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Letter: Governance-change advocates need to explain motivations

'Such consequential changes are too important to be based on unsubstantiated assertions.'

To the editor: The headline to Mark Riley’s Feb. 8 letter to the editor [“Changes to Arlington Governance Structure Needed”] was an unsubstantiated assertion. Mr. Riley may not have written the headline, but it’s apt, because his letter is filled with assertions largely left unsubstantiated.

His letter suggests activists are eager to obtain slots on an expanded County Board to make possible an expensive but uncertain effort to replace professional management decisions with raw political policy dictations, and to provide for a board chair that couldn’t be changed for several years.

Mr. Riley, Del. Patrick Hope (the measure’s patron in Richmond) and Arlington County Civic Federation executive committee chair Adam Henderson assume as a given that Arlington’s county-manager governance will be discarded due to diversity and “densification.”

In Arlington’s present government, the County Board chair position rotates annually.  Activists’ desires for direct election of the County Board chair to a multi-year term should be informed by recent experience with direct election of the county’s commonwealth’s attorney. Due to large amounts of outside cash, Arlington finds itself stuck with a special kind of policy-driven approach in that office. It does not focus on Arlington as a whole, but rather targets outcomes that nobody ever voted on.

To throw election of the County Board chair (for a term to run multiple years) to outside, including foreign, mega-donor influences trashes the present system. (I’m old enough to remember when almost all voters were highly skeptical of candidates backed by oversized outside campaign funds.)

As for the Hope proposal on the County Board – how, specifically, is the county manager lacking? What is the basis for suggesting he’s too limited to cope with our growing population? If there are facts (vs. policy talking points) that support trashing the county manager, at least some of them could have been mentioned.

Such consequential changes are too important to be based on unsubstantiated assertions. More important, whose executive decisions will replace those of the county manager?

It is very difficult to avoid concluding that Messrs. Hope, Riley and Henderson want to substitute the County Board’s policy dictates for professional management decisions in all county affairs. If the Civic Federation’s report addresses any of these questions, that should have been mentioned in the Riley letter.

The size of the County Board won’t shrink. Any increase must be by odd-number totals (unless rule by consensus is being considered). What new number does the Civic Federation suggest?

Instead of a County Board of five members overseeing a county manager, we would have seven or nine or 11 or more seeking to run the local government directly from the County Board level.  But because the County Board chair is to be embedded in power for multiple years under a new scheme, an increased number of County Board members seems unlikely to have any greater effect on how Arlington County operates than at present – and may have less. This undermines the rationale for packing the County Board.

Electing County Board members by districts would be controversial, because an aggrieved “district” can be expected no matter how many are designated. And the nexus of multiple districts and ranked-choice voting can be expected to generate even more controversy.

Roger Fritzel, Arlington