Faced with a growing rebellion over the lack of meetings by Arlington government advisory panels, County Board members and top staff on June 13 offered (slightly defensive) apologies – but not much of a roadmap forward.
Board members were responding to a June 9 letter sent to them by 25 chairs of advisory groups, complaining that the local government has been lagging in re-starting meetings that largely have been on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March.
“We are increasingly concerned that the county government is failing to utilize the county’s greatest resource – its residents,” the letter noted.
Failing to re-start advisory-body meetings “risks our core democratic values of citizen oversight and transparency in government operations,” noted the letter, signed by chairs of bodies including the Planning Commission, Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, Tenant-Landlord Commission, Park and Recreation Commission, Pedestrian Advisory Committee and Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.
Beyond the chairs, signatories to the letter included dozens of members of various advisory bodies.
“We do hear you,” County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said. “I really hope that when we get to the other side, we’re going to be doing it better than we have been.”
In May, county officials rolled out a complicated “decision tree” to determine which bodies would get priority use of the technology and staff support needed to hold online meetings. First priority is going to bodies that are required by law to meet, like the Electoral Board and Board of Equalization of Real Estate. Bodies, even powerful ones like the Planning Commission, that do not have the statutory responsibility to meet must compete against one another for access to online-meeting dates.
Among the groups waiting to meet is the Community Services Board, which focuses on issues related to mental health, intellectual disabilities and substance use.
The last meeting the group was able to hold was in February even though the body “has state-mandated responsibilities,” said Carol Skelly, a board member who participated in the June 13 County Board meeting to express her concerns.
The June 9 letter also voiced concern that it was being left up to county-government staff to approve agendas for advisory-body meetings before scheduling them. “How is it appropriate that the county staff, who typically present before advisory groups for their recommendations to the County Board, are now charged with deciding whether meetings occur at all?” the letter asked.
In their response to the mounting criticism, County Board members on June 13 fell back on the technological challenges of setting up meetings. At times, the responses sounded a little touchy.
“There is absolutely no desire on anyone’s part to prevent commissions from meeting, to silence commissions, to disallow them from doing their incredibly important work,” County Board member Katie Cristol said. “The challenge is, how do you facilitate that?”
But promises offered by board members are no substitute for actually getting the meeting process started again in a robust way. As to how to do that, there seemed to be no real answer.
“It’s not as if we haven’t been trying to deal with the challenge,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said. “It’s an unprecedented effort on our part.”
But, Schwartz added, “I understand people are still frustrated.”
That understanding may be of little comfort to those who invest significant hours on a volunteer basis to participate in the more than 50 Arlington government advisory panels.
“Arlington has too rich a history of public engagement to allow this situation to effectively shut down almost all of its advisory groups for many months on end,” wrote Eric Berkey, chair of the Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing, who transmitted the June 9 letter to County Board members.
That letter also gave a broad hint that some advisory-panel leaders weren’t buying everything the government was saying about wanting to re-engage with the advisory panels, noting that the process set up in May for re-starting meetings “are so onerous and beyond what is required by law” that some commission meetings may have to be canceled “perhaps for the rest of 2020.”