Commentary, Guest Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The county and school boards for our 21st century citizenry trundle along with a 90-year-old system of elections and governance.

     Hence the all-volunteer Arlington Civic Federation, after two years of research and public forums by a task force, released recommendations for a “once-in-a generation” restructuring aimed at improving citizen participation and leader responsiveness.

     The blue-skying effort comes at a time of national debate over how electoral winners are determined and proposed changes to the Senate filibuster and Supreme Court nominations. Arlington’s system of at-large, staggered elections and five-member boards was created in the early 1930s. (Before it separated from Alexandria in 1920, Arlington in the 19th century had a board of supervisors and a school superintendent governing three districts–Arlington, Jefferson and Washington.)

     In a Sept. 14 preview of the federation’s report at the Arlington Committee of 100, past federation president Allan Gajadhar and former school board member Tannia Talento diagnosed the status quo’s problems.

      Arlington’s governing bodies remain the same size as in the 1930s even though the county is larger and denser, Gajadhar said. Elected officials are “overworked,” there is “insufficient public engagement” and “inadequate public representation” for some groups. “Arlington doesn’t have sufficient political influence in the region, in light of its population and geography,” he continued. And with school and county board chairs changing every year, we’re at a disadvantage in dealing with mayors or chairs in Alexandria and Fairfax.

      The current system “does not adequately reflect the county’s diversity,” he continued—defining diversity as racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and “viewpoint.” Many on the outside “don’t feel represented.” Primaries and caucuses discourage candidate participation and voter turnout. Government is “not transparent,” and “many feel public engagement” efforts are “not authentic.”

     So after studying reforms in such places as Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Ore., they produced six recommendations: Expand boards from five to seven members; retain countywide (not district) seats; increase the terms of chairs from one year to a minimum of two, with possible renewal; gradually increase salaries (recently done at the county board) to attract better candidates; introduce ranked voting in primaries (you specify your second choice); and stagger both boards’ election dates by two years in a continual rotation.

     Talento explained why the option of replacing county-wide candidacies with neighborhood candidates was examined but rejected. Though many believe district-based seats allow “more underrepresented voices,” geographically small Arlington has special challenges. It is 13 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, 9 percent African American. “The community is not as integrated as we would like, but it is not so segregated as to create voting blocs,” she said. Creating districts “might pit us against each other.”

      Enlarging boards to more than seven was considered, she said, but might increase risk of violating Sunshine laws on informal meetings.

      The advantages of ranked voting, Talento said, are that it can help minority candidates gain a foothold, and might enhance civility. “You can’t attack the other candidate because you might want to be their No. 2.” (After the federation’s report, county board chair Katie Cristol said the board would vote in November to introduce ranked-choice voting in next spring’s primaries.)

       Such reforms should “bring more viewpoints to the table,” Talento said, but will require voter education. “I believe you push and pull each other to greatness. You can get the best consensus for a compromise, to serve all people.”

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      Permit me to share a long-lost personal incident in Arlington:

     On Oct. 21, 1956, according to a travel diary I recently acquired written by my grandfather C.R. Clark, my father, then 33, was showing his visiting Oregonian parents around Fort Myer. During a ceremonial lowering of the colors, this future columnist—then an energetic three-year-old—ran out on the field in front of the marching column of uniformed soldiers. “Embarrassed father,” wrote the diarist. “Kid would not let [my father] Keith catch him.”

     I’ve no memory of that mad dash. But new knowledge of such roots makes me proud to be an Arlingtonian at age 69.