Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Fairfax County is one of more than 3,000 counties in the United States and, every winter, county commissioners and supervisors (the titles differ but the governance role, essentially, is the same) gather in Washington, D.C. for the annual National Association of Counties (NACo) Legislative Conference. The focus is on federal legislation of interest to local governments, but existing federal policies, or appeals for new or amended policies, consume a lot of NACo’s steering committee work.


Steering committees can be very large, with dozens of local officials from diverse backgrounds and counties in attendance. For me, the trip to the legislative conference is simple: a 20-minute drive across the 14th Street Bridge. For my colleagues from Latah County (Idaho), Tillamook County (Oregon), and Maui County (Hawaii), the trip is longer and more expensive. Serving on NACo’s Environment, Energy and Land Use (EELU) Steering Committee provides a window into other counties’ unique perspectives, finding both similarities and differences in governance, geography, and political atmosphere. All were in abundance at last Saturday’s EELU meeting at the venerable Washington Hilton Hotel.


A visitor in the meeting room would have heard that New Mexico is a very dry state, with serious concerns about nuclear waste and cleanup of the Los Alamos site. Hawaii is a wet state, and most issues there are water-focused, befitting an island jurisdiction. Colorado has a lot of acid mining drainage, a legacy of its 19th century economy; North Carolina is plagued with toxic chemicals, known as PFAS, in drinking water. California and Oregon suffered devastating wildfires during the last several years; Michigan is seeking more federal assistance to replace ancient lead water pipes. Virginia is a wet state facing both rising sea levels and land subsidence along its coastline; Mississippi is losing significant wetlands along its Gulf Coast, and is dependent on the Corps of Engineers for assistance.


Following an excellent presentation by Dr. Richard Spinrad, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator (NOAA), who discussed many of the new technological tools available to predict and/or prevent loss from nature’s fury, the committee launched into robust discussions about proposed resolutions for the NACo platform. A Colorado commissioner was upset about her state’s Democratic governor declaring a one-day boycott of meat products, so she wanted to de-politicize the “anti-agriculture” narrative that ties climate change to cattle ranching. Curiously, the move to de-politicize the issue actually had the effective of furthering politicization. After a long discussion and a call for the question, which met and exceeded the required two-thirds vote to close debate, the Colorado resolution was defeated by a margin of 56 to 44 percent. A resolution to protect “rural, disadvantaged frontier communities” from water and wetlands regulations, offered by Rocky Mountain officials, met a similar fate.


A California resolution to provide an alternative to the voluntary “America the Beautiful” Initiative was amended to shorten the resolution and address the land use authority of local governments. The amended resolution was supported overwhelmingly by the EELU members, but the sponsor did not appear to be with the amended language. A final resolution about wildfires, also submitted by a group of Rocky Mountain officials, was adopted with only one “nay” vote. That resolution sought long-term federal funding of Shared Stewardship agreements and highlighted the need to address unwanted fires that threaten critical watersheds and vulnerable communities.


Counties connect with their federal representatives in numerous ways, but the annual legislative conference provides an opportunity for local elected officials to discuss issues important to local governments, even though we may not see eye-to-eye. Broadening one’s understanding of another’s issues can lead to better governance and, perhaps, less division.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.