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Not everyone sold on Arlington government's governance proposal

Plan to hold community meeting wins applause from some, but patron of legislation thinks it is too little

Proponents of changing Arlington’s 90-plus-year-old governance structure are hoping it is a breakthrough. But the prime legislative sponsor of changes is not that sure.

Arlington County leaders have given the Arlington County Civic Federation the go-ahead to use county facilities, likely in late summer, to host a community forum on proposals that have been percolating for several years.

“This is an offer we can’t refuse,” said Dave Schutz, who heads the form-of-government subcommittee of the Civic Federation. “We’re going to be working hard on getting that meeting together.”

Civic Federation officials announced the planned forum – time and place as yet undetermined – at the organization’s June 11 meeting. County officials confirmed they had extended an invitation to the group.

It will not be a government-sponsored meeting, but the county government “is happy to provide the Civic Federation with a publicly accessible space to hold such a meeting,” David Barrera, communications and policy manager for the County Board, told the GazetteLeader.

For several years, a Civic Federation task force worked on a package of proposed county-governance changes. The package was ratified more than a year ago, albeit not without a more substantial amount of opposition than proponents anticipated.

The package calls on expanding the County Board and School Board from five to at least seven members, having board chairs serve more than the current one-year stints and changing the current every-year nature of local-government elections. Those who brought the package to life shied away from a number of options, including moving from at-large to district-based elections, having an elected-by-the-public chairman or county manager, and seeking city status.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) introduced General Assembly legislation earlier this year to give Arlington officials the authority to implement some of the proposed changes. But some county leaders, notably County Board Chairman Libby Garvey and several of her colleagues, were hostile to his efforts, saying the broader community had not vetted it. And the Civic Federation, while generally supportive of Hope’s legislation, also voiced the desire that any changes be held via a public vote, not action by elected officials.

Given the drama, it’s perhaps no surprise that Hope’s bill was punted to the 2025 session.

Consideration of governance changes might dovetail nicely with Garvey’s yearlong initiative, which asks county residents to imagine the community in the year 2050 and come up with ways to get there. But to Hope, the county government’s unwillingness to itself sponsor a community gathering is not necessarily a step in the right direction.

“I’m disappointed to now learn the commitment County Board members made to me during the 2024 General Assembly session to host a public forum has now been deferred to an organization that has already held multiple public meetings over more than a yearlong period and issued a comprehensive report,” he told the GazetteLeader.

“Since 2022, the County Board has promised to bring a diverse group of stakeholders together to discuss the county’s governance structure, not examined since 1932, and compare it to the powers of other jurisdictions,” he added. “I hope this will not result in another delay in making these necessary reforms to our outdated governance model.”

From the 1870s to the adoption of the current county-manager form of government in the early 1930s, Arlington (known until 1920 as Alexandria County) was governed by a three-member Board of Supervisors whose members were elected in districts that ran east to west and covered the northern, central and southern parts of the county.

While considered but ultimately rejected by the Civic Federation during its deliberations, Arlington also could opt to seek city status, as its high population density and cozy 26-square-mile confines make it look more like a city than a county. Even though cities have more inherent autonomy from Richmond than do Virginia counties, only a few local leaders have warmed to making a switch.