The 2023 session of the General Assembly is likely to come and go this winter without considering changes to Arlington’s governance structure proposed by the Arlington County Civic Federation.
Federation delegates last fall adopted a resolution suggesting a series of changes that would impact the current governance system, which has been in place in Arlington since the 1930s.
Among the proposals:
• Expanding the size of the County Board and School Board from the current five members to at least seven each.
• Changing the current process of electing one or two members of each board each year, replacing it with an every-other-year cycle where seven of the 14 members (counting both bodies) would be elected at a time.
• 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 general elections.
Of those proposals, higher pay for County Board members already has been approved by the County Board and did not require legislative action, although increasing School Board pay would. Ranked-choice voting has been implemented by the County Board for County Board primaries and may be expanded to County Board general elections, but to expand it to other offices would require approval in Richmond. Amending the one-and-done annual rotation of board chairs could be accomplished locally without oversight from the state government, on the off chance elected officials would embrace it.
Because Arlington operates under a unique form of government enshrined in the Code of Virginia, any changes to the size of the county’s elected bodies, or revisions to the elections-every-year cycle, would need authorizing legislation from the General Assembly and the signature of the governor. Whether support would be forthcoming at a time when Republicans control the executive branch and House of Delegates remains an open question.
Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) told the Sun Gazette he has prepared legislation that would give Arlington the power to implement changes to its governance structure, but does not plan to introduce it this session. The Civic Federation’s proposals have not been vetted by county leaders or other organizations, including the dominant Arlington County Democratic Committee.
From the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s to the early 1930s, Arlington was governed by a three-member Board of Supervisors elected by districts and functioning essentially as a legislative and executive body.
In 1932, the General Assembly gave Arlington (and only Arlington) the power to change to a county-manager form of government, where five at-large board members delegate most day-to-day governmental operations to an appointed county manager. That system remains in place more than 90 years later.