 60 percent of the vote in a four-way race, meaning the instant-runoff provision wouldn’t have been triggered even if it had been in place.)
Instant-runoff voting could, however, be put into practice for the November 2023 election, when two County Board seats will be on the ballot, theoretically giving non-Democrats more of a shot at victory. And it also could be applied to Democratic primaries, which – with rare exceptions – constitute the de-facto determination of who will win office the subsequent November.