Got a home owning problem or a beef over county services? Ombuds Ben Aiken may be your man (person). “In the last several years, we’ve been using ‘Ombuds’ rather than the ‘Ombudsman’ title to avoid gender-exclusive perceptions about the job,” said the eight-year, multi-position county employee whose official title, he told me, since autumn 2018 has been director of constituent services.
Aiken has weighed in on individuals’ issues from a community’s shortage of pool lifeguards to a neighbor whose view got blocked by a fence. But the majority of queries are generated in-house. His team that includes two administrative specialists receives “about 300 requests via the county board each year,” he says. “Several hundred more are generated through contacts to the county manager’s office or from referrals by other departments.”
After a triage, the responses are managed in coordination with appropriate agency staff. “Most of the help is already available, it’s just a matter of finding it,” he says.
Topics range in complexity from a basic question that involves just “a link to the website to investigating policy concerns that require actions by the county board. We are also assigned special project management duties, such as the recent implementation of the Route 29/Langston Blvd. naming.”
Top attention-getters at the (703-228-3120) phone and the county’s Report-a-Problem/Request-a-Service Tool include:
Traffic, parking and roadway safety; construction and quality of life/“nuisance” enforcement; policy or service delivery changes (including park advocacy and combatting climate change); and public safety issues such as police presence to address property crimes.
The ombuds helps “anyone regardless of their standing as a resident, business, or visitor to the county,” Aiken says. “Many challenges faced by businesses are also faced by residents.” The county had a business ombudsman (Shannon Flanigan Watson, before she became deputy county manager), who was replaced by Katelyn Thomas, who reports to Aiken. (Still separate is the county board auditor).
“I think Aiken is both likable and effective,” says former county board member John Vihstadt. “My sense is that the business ombuds, by contrast, has been a revolving door of nice people who lack clout and empowerment to be truly value-added.”
Aiken studied urban planning at Virginia Tech before receiving a master’s there in public administration. He worked two years in the Alexandria City budget office before migrating to Arlington as a budget analyst. Before becoming ombuds, he consulted gratefully with predecessors Robert Sharpe and Brian Stout.
His office maintains good relations with the Chamber of Commerce and coordinates with county communications staff. Its work “is generally done to help inform or explain the existing process rather than identify recommendations for improvements,” Aiken says. “As we see recurring themes in complaints, we work in partnership with communications staff to make existing information more accessible.”
The callers “are generally civil,” Aiken says, “but we also take pride in our customer-service approach — to work with individuals who are upset through care, empathy and active listening.”
Any chronic complainers? “Some express opinions more often than others,” he acknowledges. “We may disagree with someone on resolution, but our goal is that interactions end peaceably. We will not entertain personal attacks, abusive language, or threats toward staff.”
Aug. 13 will bring a memorial service for an unassuming Arlingtonian who became a civil rights pioneer. Ronald Deskins, one of four African-American students who in 1959 integrated Stratford Jr. High (the first school in “massive resistance” Virginia to do so) died June 16 in Winchester at 75.
“There were no public displays of affection or animus,” he recalled of the integration during a 2016 panel discussion, but a few people later “made it their business to try to make our lives miserable but didn’t succeed.” Deskins went on to be a star athlete at Washington-Lee (now Liberty) High and a firefighter integrating the Fairfax force.
Halls Hill historian Wilma Jones said the John M. Langston Civic Association extended condolences to the Deskins family and will have representatives at Saturday’s tribute at the Annandale Fire Station.