One of the first things the Democrats did when they regained control of the Arlington County Board in January was pull the plug on a private telephone line that Republican Walter L. Frankland Jr. had installed in the chairman's office three years earlier. The Democrats, who said they'd never been able to learn the telephone's number, gave the line to the board clerk.
From there, the Democrats, who hold a 3-to-2 majority vote on the board, went on to address issues they said had suffered under the Republicans, such as development decisions they say were incompatible with surrounding residential neighborhoods and the county's dwindling supply of low- and moderate-cost housing.
For example, said Board Chairman Ellen Bozman last week, there was the 3-to-2 vote to restore a position in the child care office to once again allow for county inspections of family-care homes and updating of a directory on child-care centers--a service the Democrats said was important for the large number of working parents in the county.
And, noted Vice Chairman John G. Milliken, there was the split vote to allocate federal funds to a nonprofit housing corporation for the purchase and renovation of a 22-unit apartment complex. "It was money we would have available to us on a one-time-only basis to make some improvements and move in the direction of providing more low- and moderate-cost housing," he said.
These are the kinds of votes that Board Member Mary Margaret Whipple, whose election last fall shifted the board majority to the Democrats, describes as the "little victories" of local government--votes that make clear the changing direction that the Democrats have given the county bureaucracy.
Other split votes on partisan lines have included approval of the county manager's plan to reorganize the top echelon of his staff and the initial vote to appropriate $250,000 to enhance teachers' salaries--one Republicans Dorothy T. Grotos and Frankland fought but later reluctantly supported.
There have been other, more subtle marks of the new Democratic majority, ranging from the way they have rearranged the agenda to put time-consuming and dull administrative items last on the list, to the initiation last spring of forums on issues affecting different segments of the community. The first forum was on the problems the elderly face, and it resulted in the board earmarking $50,000 in the budget for studying ways to help them.
The Democrats have also consolidated some citizen committees and created new ones. A committee has been formed on National Airport, and another new one is looking for ways to attract and keep families in Arlington.
One town meeting at Washington-Lee High School this spring drew grumblings from the audience when Frankland, asssuming all three Democrats would be present, showed up and questioned the legality of the session. Only Milliken and Whipple were present, thus keeping the Democrats from breaking a state law prohibiting a majority of a public board from having unofficial meetings to discuss public business. A man in the audience, who contended he had a right to talk to board members about neighborhood issues, complained that the meeting had been legal until Frankland showed, providing a three-member quorum.
Overall, the Democrats say they have streamlined the way the county does business, are better organized, have set goals for addressing the problems Arlington faces, and have been more receptive to residents' concerns on such issues as development, housing, accessibility and the budget.
Republicans Grotos and Frankland disagree strongly and do not give the Democrats a good report card for their first seven months.
"It's like having a three-member board," said Grotos, who is leaving the board to run for county treasurer this fall. "I think the government is a lot more closed. The old majority went in much more open-minded, without having a planned strategy or any commitments to each other -- of course, that killed us sometimes, too."
The Democrats, she and Frankland said, generally know each other's positions on an issue before they discuss it at a meeting. "I don't think they have many surprises for each other," said Frankland, who is seeking a third term on the board this fall.
"Sometimes they carry on a dialogue when they knew all along what they were going to do anyway," Grotos said. Grotos and Frankland said they believe some of that dialogue is prolonged grandstanding for the benefit of the cable television audience.
"We're elected to conduct county business and not to be conducting a television show. Many references are made to the cable TV audience and things are explained for their benefit," she said. "We shouldn't be gearing our County Board meetings to the cable audience."
The Democrats disagree. "It's legitimate to acknowledge there is a cable audience and you do have to explain things more," Milliken said. "It's not an insider's game. It's the public's business we're doing."
Both Republicans say they were irked at the way the budget was handled this year, and how monies were found a few days before the budget was adopted to fund what Frankland called "the Democrats' special interest groups"--teachers and a tenants' organization whose leadership the Republicans charged was active in Democratic politics.
"Their attitude toward spending is different from what I believe ours was," Frankland said, charging that the Democrats "have been more agreeable to enlarge programs or bring in new programs. . . . They don't seem to be as concerned as we were about raising taxes."
The board voted 3 to 2 along party lines to raise the property tax rate a penny to 99 cents per $100 assessed valuation this year--after several unsuccessful attempts to lower it by Grotos and Frankland.
The Democrats contended that, even with a penny increase, the average homeowner's tax bill would be lower, because for the first time since the Depression, the average home assessment in Arlington declined.
"I don't know if the average citizen would notice any changes yet" between Democratic and Republican control, Grotos said. "Change comes about slowly. . . . If they keep their majority for the next couple of years, people will notice the difference."