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Co. Board candidates give poor grades to customer service

Is local government serving the public, or is it the other way around?

The six announced Arlington County Board candidates may not agree on everything.

But they all, in various ways, feel the county government is falling short in its interactions with the public that, in theory at least, it serves.

“We need to make sure we are holding staff accountable to provide customer service,” Democratic candidate Tenley Peterson said at a May 14 debate sponsored by the Arlington County Civic Federation.

But that may be easier said than done.

While “staff are probably well-intentioned,” there are too many compartmentalized “silos” underneath County Manager Mark Schwartz, Democratic contender Julie Farnam said.

“How do we get staff to better communicate with one another, and how do we get staff to better understand the perspective of the county?” she asked.

The candidates were channeling the general views of the Civic Federation, which in recent years has been critical of county leadership it believes often is disconnected from the public – and a County Board that seems disinclined to exercise its oversight authority.

Democratic County Board contender J.D. Spain Sr. said if elected he would “challenge the county manager and staff to do better.”

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy and multi layers of ineffectiveness within our government,” he said.

But Spain, like several others, said the buck stops with elected officials to set the tone.

“A County Board member should be jumping up and down and say, ‘Hey, fix this,’” he said.

Spain, Farnam and Peterson are sharing the June 18 Democratic ballot with Natalie Roy and James DeVita. All participated in the Civic Federation debate, along with independent Audrey Clement, who has qualified for the Nov. 5 ballot.

DeVita intimated that the county staff puts up a shield to insulate itself from interactions with the public.

“I would make sure that every government agency has a live person you can talk to immediately,” he said. “I would outlaw recordings – I hate them.”

Roy had similar sentiments.

“I want to talk to a person. I don’t want to wait a week to get a call back. That’s just not acceptable,” she said.

(One of the contenders noted several occasions when she waited patiently to leave a message, only to hear “voice-mailbox is full.” “It’s so frustrating,” she said.)

Clement, who has been running as a “protest candidate” over the past dozen years, said the county manager has emerged as the power broker on many issues, with elected officials ceding their statutory authority to him.

“Both the County Board and the commissions that it appoints are staff-driven,” Clement said, calling the board and advisory panels “rubber stamps” that “roll over to staff.”

“Basically, you become brain-dead,” she said.