In the end I was swayed not by my fellow dems here but by talking with members of Better Arlington and their paid petition gatherers. So many of the gatherers were rude and obnoxious and uninformed on the issue. They made claims like we'd get to elect the county manager. When I asked direct questions regarding dillon rule challenge impacts and impacts to county revenues from lost tax and fee authority they had no answers.
I was concerned about race and the legacy of at large voting, but there is nothing distinctive in regional voting patterns in our county to indicate that any group is particularly disenfranchised.
I was also concerned about a number of community issues like the Columbia Pike library, increasing neighborhood density and how we will govern ourselves as we become more urban. Yet using the change of government process was not the answer.
At the same time I'm increasingly uncomfortble with the likely flood of Dillon Rule lawsuits and the fact that it will put Richmond back in charge of health inspectors, daycares and housing.
Today I had a decisive moment that came from an unlikely source. I was walking into the CVS when I was asked to sign the petition by a signature gatherer. I asked her why she supported it and she said that she wanted to have direct elecfion of the county manager. I pointed put that in fact the proposed resolution would not do that.
However she challenged me and began telling me that I was wrong and she had a pamphlet that showed it. When I pressed her to show me where in e pamphlet it said that, she refused to let me see it. She even said that if I didn't believe the pamphlet I was calling the chief of police and head of the fire department a liar. Then she said that the chief of police was for it and I should do what the police told me.
I simply tried to correct her, and asked here which group she was working with. She said she was a volunteer and unpaid. Which was odd since I didn't ask her if she was paid. Seeing that the conversation was at an impasse I went in and did my shopping, when I was done she'd left.
So anyway I've reached the end of my ramblings on this proposed change. A better Arlington direction would probably be to apply for city charter or join with the rest of Nova and form the new state of Real Virginia.
Second we may be able to use this initiative to grant additional powers to other counties. Why ais Arlington alone granted these rights explicitly.
Now on the other side fear of cog may induce some meaningful reforms. More power should be in the hands of citizens and neighborhoods and less in lobbiests and staff. We need to get the dems to admit that things are not perfect and we need more neighborhood input on budgets, services and sighting if facilities. Finally the key department leades need more autonomy from the executive. Department heads should have some leeway to provide alternative budget recommendations to the board and talk directly and candidly to elected officials.
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.