First, I want to express my appreciation for the stewardship of outgoing Board Chair Jay Fisette for a job well-done in 2014. Jay and I have known each other for years, and I’m sure that little did he think last January that we would end up serving together on the County Board.
In all seriousness, Jay, new Board Chair Mary Hynes, Incoming Vice Chair Walter Tejada and Libby Garvey, County Manager Barbara Donnellan, and all County staff, thanks to all of you for everything you’ve done, and continue to do, to help ease my transition from citizen to Board Member.
People talk about tension or discord on the Board. But I don’t look at it that way. We have our disagreements, heated at times. We may have different perspectives. And it is right to air those perspectives. To ask questions, and not automatically take refuge in the shopworn excuse that “We’ve always done it that way, that’s why!”
But I’d like to think that, as a collective body, we are working better together and being more productive than our federal and state counterparts across the river and down Interstate 95. And if you look at the statistics, we’ve had many more 5-0 votes than divided ones.
2014 was a year of change for Arlington, in people, policies and programs. A new County Board member, two new School Board members and a new County Treasurer. The streetcar will not go forward. The County Manager has recommended that the Artisphere close. The Aquatics Center has been mothballed. In my view, these were correct decisions.
Meanwhile, our commercial vacancy rate is the highest in years while our schools enrollment continues to surge. The demand for parks and recreational space is greater than ever, and tax burdens continue to rise. Our community challenge in 2015 is to address these forces in a positive fashion: to build upon our notable successes while adapting to fiscal realities and setting true priorities.
To paraphrase and expand on our County Manager’s statement Arlington can do anything, but not everything,especially all at once. Going forward, this year I intend to focus, or, in certain cases, re-emphasize, a number of key priorities:
- First, transparency, sunshine and accountability in our County government.
- Second, planning processes and working with our schools
- And third, the continued revitalization of Columbia Pike and the Route 1 corridor.
1. First: Transparency, Sunshine and Accountability.
A. We need to get that internal (and ideally independent) auditor function back in County government now, and not just rely on piecemeal contracts with outside accountants. This has taken far too long.
B. We must launch our long-awaited fraud and abuse hotline so that both County staff and the public have equal access.
C. Our County employees deserve the protection of a strong whistle-blower protection code, just like their counterparts at other levels of government. Let’s get this done in 2015.
D. Last summer, when we were presented with, but not allowed to vote on, a multi-million dollar streetcar consulting contract, I proposed that the County Board hold a public hearing and vote on all County contracts valued at $1 million or more. The County Manager is due to report back to the Board shortly on her perspective as to the pros and cons of doing so. While requiring such votes may result in more work for the five of us, in my view, that is part and parcel of our oversight responsibilities and, as such, what we were elected to do.
E. While our County government website continues to improve, emerging technologies should allow it to be augmented with more information. I’m speaking of things like when, how much, and for what, we pay our over 750 County vendors and contractors on a regular basis, and, ultimately, development of, and access to performance metrics so that we better inform our procurement process and know that we are getting the best value for every investment. Our citizens should not have to invoke the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), make endless telephone calls or resort to exhaustive research to learn the details of the peoples’ business!
F. Finally, we need to reform our County bonding process and ballot wording to ensure that big-ticket spending items are given the sunshine they deserve, and that costs for any County project or initiative are highlighted from the start—and not just as an afterthought. Taxpayers deserve real fiscal transparency in every program and initiative designed to improve their quality of life.
2. Second: Planning and our Schools
I’m excited to join our Chair’s public facilities planning initiative for 2015. At last, we will embark, holistically and together with the School Board, on a process involving all of Arlington’s diverse communities at the same time. As we launch this process, we must also more carefully assess how our development decisions are impacting the diversity and character of our neighborhoods and our open space, as well as our schools, infrastructure and public safety demands.
3. Third, I reiterate my pledge to work collaboratively, productively and immediately with communities along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City and Pentagon City on effective transit solutions and other initiatives to continue revitalization of these key corridors. For me, it was never just a debate about the streetcar versus doing nothing, But rather, what makes most sense for effective transit, business development and affordable housing without a streetcar. On November 18, the Board gave clear direction to County staff to develop such transit alternatives, and to study additional development devices to help ensure the success of these two critical corridors and the neighborhoods that flank them. We need a firm timeline and periodic progress reports for getting this done in a timely manner.
Finally, to the general public, my door is open and my contact information is online. Use it!
Thank you again.