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ArlingtonGovernance task force proposes changes to election structure

Governance task force proposes changes to election structure

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A task force empaneled by the Arlington County Civic Federation has proposed a somewhat radical reconfiguration of County Board and School Board elections. But whether the political powers that be in the county and at the state level embrace the concept remains to be seen.

The Civic Federation’s TiGER (Task Force in Governance and Election Reform) panel on May 10 unveiled its second and final set of recommendations in preparation for a vote of the membership in June. And as expected, the panel has recommended that County Board and School Board general elections move from a winner-take-all format to ranked-choice voting.

More interestingly, the recommendation calls for a change in how County Board and School Board elections are staggered:

• Currently, the five-member bodies have one seat on the ballot three of every four years, with the remaining two other seats the fourth year.


• The TiGER proposal, which seeks to expand membership on each body to seven, would have four County Board members and three School Board members elected in a given year, followed by a gap year, followed by three County Board members and four School Board members elected. After another gap year, the process would repeat.

John Vihstadt, a former County Board member who served on the task force, said the conclusions reached marked views of its majority.

“We really strived to consider all sides of all issues to come to a consensus,” said Vihstadt, who acknowledged that “we didn’t come to unanimity on all issues.”

(Left out of the package of proposed changes: Whether Arlington should seek city status to better acknowledge its increasing urbanization; what if anything should be done to the five elected constitutional offices in the county; and how to better promote civic engagement.)

The batches of proposals recommended in April and May will be collated and sent out for review by the Civic Federation membership in coming weeks.

“It’s a long report – download it when it becomes available and read it in advance of the [June] meeting,” pleaded Michael Beer, another member of the task force.

Leadership of the Civic Federation is likely to try and have the package decided on in an up-or-down vote, but there were rumblings among some at the May 10 meeting – the first in-person Civic Federation meeting in the COVID era – that the package should be voted on in pieces.

Those details were left to be decided at a later time. “We’ll have a much fuller discussion in June,” promised Civic Federation president Allan Gajadhar, who that month will wrap up three years at the helm of the organization.

(Whether the meeting will devolve into the Civic Federation of yore – hours of vivid, sometimes livid debate and parliamentary-procedure wrangling – remains to be seen. As those who lived through that era will attest, those meetings proved both enlightening and exhausting in equal measure.)

Assuming most or all of the recommendations of the panel are adopted, the package will be forwarded to a host of local organizations and advisory bodies, and ultimately will be deposited with the county’s elected hierarchy for review and potential action.

To date, the only item proposed by the TiGER task force adopted by elected officials was (wait for it) a recommendation that County Board salaries increase substantially. Board members voted themselves a major pay raise as part of the recently concluded fiscal 2023 budget, after waiting two years as to not seem greedy during the pandemic.

The report also recommends major increases for salaries of School Board members, but those currently are capped by state law.

In order for any or all of the recommendations to be implemented, the package will have to run a gauntlet – needing to find support from the Arlington County Democratic Committee (which can hardly be expected to willingly dilute its current oligarchical power in local governance), the County Board and School Board and, in some cases, the state legislature and governor.

Proposals for change also might run into what is known to some long-timers as the “Eisenberg Principle” – former County Board member Al Eisenberg used to approach change with the question, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?”

Beer attempted to address that out of the starting gate, suggesting (without elaborating much) that switching the election cycle would lead to “getting more diverse candidates, getting strong candidates.”

With the exception of the change in how board terms are staggered, the proposal largely seems more evolutionary than revolutionary. There is no call, for instance, to move from at-large elections to district-based elections, as was the case in Arlington from 1870 to 1932, when the community (originally known as Alexandria County) was carved up into three Board of Supervisors districts. Unlike today’s arrangement, where board members delegate day-to-day operations of government to staff, those three supervisors tended to serve as laws unto themselves in their districts.

The General Assembly in the early 1930s allowed Arlington to switch to a five-member, at-large County Board, whose members initially were elected at the same time. A few years later, the 1-1-1-2-seat election rotation was implemented, being extended to the School Board when it became an elected body.

The General Assembly several years ago granted the County Board power to move to ranked-choice (instant-runoff) voting in its elections. County Board have used the ongoing Civic Federation deliberations as a reason to wait before moving forward on ranked-choice voting, which by this point would not be feasible for the November 2022 County Board election.

Whether ranked-choice voting would have any impact on general-election results is an open question; last fall, Democratic Takis Karantonis won 60 percent of the vote against three independents, meaning the instant-runoff provision wouldn’t have been triggered even had it been in place.

Having three or four seats up in a single year could give the ranked-choice option more relevancy, but odds still favor the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s nominating processes serving as de-facto elections in a community that since the 1980s has been solidly Democratic and seems to only be getting more so.

The Civic Federation proposal also asks for consideration of a change to current elected-body leadership. Currently, chairs of the County Board and School Board rotate in for one-year terms as elected by members of the body; the Civic Federation wants consideration of giving chairs tenure of two years or more.

Some years ago, when one County Board member privately suggested to colleagues that he would be willing to serve a second consecutive one-year term at chairman, his proposal was shot down quickly before becoming public knowledge.

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