2019 Arlington County Board

Members of the 2019 Arlington County Board. From left: Erik Gutshall, Libby Garvey, Chairman Christian Dorsey, Katie Cristol and Matt de Ferranti.

If one is the loneliest number, two’s company and three’s a crowd, what is five?

For most, but not quite all, of Arlington’s County Board aspirants this year, it’s just the right number to govern the 26-square-mile slice of paradise by the Potomac.

Asked at the Sept. 3 Arlington County Civic Federation candidate forum whether the five-member County Board was an adequate number of people to govern a community of nearly 250,000 people, an incumbent and two challengers said it was.

“We’ve got enough trouble as it is,” independent challenger Audrey Clement shot back at the suggestion of expanding the number of board members, an idea that percolates occasionally but is mostly an academic exercise.

Fellow challenger Arron O’Dell also was wary of a change.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea,” he said, predicting more elected officials on the dais would result in more arguments and infighting. Five board members is “a decent number,” he said.

But County Board member Katie Cristol, seeking a second term, wasn’t so quick to dismiss the proposal, postulated by federation delegate Chanda Choun.

“I am intrigued by the idea,” she said at the kickoff debate of the 2019 political season. Cristol suggested that, with more members, work could be conducted by committees of the entire body, rather than on the board dais.

But her colleague, County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, wasn’t along for that ride. “I’m not convinced that solves any problems,” he said of expanding the ranks, echoing a mantra once used when discussing many topics by a board predecessor, Al Eisenberg.

“You don’t necessarily get better government” with more members, Dorsey said.

(That apparently also is the view in Los Angeles County, Calif., which has a board of supervisors of just five members – and its population of 11 million is more than 45 times that of Arlington. Los Angeles’s supervisors serve in districts of about 2.2 million people each, while all of Arlington’s board members serve at-large.)

Some advocates support moving Arlington to district-based representation; Clement backs that idea but other candidates do not.

Arlington had a district system for more than 60 years starting in the 1870s, when the then-rural community was governed by a three-member Board of Supervisors whose districts were roughly in the north, center and south of the county running east to west. The five-member, at-large County Board replaced it in 1932.

Cristol said the at-large system had led to “much more collaborative effort” and less parochialism among individual board members.

“You get five minds addressed to every issue,” she said.

Any change to Arlington’s governance structure – adding board members or splitting the county into districts – likely would need the concurrence of the General Assembly and, also likely, would need to pass muster with voters in a referendum.

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