Herbert Hoover was residing – albeit somewhat tenuously – in the White House the last time Arlington had a major change in its governance structure.
Nearly 90 years later, the Arlington County Civic Federation may get the ball rolling on bringing that structure into the 21st century.
The federation’s board of directors on July 19 agreed to send to the full membership a proposal for creation of an ad-hoc task force to look at the existing government structure and suggest possible alternatives.
“It’s been a very long time since Arlington’s form of government was put together,” said Dave Schutz, a veteran civic activist who, with Michael Beer, proposed creation of the task force.
“Arlington should be thinking, are we doing it right, could we be doing it better, what are other communities doing?” Schutz said.
Among the possible areas of exploration:
• Are the five-member County Board and School Board the right size for a geographically small but very densely populated community?
• Should the current at-large voting for County Board and School Board be changed to district voting?
• Should the existing staggered-term elections for County Board and School Board be changed so all board members are elected at one time?
• Should there be term limits imposed on local elected officials?
• Should the county manager be made an elected official?
• Should Arlington consider becoming a city?
“All of this stuff is pretty interconnected,” said John Vihstadt, a Civic Federation board member and former County Board member. He urged that the process be focused on “how do we bring more people into the government process and make them feel they have a voice?”
The vote to send the measure to the full Civic Federation membership was 8-1, with federation treasurer Burt Bostwick against it.
Bostwick’s objection was that, without a clear focus on the problem or problems to be solved, “we tend to either go off on a tangent or just keep talking and talking and talking.”
“This runs the risk of being a major, major waste of time,” he said.
But Michael McMenamin, another board member, said it should be sent to the general membership to decide.
“Let’s just move it along and see what happens,” he said.
From the end of the Civil War until the early 1930s, Arlington – known until 1920 as “Alexandria County” – was run by a three-member Board of Supervisors elected by districts (roughly the north, central and southern parts of the county) and whose members served both executive and legislative functions.
But with the county experiencing rapid population growth from the period of World War I forward, Arlington leaders in 1932 won General Assembly approval for a new government structure, which included a five-member, part-time, at-large County Board whose members supervised an appointed county manager.
At the time, members of the School Board were named by the Circuit Court, an appointed power that later was given to the County Board. Briefly in the 1950s, Arlington voters had the opportunity to elect School Board members, but did not regain it until the 1990s. That body also consists of five members elected for staggered terms on an at-large basis.
Because Arlington’s unique governance structure is enshrined in the Code of Virginia, it likely would require action by the General Assembly to make any significant changes. Voter approval in referendums also might be required.
Among those who thinks it worthy to look at options – although he has reservations about a few – is Jay Fisette, who served 20 years on the County Board.
“While I don’t support term limits or districts, I do think it is time for Arlington to seriously consider becoming a city,” Fisette told the Sun Gazette. “We are [effectively] a city, so we might as well get the benefits and stop confusing people.”
Among the majority of the Civic Federation leadership, the view was now is as good a time as any to get the ball rolling.
“There just a lot of really great things about this,” Civic Federation delegate Lois Koontz said.
“It has a lot of potential,” federation president Allan Gajadhar added.
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