The Arlington County Board, acting on a recommendation from the Arlington Civic Federation, has established a citizens commission to study the possibility of adopting a city form of government.
At its meeting Aug. 5 the board appointed seven members to the commission to study the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating as a city. The board directed the commission to consider the fiscal implications of a possible change to city government and the relevant laws applying to the different types of government. The commission is to report back to the board by Sept. 1, 1979.
Those appointed to the commission are: John Chwat, who headed the civic federation committee that recommended the study; David Anderson, an attorney and former chairman of the county planning commission, who will act as chairman of the committee; Laszlo Ecker-Racz, a former Arlington school board chairman: Robert Plavnick, an urban planning consultant: Thomas Richards, president of the Arlington Telecommunications Corporation: Alice Sufit, an Arlington School teacher who has been active in the Arlington League of Women Voters, served on the county's historical commission and the committee on the status of women and Alice Gross, who has not yet decided if she will serve on the commission.
Four vacancies remain to be filled on the charter commission. Anderson says he hopes to begin meetings by mid-September.
Changing to city status would require approval from the Virginia General Assembly as from Arlington voters.
Arlington County government is operated under the county manager plan, which has established by the General Assembly in 1932. The government consists of a five-member county board, charged with formulating policies for the county, and a county manager, hired by the board to serve as an adminsitrator in carrying out board policy. The county has special legislative exemption from annexation by adjoining cities.
Debate on whether to change to a city government is not new in Arligton. Chwat said similar commissions were established in 1952 and 1958. In fact, a charter that grew out of the 1958 commission was adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1960. Although it was never approved by county voters, the charter could still be used as enabling legislation for a conversion, he said.
Chwat said the civic federation became interested in the issue in 1973, the 40th anniversary of Arlington's adoption of the current form of government. The federation was interested in knowing how county services could be improved and how Arlington could get more state and federal aid, he said. The federation has not endorsed the idea of converting to a city, but it is recommending a study be initiated to determine if city government would be more beneficial to residents, he said.
The commission, Chwat said, would probably have to update the 1958 study. Once that is done, commission member will be able to decide whether to recommend a change, he said. If a municipal government is recommended, the commission will probably then need to examine the 1960 charter and suggest changes in it, he said.
Chwat said, however, that the commission may recommend that the county keep its present from of government or make changes within the present system.
Chwat cited the following as areas where differences might be found between county and city governments.
Control of roadways. Chwat said cities are responsible for maintaining primary and secondary roads. Under county government, the state maintains primary county roads, and counties maintain seconday roads.
Duties and powers. A city can establish whatever powers it wants in its charter, as long as the General Assembly approves it, he said. A county is limited to powers specifically granted to it by the legislature, he explained.
Federal grants. Chwat said many federal grants to solve urban problems are given to cities rather than counties, which normally do not have as many residents as Arlington. As an example, he mentioned the Department of Housing and Urban Development's community development grants. Until last year, when Congress authorized grants for urban counties, Arlington was missing out on funds that neighboring cities were receiving, he said. Chwat also questioned whether there were other programs Arlington may be excluded from because it is a county.
In an interview, County Manager W. Vernon Ford said the county-city issue is a question of identity. The conversion idea has aroused interest for so long because cities are generally easier to identify with, he said. But Arlington has never converted before, he said, because residents feared a loss in revenues.
"The decision was that the cost in lost revenue outweighted the gain in identity," he said.
Besides the financial consideration, Ford said, the question of authority and duties would probably be a main concern.
Ford said the state legislature over the years has granted Arlington many of the powers that neighboring cities have. At the same time, the county has retained "one of the beauties of the Arlington system," organizational flexibility, he said. Ford explained that since Arlington is not bound to a rigid government structure through a charter, the county government is organizaed to best suit the meployes' abilities or the needs at the time. At any given time, he said, most of the government's structure can be reorganized to make it more responsive.
Although Ford calls the commission study a useful excercise, he does not see any great community thrust for conversion to a city.
"There's been no groundswell in the community either way," he said. "People don't care what you call it. They just want their garbage picked up."