While most of the Washington area did whatever it does on a day when nearly everything is closed, the Arlington County Board claimed bragging rights Monday as the first local government to get to work in 2012.
It’s a tradition fulfilled by appointments, calendar-setting and speeches. In the hour-long meeting at the noticeably empty county building, all four board members took advantage, touting the virtues of the urban-suburban county, from affordable housing to free mulch delivered curbside, new homeless services to the prospect of allowing backyard chicken coops.
Arlington being Arlington, the board members announced plenty of doggedly sincere initiatives for the coming year, beginning with new board chairman Mary Hynes, who proposed an effort to train citizens, staff and board members in the “Arlington Way” of civic engagement.
The loosely defined style of governing often means lots of constructive citizen input, unfettered access to information, consensus-seeking (not unanimity) among people with a stake in the result, and respect for the differences that arise. Hynes would like to formally define and institutionalize that process and seek out individuals and groups that have escaped the government’s official notice, such as soccer leagues, choral groups and babysitting cooperatives.
“It’s not that we don’t do it; it’s that we can be more systematic and intentional about it,” Hynes said in a pre-meeting interview. “What allowed us to get where we are today was that there was active, constructive community engagement in big decisions.”
Several studies of the Arlington Way have concluded that “we don’t get the diversity of voices in our planning that we have in the county,” she said.
That’s partly due to the erratic translation services offered in a county whose biggest minority group is Hispanic. But it’s also that “you almost have to be a retired person” to attend all the meetings to develop the most useful relationships with officials, she acknowledged. Considering that Arlington has a low unemployment rate and is home to some of the area’s most highly compensated workaholics, that can be a significant barrier.
County employees will be evaluated in part on how well they work with citizens in this process, which will be put into effect in the fall’s land use planning. County board members will start holding office hours, or “open door” meetings, each Monday night across the county, Hynes said.
Walter Tejada, the board’s new vice chairman, said he’ll fix his efforts in 2012 on urban agriculture, small-business partnerships and affordable housing, including the Columbia Pike land use and housing study, which he said can be accomplished “without displacement of existing tenants.” About 57 percent of Arlingtonians are renters, he said. Tejada also expressed support for the Arlington Egg Project, a group of people lobbying to permit residents to raise hens in the county.
The first-of-the-year speechifying might be dismissed as a Model UN for elected officials, except the issues discussed often find their way onto the agenda. Last year, for example, then-chair Chris Zimmerman promised a more business-friendly county. By year’s end, the board had come under criticism for being overly beholden to developers on several projects. The board also passed one of the top requests of business owners last month — a new ordinance that allows sidewalk advertising signs.
Arlington faces serious issues in the near future: more than $50 million in critical maintenance for its deteriorating physical infrastructure; a widening gulf in the cost and availability of housing; a $100 million increase in the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar line alone, never mind the associated development costs; and a budget forecast for the next year that limits growth to 1 percent.
Board members touched on all those issues in their speeches. But their critics came away unfulfilled. They wondered whether the county should attempt to expand and finish Long Bridge Park. They questioned a plan to buy a privately owned high-rise for county offices and a homeless shelter, and they remained unconvinced by the wisdom of dense development in some areas while some neighborhoods of single-family homes remained off-limits.
They were, it seemed, experts all in the Arlington Way.
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