County Board marks progress in bringing the government to Arlingtonians

Problem: Arlington County is doing everything it’s always done to alert, solicit, notify and engage its residents. More and more residents, though, say they feel left out — missing the weekend and night meetings, spending hours combing through agendas and reports or working their way through departmental phone trees to find help.

The answer (or the start of an answer): Create a virtual town center. Arlington has set up a welcome kit for new residents, held open-door meetings with elected officials, retrained staff, used online question-and-answer tools, sought residents’ opinions in unlikely places and captured lessons learned after big events.

County Board Chairman Mary H. Hynes (D), who has been involved in Arlington civic life for more than 20 years, says the government has taken the first steps toward engaging residents but that it’s an ongoing effort.

“I think we’ve laid a great foundation,” she said as she reflected on 11 months of her participation, leadership and civic engagement initiative, called PLACE. “It doesn’t happen all at once.”

Led by library director Diane Kresh and county human resources official Emma Kiendl, the project created a new set of tools intended to bind the government more closely to its residents. They’ve set up a type of social network for people who live and work in Arlington, called PlaceSpace. Another online community, Open Arlington, is a spot to discuss topics such as government projects or policies. They also launched initiatives to talk to residents face-to-face. At farmers markets or the county fair, residents might have run into county staff members conducting quick interviews.

The county also held 40 “open-door Monday” sessions, in which Hynes and other board members fielded questions, complaints and ideas from more than 250 people.

“We need to go where people are,” Hynes said. “When we asked them, ‘What’s your neighborhood?,’ they were hyperlocal. It’s ‘my building’ or ‘my block.’ The County Board’s outreach to the [about 45 neighborhood] civic associations may not be enough.”

For example, the county parks department spent years planning improvements to Rocky Run Park in the Courthouse and Clarendon area, only to find that neighbors in the Williamsburg Condominium didn’t think they had a say in the result. The board spent hours at its Nov. 27 meeting hearing their objections.

Sometimes, solutions are as simple as posting detailed notices in the park itself, Hynes said, or asking teenagers who have stopped hanging out at the library what they like about their new favorite places.

Given the ethnic and cultural mix of the county’s population, including people who primarily speak foreign languages and people with disabilities, a long-standing challenge is how the county will include them in conversations about Arlington’s future. The county is working on those kinds of challenges.

“How do we enhance participation and get a broader set of voices to the table?” Hynes said. “Underpinning all this is the long-standing question of: What is the Arlington Way?”

The Arlington Way — a beloved-by-activists notion that the county has its own special style of civil discourse with open information, consensus-seeking and respectful citizenry — might soon be codified. Residents are going to be asked to look at proposed definitions of “the Arlington Way” and offer edits.

Other updates might be coming for what’s known as the Neighborhood College, a year-long workshop that acts as a sort of Government 101 training.

Hynes’s County Board chairmanship ends with the calendar year, but she, Kresh and Kiendl said the work on PLACE will continue. A report on its first year is expected to be made public at the County Board meeting Tuesday.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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