As it begins its search for a new county manager, the Arlington County Board is reviewing several recommendations from a special committee on ways to improve the county government.
After a year of study, the board-appointed Ad Hoc Committee on Improving Local Government has submitted a report suggesting changes affecting the County Board, the county manager, the county attorney and department heads.
The board is expected to schedule hearings in the near future on the recommendations, all but one of which -- the term of the board chairman -- would require changes in the county charter by the General Assembly and subsequent approval by county voters.
Pending those hearings, there appears to be no consensus among the board members on the recommendations, which evolved from dozens of interviews with former county officials and political scientists.
Among the major recommendations by the committee are:
* Modifying the current county manager form of government to give the County Board the power to review the manager's choices on all department heads. All now are appointed by the manager, and the board is prohibited from reviewing those appointments.
* Giving the County Board the final say over the manager's choice for county attorney, and extending the attorney's term from one year to four.
* Changing the schedule for electing County Board members. Currently, at least one board seat is up for election each year.
* Requiring a public hearing every three years to review the performance of both the county manager and the county government.
* Extending the term of the chairman of the County Board beyond one year to perhaps 18 months or longer.
Some of the most significant changes recommended by the committee concern the roles and relationship between the County Board and the county manager.
In its report, the committee observed that "the single most important issue" it dealt with was the "oft-expressed concern of whether or not the manager has over the years become a policy-maker."
That concern, the committee said, has developed as a result of what some observers see as the County Board's occasional deferral to the manager on policy matters and the fact that the manager often controls sources of information, such as reports from county staff members, on which the board relies to make policy decisions.
Although the committee made no direct recommendations for ensuring that the policy-making functions are held only by the board, it did address other questions concerning the duties and responsibilities of both the manager and the board.
Currently, the county manager is hired by the County Board and serves "at its pleasure." The manager is responsible for day-to-day county operations and implementation of board policies. The five board members, all elected to four-year terms and serving on a part-time basis, are responsible for setting overall policy for the county.
The ad hoc committee suggested that the County Board be given more power by easing the restrictions under a state statute that prohibits the board from "interfering" in appointments of department heads and the county attorney.
One major change suggested by the committee would give the board the final say in hiring the county attorney, although the manager still would recommend a nominee who would report directly to the manager. At the same time, the committee recommended that the attorney, who now serves for one year, serve four years instead.
The committee contended that the changes would still keep the county attorney free from the constantly changing politics of the County Board, while allowing the board to "express its will" on the choice for the office.
In another area, the committee suggested that the County Board have the power to review the county manager's appointment of all department heads. While the change would not allow the board to vote on accepting or rejecting department heads, the committee said it would give the board "sufficient overview" of such appointments "without introducing a high degree of politicization."
All those changes are aimed at giving the board more latitude in its efforts to direct county operations. Under current state statute, any action by the county board members that is construed as "interference" in the county manager's direction of subordinates can result in a $1,000 fine and the board member's removal from office. Although observers agree that the law is designed to isolate civil servants from political decisions, they note that the law is so stringent that even an informal conversation by board members regarding the qualifications of department heads could be construed as "interference."
While the committee recommended that the manager continue to serve at the board's pleasure, it suggested that there be a mandatory public hearing on his and the county government's performance every three years.
The committee also recommended no change in the four-year terms of board members, and suggested that members continue to be elected at-large and serve on a part-time basis. But the majority of the six-member committee suggested that elections be scheduled biennially instead of annually. Currently, at least one board member is elected each year, with two elected every fourth year.
The committee proposed that two members be elected one year and three be elected two years later. Biennial elections, the committee majority said, "would help to insulate the board from the political positioning and reluctance to deal with sensitive and controversial issues in the months immediately prior to the annual election."
The minority on the committee, however, argued that annual elections afford voters a yearly "referendum on substantive, countywide issues."
The committee also suggested that the board chairmanship, which usually rotates among the majority members, be extended beyond the customary one-year term to facilitate long-range policy-making. While the committee did not recommend a specific tenure, it suggested an 18-month term might be considered.