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Civic Federation moves forward on governance studty

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Efforts by the Arlington County Civic Federation to weigh in on issues of local-government infrastructure are moving forward, with a chair of the panel selected and a work plan being ironed out.

The effort, agreed to by Civic Federation delegates late last year, is dubbed “TiGER” (Task Force in Governance and Election Reform). It has been assigned to study and possibly proffer changes to the county’s 90-year-old governance structure.

Members of the body have chosen Chris Wimbush to chair it, and have created a public-engagement committee chaired by Sharon Valencia and a communications committee chaired by Dave Schutz and Sangita Sigdyal. The body will meet next on March 15 to discuss and vote on its work plan.

The task force is expected to consider a host of issues related to Arlington and its elected bodies. Among them:


• 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?

If the effort gathers steam, it would be the first time since 2010 that serious structural changes to county governance have been considered. That year, 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 proposal, 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.

From Reconstruction until the early 1930s, Arlington – then known as “Alexandria County” – was governed by a three-member board of supervisors, elected by districts. But on Nov. 3, 1931, after the General Assembly had approved the county’s request for a new (“county manager”) form of government, the first five members of what came to be known as the County Board were elected to office.

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.

In the 1939 general election, the top five vote-getters (in a field of eight or of 15, depending on which news source you trust) won election, but for varying lengths of time: the top two vote-getters garnered four-year terms, the next a three-year term, the next a two-year term and the fifth earned just a one-year slot. The era of staggered elections had begun.

But by 1945, it appeared the bloom was off the rose of the concept; the Northern Virginia Sun in early October of that year reported that the Civic Federation had decided to ask members of the county legislative delegation to support revising the county charter (again) and reverting back to having board members elected all at once.

That request never made it through the General Assembly meat-grinder, and to this day there is at least one County Board seat on the ballot each November.

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