Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Occupational hazard of serving on our county board: You must thicken your skin to endure brickbats from critics.

Only some of whom are well informed, logical or civil.

I asked four of the most sophisticated and persistent “kibitzers” to boil down their critiques delivered over years during public comment time.

Bernie Berne, a historian, activist and retired doctor: “County Board members almost always vote to approve the county manager’s recommendations, regardless of any objections that speakers might express at board meetings. Members may ask staff to respond to objections, but never give speakers an opportunity to correct any erroneous statements staff may make. The board might approve only minor tweaks. Except where required by law, board members prohibit the public from speaking on consent agenda items unless they receive multiple requests to speak. They often approve the manager’s recommendations without hearing concerns that the public might have.”

Audrey Clement, a political scientist and board candidate who served on the Transportation Commission: “The board has pushed harmful policies resulting in overcrowded schools, gentrification, loss of green space, and a 10-year average annual effective tax rate increase twice the inflation rate. I oppose tax gouging Arlington residents to pay for boondoggles like the $150 million loan the county made in December 2021 to Jair Lynch to purchase Barcroft Apartments on the Pike without a public hearing. I also oppose the board’s push for so-called missing middle’ housing, a euphemism for up-zoning that will inflate land values, resulting in higher housing prices, overcrowded schools, more traffic congestion, loss of tree canopy, increased runoff and more air pollution.” John Antonelli, a program analyst and activist on hiatus since the streetcar debate: “Like their predecessors, they can’t say the words fiscal restraint. With one-party control and at-large elections, and no one going to lose an election over tax increases, they don’t need to. More than their predecessors, current members are beholden to the development community where larger, newer, and more dense make millions for developers who fill members’ campaign coffers but make life harder and more expensive for residents who have to pay for new schools and infrastructure while finding it difficult to park the car for a grocery trip.” Suzanne Smith Sundburg, an activist who speaks at Civic Federation meetings and sends the board policy missives: “It’s poor-quality oversight and a lacking in serious leadership. Board members seem to think their jobs are similar to marketing reps or a cheerleading squad rather a serious elected body whose primary job is to oversee county operations, ensure the efficient and effective use of public funds, and put the public’s best interests ahead of special interests. Are they worth what we pay them? Yes, board members work many hours. But hours worked mean little if the work product is shoddy. Soon, staff will recommend the board award 1.3 million square feet ofbonus’ density to Amazon without a clear-cut dollar valuation of the applicant’s community benefits. Arlingtonians deserve better than rubber-stamping staff decisions.”

Asked to respond, Board Chair Katie Cristol said, “Criticism is part of our job, and we try to look past the sometimes-aggressive tone to focus on the substance of the issues. But we also take seriously our responsibility to foster mutual respect and democratic participation within the community. We know comments directed at board members set expectations for how we treat one another in the public sphere – and when discourse becomes uncivil, it negatively impacts civic participation.”

Nine years after Arlington made negative national news with its “million-dollar bus stop,” Columbia Pike is set to receive the first of 23 fancy transit stations.

County transportation officials told a Feb. 11 Columbia Pike Partnership symposium that the first eight of the new shelters—including benches, public art and kiosks offering real-time scheduling updates—are being fabricated by Future Systems Inc. for installation in late spring or summer.

The overall cost of the eight will be $1.1 million, which works out to about $137,500 a copy.