I think that we are doing a terrible disservice to ourselves and the community by assuming that the current County Manager and At Large Board is best representing the neighborhoods and people of Arlington. I urge you to consider signing the change of government petition so that a process can begin to at least debate if our current form of Government really represents our democratic values.
Let us begin with the history of at large voting in America. It may surprise you to know that until Jim Crow most American polities were organized around wards with local representatives speaking to the needs of their constituency. At-Large systems were adopted as a measure to disenfranchise minority groups and continue to be used as a tool of persecution to this day. In fact a number of recent voting rights cases have centered around this issue.
Now you may think that this is moot in Arlington County, but ask yourself if the citizens of Nauk and other majority minority neighborhoods are really represented in the board. In fact with the exception of Charles Monroe, the local African American community has been under-represented in Arlington Politics. South Arlington as a whole has been under represented and the board remains the province of mostly wealthy white politicos. Lest you think that surely Arlington did not implement its county manager policy out of race based concerns, let me remind you that Arlington was on the losing side of Brown vs. the Board of Education and had active clan activity well into the 1960s.
The second issue is one of the fundamental lack of accountability to neighborhoods. As a resident of Arlington there is no board member who I can speak to who has to have any particular concern about my neighborhood. Even if a block of voters were to get extremely outraged in a corner of Arlington, there would be no one to represent their point of view whom they could hold accountable on election day. Unless the board member manages to upset the whole county they are able to coast along between long terms.
The third issue is one of executive authority. In the current model executive authority resides in a non-elected officer who is not accountable to anyone. This is completely contrary to democratic values of elected executive power accountable directly to the voters. We were collectively outraged when the supreme court chose our chief executive in Bush vs. Gore in 2000; yet we let the county board choose our manager and hire them until retirement.
Now as to the counter arguments against this change I say they are bunk.
The first argument against the change I’ve heard is that it will lead to corruption and cronyism. To me this sounds like the same old saw used against immigrants, poor people, minorities and the like. This would be no more subject to corruption than the current process. There is simply no evidence that this change would lead to anything negative. Also I find it ironic that an effective political machine that has dominated election after election would raise concerns now about cronies and favorites.
The second argument is that Arlington would some how lose its special rights gained in the legislature. Special privileges might be lost. However consider what rights you are losing today. Today your vote is diluted and you may find yourself among the disenfranchised and ignored.
In conclusion I urge my fellow democrats not to simply march in lockstep with the machine politics on this issue. Simply because the politicians in the democratic party oppose this; doesn’t mean you should. Of course the politicians will oppose this, they have no incentive for change and risk much. Our goal though is to ensure that politicians work for our vote and represent local needs at the county level.
At the very least I urge you to sign the petition to get the issue on the ballot in the fall.