In some instances, politicians put forth a hand of friendship to those on the other side of the political aisle. In others, it’s more a specific single digit extended upward in the direction of the opposition.
Arlington’s leadership just got the digit from Virginia’s new chief executive.
Elections have consequences, to coin a phrase, and one consequence of the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election could be that Arlington’s local leaders will lack a friend in the Governor’s Mansion for the next four years.
Gov. Youngkin, in fact, seemed to go out of his way to target Arlington County Board members in his very first veto.
The governor on March 1 rejected a bill from Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) to allow the County Board to directly employ an auditor of the police department, rather than have the position reporting to the county manager.
The net result likely will be a distinction without a difference: An auditor can still be appointed (by County Manager Mark Schwartz) and his or her routine is unlikely to be seriously impacted by whether Schwartz or the County Board serves as employer.
But that matter serves as a reminder that, with the GOP now largely back in control in Richmond, Arlington’s leaders will be playing political defense for a while after spending eight years with friendly Democratic governors and attorneys general in office.
The auditor would be responsible for investigating alleged malfeasance among officers, working in concert with a newly created oversight body. In his veto message, Youngkin said having the individual tasked with investigating allegations of impropriety among police officers responsible to elected officials ran the risk of politicizing investigations and contaminating conclusions.
“Investing in a single politically-appointed individual the power of judge, jury and executioner without any input from law-enforcement officers or delineated qualifications for such individual constitutes an undue burden for those who protect and serve the community,” the governor said.
In response, the Arlington government put out a statement saying the governor was misinterpreting the intent of the bill. County officials expressed “serious disappointment” in the veto.
“It is deeply frustrating,” said County Board Chairman Katie Cristol, who with seven years in office under her belt has never served while a Republican was in the Governor’s Mansion.
Hope’s bill had passed the House of Delegates with support from all Democrats and votes from about one-third of Republicans, whose support was needed as the GOP controls the body. But as had been the case with a similar bill patroned by state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-Fairfax-Loudoun), the vote in the Democratic state Senate was a party-line 21-19.
Given the small margins, it’s unlikely legislators will attempt to override the bill later in the session, and if they do, such an effort is likely to fail.
Having a police auditor reporting to the County Board was one of the proposals emanating from Arlington’s 2021 revamp of policing procedures, but required county leaders to secure support in Richmond. Currently, the county code only allows board members to directly employ the county manager, clerk to the board, county attorney and government auditor; everyone else who serves the public through the county government reports up the chain of command either to County Manager Mark Schwartz or constitutional officers.
Hope, who as with other local legislators has gotten used to Republicans (and at times even some Democrats) in Richmond taking shots at the County Board, said he was disappointed by the veto and called it “a misguided political statement.”
The veto “will not prevent Arlington from hiring an independent policing auditor,” Hope said. “It will only prevent the County Board from making the hire; the county manager retains the authority to hire this position. And the governor’s veto will not do anything related to disciplinary powers of the policing-oversight body. That authority rests solely in the ordinance and has nothing to do with this position.”
The Arlington NAACP, which was active in the effort to create an oversight panel and the auditor position, accused the governor of “inflammatory hyperbole” in his veto message. The NAACP’s position is that the auditor should not be appointed by the county manager, who also appoints the police chief.
“The legislature thought this small change necessary to lessen any appearance of conflict and support the auditor’s independence,” NAACP officials said in a March 1 statement.
Although he won just 23 percent of the vote in Arlington last November, Youngkin’s election was fueled, in part, by downstate voters clamoring for a get-tough-on-crime chief executive (and attorney general). The leftward drift of Northern Virginia prosecutor offices and governing bodies in recent years has fueled criticism, fair or not, that local leaders sometimes view public-safety personnel as a bigger threat than criminals themselves.
To use the bill, which would have applied only to Arlington, as his first veto seems calculated to appeal to the Republican base. Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and perhaps it simply was the first measure to come to his desk that Youngkin felt deserved a veto.
Still, the action rankled the measure’s patron.
“In my 13 years of service, I don’t ever recall seeing a governor vetoing a local-charter bill,” Hope said.
But now he has.