A proposed bill to standardize the types of local governments across Virginia drew criticism from local officials this week during a special hearing in Fairfax County before a General Assembly committee studying the bill.
The proposed legislation, called House Bill 63, attempts to streamline into three forms some eight types of government and their innumerable variations used by Virginia's counties and cities.
But elected officials and employes from local jurisdictions including Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties and Fairfax City expressed concern that aspects of the bill would [WORD ILLEGIBLE]powers they now enjoy.
[WORD ILLEGIBLE]would prefer a broad, general [WORD ILLEGIBLE]of powers to a locality rather than more specific outlining of powers," Ellen Bozman of the Arlington County Council told the 10 Richmond legislators on the committee studying local government. "To try to mold local governments to three specific forms is seeking a conformity that may not meet the objectives we seek."
Most speakers objected to standardizing Virginia's diverse local governments, some calling that diversity "one of Virginia's greatest strengths." But otherwise a few speakers agreed on particular criticisms of the massive and complex bill that was carried over from the last General Assembly session.
The bill suggests hundreds of changes, large and small, in existing state law in order to bring all Virginia governments into conformity with the three governmental forms - standard, executive and managerial.
Fairfax and Prince William counties would be placed in the county executive category; Arlington County, the managerial, and Fairfax City and Alexandria, the standard category.
Some of the proposed changes would no more than reword current definitions, but even they raised opposition from local officials. For example, Fairfax County does not want its Department of Social Services referred to as the Department of Welfare as the bill proposes.
Other changes are regarded as more significant.
Arlington is particularly concerned that the bill would eliminate annual elections there and allow the County Board to expand beyond its five members, Bozman charged that the bill also "raises the spectre of annexation."
Under the managerial government form, Arlington would have to hold biennial rather than annual elections of County Board members - a change Bozman said would give voters less choice in their elected officials.
She said Arlington's five-member board "has served the county well" and does not want the power to enlarge itself.
Finally, she noted that current law says a neighboring city can annex only if it annexes all of Arlington with the approval of voters through public referendum. The new law would erase that provision without adding any other protection from annexation, Bozman said.
State Del. Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville) said it is anticipated that the General Assembly would pass new legislation on annexation that would give protection at the same time it passes standardization laws.
Fairfax held other concerns, chiefly concerning proposed changes in the county's financial management. Fairfax Supervisor James M. Scott (D-Providence) said proposals to increase public review of budget spending "would create extra cumbersome paperwork - not better fiscal management."
J. Clifford Hutt, a citizen member of the committee on local government, responded that county budgets now serve as planning tools, and that county governments are not committed to spend strictly according to what the budget projects.
"All we are trying to do is give the public a voice when the fire department is getting money for an extra fire truck that wasn't in the budget," Hutt said.
Scott said proposed changes in the definitions of certain financial terms like allocation and appropriation "could open up a whole new can of worms, the ramifications of which we don't know about right now." But members of the committee termed his concern merely a question of semantics.
Scott also objected to parts of the bill that would repeal current provisions that permits a town or city to dissolve into the county, that allow the police chief to require handgun permits and that allow the county supervisors to retain legal counsel for reasons other than litigation.
Several representatives of county sheriffs and revenue commissioners associations also expressed opposition to the bill, because it proposes abolishing those positions.
J.E. Clements, Arlington County Sheriff, cautioned the General Assembly against passing a bill that he said "is not clearly understood by the public."
Not only is the bill not understood by the electorate, but local officials around the state admit they have not thoroughly analyzed the bill's potential effect on present governments.
Under study for four years, the bill was the brainchild of Alexandria Mayor Frank E. Mann, a former General Assembly delegate. The General Assembly already has abolished two forms of government considered obsolete.
The next of several hearings around the state on the proposed legislation will be held July 28 in Norfolk.