It appears, in the end, to have been a case of miscommunication, but the Arlington County government over the weekend had to address questions about whether an advocate for preservation of the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard was being denied a public forum.
Regardless, the matter has led to a firestorm of criticism from some veteran civic activists, who believe the county government wants to control debate and stifle dissenting views.
At issue: Efforts by Tom Dickinson, who has been leading efforts to win preservation status for the property (also known as the Febrey-Lothrop estate), to speak on the matter at the March 20 County Board meeting.
Dickinson had asked to be placed on the speakers’ list for the public-comment period, a monthly ritual the precedes regular County Board business.
But Dickinson was informed he couldn’t speak on the topic, because it had been the subject of a County Board hearing the previous month.
As county officials put it when queried by the Sun Gazette:
“According to his description of the nature of his comments, he would be speaking to the same issue that was on the board’s agenda at its February meeting, at which a public hearing was conducted on advertising public hearings in April for the possible historic designation of this property.
As was explained to Mr. Dickinson, the board’s procedures state that public comment at the start of Saturday board meetings is intended for topics that have not been the subject of a recent public hearing.”
That seems a somewhat strict interpretation of public-hearing rules, and apparently County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti agreed. When the matter was brought to him just as the meeting started, he said it was OK for Dickinson to speak. But by that point, Dickinson, assuming he would not allowed to take part, had departed the online meeting to type up his remarks so they could be delivered to County Board members.
The county-government response to the situation as offered to the Sun Gazette did not exactly include an apology for the initial rejection of his request to speak. More along the lines of a sorry-if-you-were-offended kind of response.
“I regret that Mr. Dickenson [sic] felt that he was unfairly prevented from providing further testimony to the board,” Clerk to the County Board Kendra Jacobs said through a county spokesman in reply to a Sun Gazette inquiry.
Dickinson had planned to call on the County Board to intervene to stop the planned demolition of the house, citing its historic provenance and the likelihood that enslaved people had been responsible for construction of parts of the buildings on the lot.
“If you, the board, do not intervene to stop this destruction of this sacred site, your individual and collective legacy will be stained forever by a lack of honor and respect for those who labored and suffered to create these structures at this site, and the desecration of them,” he wrote as a follow-up.
And also: “You will thereby be complicit in the destruction of that almost completely vanished evidence of the horrors committed upon these people. It would be the equivalent of allowing the destruction of the crematory ovens at Auschwitz.”
County Board members in February set an April public hearing to discuss and potentially enact historic-preservation protections on the 9-acre site. But that timetable gives the owners of the property more than enough time to demolish the buildings, as they plan to do. Permits allowing demolition are all in hand, and the first steps of the destruction already have started.
As County Board members were meeting on March 20, about 50 advocates held a vigil-cum-requiem-cum-wake outside the property to draw attention to preservation efforts.
For generations, County Board members have provided a public-comment period at the start of Saturday board meetings.
There have always been limitations: Speakers can’t exceed two minutes, can’t speak on topics other already have and can’t address issues that will be taken up in other parts of the meeting. But enforcement of those rules over the decades has varied by individual board chairman and even from one meeting to the next.
More than one board chair over the years has provided a loose interpretation of the rules, only to see the public try to push the boundaries even further. The result: Control over the process is again tightened, for at least a few subsequent meetings.
Suzanne Smith Sundburg, another veteran activist, said restrictions placed by the county government on public-comment time render it ineffective – which, she suggested, may be the point. She termed it “Arlington County’s aversion to dealing with dissent, however mild or politely expressed.”
“Few people realize how limited ‘public comment in Arlington is – far from being open to a diversity of views . . . Arlington County’s elected officials carefully control what citizens may say, and when and where they may say it,” Sundburg said.
As for the events of March 20, a veteran civic activist – Audrey Clement – said it was emblematic of the county government’s disinclination to fully address the preservation issue.
“Your contempt for Arlington’s historic legacy as well as the process for preserving it is shocking, and your treatment of Tom Dickinson is contemptible,” Clement said in an e-mail to the County Board.