Arlington voters could see more county bond referendums on the ballot in coming years, under a proposal being pushed by local Republicans.
The Arlington GOP on July 22 approved a resolution calling on the county government to break out any individual project valued at more than $25 million into its own separate bond referendum, rather than – as currently is the case – aggregating bond projects into broad categories (“parks,” “infrastructure,” “schools”) and sending them to voters in all-or-nothing votes.
The result? Voters often have little choice, and must accept projects they don’t necessarily want in order to get those they do.
“We see a lot of things all bundled together, and then put before voters,” said Arlington County Republican Committee chairman Matt Wavro.
Republicans point to 2012, when funding for the controversial Long Bridge Park aquatics center was folded into a $50.5 million bond that also included funds for upgrades at a host of neighborhood parks.
The result? While that bond ran well behind three others on the local ballot, due largely to concerns about the now-on-hold aquatics center, it still secured 64 percent of the vote.
Republicans acknowledge county officials were politically savvy to do it that way – “everyone likes the idea of their neighborhood park,” Wavro said – but think it is poor public policy.
Carving out big-ticket projects as their own referendums “provides accountability and keeps faith with voters,” said Scott McGeary, a longtime civic leader and former Arlington GOP chairman.
“It would force a debate in County Board races and at candidate forums,” McGeary said.
Until the 1990s, big projects, such as construction of a new police headquarters or wastewater-treatment plant, often were sent to voters in stand-alone fashion. In the past two decades, however, bundling has been the norm.
Arlington voters have not turned down a county bond referendum since 1979, and it has been since 1975 when voters turned thumbs down on all referendums on the ballot. In recent years, all bond packages have gone to Arlington voters in even-numbered years, where turnout is highest and approval is most likely.
State law requires counties to obtain voter approval before spending money through general-obligation bonds. While County Board members approve the amount and wording of referendums, the final say over whether they get on the ballot rests with the Circuit Court.
At the GOP meeting, some concerns were expressed about the potential stress on voters and election officials if the local ballot became crowded with individual referendums. But McGeary, a former Electoral Board member who has watched the local political scene for 50 years, said he had no such qualms.
Election officials “are perfectly capable of counting all the votes on however many bonds are on the ballot,” he said.
Republicans aim to circulate petitions at the Arlington County Fair and other venues in an effort to get the attention of county leaders. “We’ve got tons of clipboards,” Wavro promised.