At one table sat a developer, a real estate salesman and a one-time company president. Scattered around the college dining room were elected officials, lawyers, bankers, teachers, county employes, a former congressman and assorted well-heeled, well-informed citizens.
It was, as one county official put it, Arlington's "in group" -- The Committee of 100 -- a nonpartisan institution now counting some 270 members which for 30 years has served as the bedrock of the county's involved citizenry.
The scene at Marymount College Wednesday could have been cast from a high school civics textbook. There, on a cold and wintry night, the local notables of the community had assembled for a turkey dinner and a discussion of the fine points of running local government.
Founded in the 1950s to heal a growing rift between Arlington's post-World War II newcomers and its old-time residents, The Committee of 100 is now showing signs of age. Many of its members hark back to an era in the county that is unknown, and irrelevant, to the county's increasingly transient population. Missing from the comfortable group that gathers regularly at Marymount are significant numbers of black, Oriental or Hispanic faces representing Arlington's polyglot neighborhoods.
The committee's debate this week was hardly glamorous stuff. It was about the merits and demerits of having a county attorney answerable to elected, rather than appointed officials. Should the County Board get involved in naming directors of county departments? Should the County Board chairman be allowed to serve more than one year at a time?
It was also about holding County Board elections every other year, rather than every year as Arlington has done since the 1930s. On this, the most hotly debated item of a "Report by an Ad Hoc Committee on Improving Local Government," almost everyone had an opinion.
County Board member John Milliken, a Democrat, was against a change. His colleague, Dorothy Grotos, a Republican, was for it. Former congressman and county board member Joseph Fisher said he had no real preference so long as county government maintained a harmonious course. Ed Campbell, who served on the board about 40 years ago, recalled that staggered elections had come about as a result of progressive reforms in the 1930s.
Debate was hardly reserved for public officials. The group at Marymount, many of them veterans of Arlington political battles, bristled with ideas on how to run a government. "It all amounts to a strong-manager form of government," volunteered Bob Skinner, "A strong manager means a strong county."
Nothing said Wednesday will change the report's recommendations to switch to every-other-year elections, to give greater control over departmental appointments to the County Board or to take the county attorney out of the county manager's office. These proposals are now ready for the board's consideration Saturday. If adopted, most, including the change in the election schedule, must go first to the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond and then back to Arlington for the approval of local voters.
There was, however, significance in the presentation made Wednesday to the Committee of 100. "This is the testing ground of any new idea or concept in the county," said ad hoc committee chairman Larry Suiters, there to defend the report and its recommendations.
"It's very important to bring thoughtful reports here," said Fisher, "Everyone is concerned, everyone speaks out. It is a very useful group because it is not factionalized -- there are all segments of the community here."
Nor are politics truly absent from the debates. On Wednesday, one Democrat needled Republicans about the recent firing of former County Manager W. Vernon Ford, prompting Republican Grotos to complain that even this "well-informed" group misunderstood the touchy board-manager relationship.
And when Fisher took the microphone with a joking remark about running for office again, there were audible groans from a table of conservatives, muffled by loud applause from other parts of the room.
But throughout the discussions ran a deep and earnest concern about Arlington, its community and its government, a concern which for years has been the pride of the county.
"We haven't had a scandal in Arlington in 35 years," said attorney Joseph Newlin, challenging the need for any reform. "What's wrong with operating the way we have been doing all these years?"