Arlington County Board 2016

2017 Arlington County Board members, from left, are Christian Dorsey, John Vihstadt, Libby Garvey, Chairman Jay Fisette and Vice Chairman Katie Cristol. (Arlington government photo)

An abridgement of free speech, or a legitimate effort to streamline Arlington County Board meetings? Mmmmm, probably somewhere in the middle.

Board members on Jan. 3 made a small but not necessarily insignificant change to the rules that cover their public meetings. It’s one that probably only civic wonks will have much interest in, but could change the dynamics of the sometimes marathon meetings.

No longer will members of the public be able to remove any item from the County Board’s “consent agenda” for a full airing. While they will still be able to seek full discussion of items that are subject to Virginia’s public-hearing rules, in other cases members of the public will need to convince at least one board member to pull the item for discussion.

The vote was 5-0 to make the change.

The rules revision seems to target a very small but vocal type of civic activist, who have made a practice of having consent-agenda items removed from Saturday-morning meetings and then discussed at the subsequent Tuesday-evening gatherings. Often, county officials grumble privately, pulling the items off the consent agenda is merely to give the activists an opportunity to sound off – and not always about the topic at hand.

Hope Halleck, who serves as clerk to the County Board, said board members already provide the opportunity for the community to weigh in on issues they are not required, by law, to hear from the public about. Adding the requirement that a board member approve the request to pull items provides a balance between public input and moving along meetings, she told the Sun Gazette.

Activists retain the ability to sound off – in two-minute increments – during the County Board’s public-comment sessions, which open the Saturday board meetings.