Currently, Arlington has the "County Manager" form of government. Under this form, an appointed (i.e., unelected) county manager is basically in charge of running the day-to-day business of the County. The manager is appointed by the County Board and is accountable to the County Board. As a practical matter, the County Board can override just about any decision of the manager.
Under the County Manager form, Arlington's five County Board members are all elected countywide on an "at-large" basis.
Proponents of a change in government form want to switch to the "County Board" form. Under this form (at least as being proposed in Arlington), there would be five County supervisers, four of whom would be elected in separate districts, and one at-large. The County Manager would be eliminated, but there would be a county administrator.
In considering whether this change in government form is good for Arlington, it's important to ask who is favoring the change and why. The initiative started with Arlington's public service employees unions, who have expressed frustration at having to deal with the County Manager, rather than directly with individual elected supervisors.
Well, that's strike one against a change--the unions are in this for their own selfish reasons, not for the good of the rest of us Arlingtonians. What the unions want to do is politicize personnel decisions in the County. Want to know what that's like. Just drive over to D.C.
After the unions got the ball rolling, two other significant groups jumped on the bandwagon: the Republican party and the Green party. Why? Both are hoping that with separate individual districts, instead of at-large elections, they can crack the complete Democratic stranglehold on the current County Board.
We've been looking to see if any of these proponents--unions, GOP, Greens (an unlikely alliance if ever there was one) can articulate strong reasons in favor of the change that have to do with the good governance of Arlington, as opposed to their selfish interests. So far, we've found none.
(Mind you, it's not like the Republicans or Greens are strong in certain parts of the County, but still shut out of office. In the past few election cycles, NO candidate from either party has as much as carried a precinct in Arlington.)
While we haven't yet heard a good argument in favor of the change, we can definitely think of some downsides.
First, the County Board form of government is more likely to pit different parts of the County against each other, and result in "pet" projects for Supervisors in their individual districts. Again, want to see this in action, cross the river to D.C.
Second, the County Board form means that the Supervisors are involved in day-to-day executive affairs. This is a bad formula anywhere. Corporations don't let their Boards perform executive functions; nor do non-profit organizations. Nor does the federal government. Not the state, either. Almost any organization functions better with a chief executive in place, so that routine decisions do not get lost in some form of gridlock or decision-making vacuum.
Having served on the Board of a non-profit during periods of executive transition, the Curmudgeon can say that boards are poorly organized to make executive decisions. It's very inefficient.
At least in D.C. there's a mayor to exercise executive authority. But in the County Board form, no one is in charge. Or, more precisely, every department head is in charge of his or her own fiefdom. In the County Manager form, department heads are hired by the Manager for their expertise; in the County Board form, many such department heads are political hacks, hired for patronage.
Indeed, it is precisely because of these inefficiencies in running a county government that the County Manager form was invented.
Finally, what's wrong with Arlington's government as it is? Sure, there are some problems, but Arlington has one of the best managed governments around. We have an AAA/aaa bond rating that saves taxpayers millions of dollars in interest on capital projects. We have had decades of smart, planned growth. By and large, we have a government that works and provides reasonable services to residents at a reasonable price.
It is true that the Democratic stranglehold on the County Board results in probably less diversity of views than would otherwise be the case. But, as we pointed out above, it's not like the GOP and Greens are winning some parts of the County. Democrats have fielded strong, conscientious candidates and have generally taken a moderate approach consistent with the vast majority of voters' views in Arlington.
As for the employee unions, thank goodness they're held in check!
So, we're always open to persuasion, but we'd need someone to tell us why a change in government form would be good for us--not good for their political interests.