Robin Stombler is vice chair of the Four Mile Run Valley Initiative Working Group.
Arlington is a national leader in many areas, from digital prowess to millennial meccas, but a recent project to revitalize a historically African American community dulls the shine. A flawed public-engagement process illuminates what governments and civic volunteers should avoid.
Look through chain-link fences that line Arlington’s Nauck community, and you’ll see a concrete factory, auto repair shops and a food bank. Generations of families remember its local park as the only place African American residents could play in a segregated Arlington. For decades, Nauck was promised improvements by the county, but those efforts failed to materialize.
A few years ago, my kitchen table became the breeding ground for plans to revitalize the area. We knew that our vision, ideas and sketches would be altered, but we had a solid framework to begin a dialogue. Our crew increased in number, and our plans drew strong support.
Taking notice, the Arlington County Board declared the planning effort a priority for 2016. The board established a working group and appointed me vice chair.
Since the 1980s, the county has governed via “the Arlington way,” a tongue-in-cheek reference describing a variety of methods used to maximize citizen participation in local decision-making. Formal commissions, advisory groups and civic associations play a large role, and county officials and their staff are expected to communicate and cooperate in these endeavors.
Local government projects involving property, taxes or programming are almost certain to bring a level of consternation. There are power struggles and protracted decision-making processes. The Arlington way provides no exception but aims to include citizens constructively.
At the first leadership meeting of the Four Mile Run Valley working group, the new chair, who had no ties to Nauck, told me he didn’t need county-appointed vice chairs. He insisted that I had no constituency and told me not to speak with County Board members or staff. His other directives were just as arbitrary. It was unlike anything I had seen in my years of Arlington public service.
A few days later, seeking clarification of the role of a board-appointed vice chair, I was told by an Arlington County Board member that “your job is to look pretty.” At a televised hearing in April, the same elected official noted that some people criticize the “bedside manner” of the working-group chair and chuckled that it “takes a stern leader to bring the group along.”
This tone persisted.
Instead of engaging a talented pool of more than 20 working-group appointees, we were treated to months of lectures by county staff members and their consultants. While questions were allowed, true dialogue during the more than 24 hours of meetings was not permitted. Nearly 40 percent through the process, staff announced plans for a “Visioning Workshop” and declared, “Now we start listening.”
It was beyond frustrating. Consultants appeared to learn on the job, presenting inaccurate or incomplete information. In a presentation on current traffic patterns, a pre-2008 map was used, not accounting for significant new residential and business properties.
Several working-group members clamored for a serious economic analysis but were met with platitudes such as “If you tear down something, you have to build twice as high to make economic sense.” Some went as far as submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain basic data.
Rules of conduct were not transparent, standardized or enforced.
Discussions on honoring the African American heritage of a prominent park did not include the affected community. A “stakeholder” playground meeting failed to invite the 80 families with young children across the street from the play area.
Twice, county staff announced to the volunteer leadership that they did not have to listen to the working group. It’s an accurate statement, but then why have a working group?
Other Arlingtonians privately provide similar examples, yet fears of being ostracized or tagged as uncooperative keep them silent. We have a civic responsibility to correct these problems. Our local government plays an enormous role in our lives. Volunteering to improve our communities not only makes us better neighbors but also makes us better people. Processes that attempt to marginalize, belittle or ignore these efforts must stop.
An objective assessment is needed — not an award. Only then can we expect Arlington to begin finding its way once again.