The Arlington County Board met on January 2nd, 2018 for their annual Organizational Meeting. Below is a video recording and the full text of Libby’s remarks on her priorities and outlook for the year.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Happy New Year, everyone, and thank you for joining us or tuning in this evening. Congratulations to our new leadership: Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey, and welcome to our newest member, Erik Gutshall. John Vihstadt, I’m looking forward to working with you again, too.
This new year we have again inherited a strong County from past leaders which now include Jay Fisette, our recent chair. Jay is probably watching us from Mexico. Thank you, Jay, for your leadership and your service for the past 20. You’ve helped leave us in a good place.
Indeed, we have many blessings to count this January 2nd. We have an outstanding professional staff and a community that is educated, informed, and involved. Despite challenges over the years, we have a healthy economy and a solid infrastructure of facilities and services.
And, as always, we have challenges. I’d like to talk briefly about a few.
Our first challenge is becoming a solid Board team, but I am sure that we will meet it. All five of us bring different experiences, skills, abilities, and perspectives, and that is a great foundation for any team. A good team maximizes the strengths of its members and minimizes their weaknesses. I’ve seen four of us do this already and I am quite sure Erik will fit in well and strengthen our team. The more this Board realizes our potential, the better our staff can work, and the more our Arlington community will reach its potential. A well functioning Board team is the key to serving our community well.
I am delighted that so many of us are focusing, one way or another, on communication with the people we serve. This is another challenge we have and we all realize we have work to do. Communication is never easy, particularly in a diverse community. As we look ahead to a year of unprecedented uncertainty on the Federal level, it is clear that communication and engagement will be more important for us than ever.
Last year, our new Communications team, led by Bryna Helfer, worked on providing smaller and more intimate settings for discussions to complement the traditional large forums and work groups. We each have helped: I plan to continue my series of book discussions as part of this effort. I’m excited our Chair will be focusing on working with our commission leadership to provide smaller settings to talk about big ideas.
But, collectively, I think we all still need to do a better job setting the context for our discussions. When I joined the Board almost 6 years ago, I saw that an advantage of newer members is that they see issues a bit more like regular people who have not been living and breathing County Board issues for years. When you have spent a lot of time, sometimes decades, on issues like sector plans and site plans, or where to locate a school or a childcare center, or how to design a playground…it can be all too easy to forget that, for the people affected by any particular plan or playground or childcare center, it may be the first time they’ve ever really thought about local government, or had any contact with us beyond paying taxes. While such issues can often feel like business-as-usual to staff, Board members, and commissions, they can be totally new and unsettling to just about everyone else. Sometimes we forget to ask (or answer) that most basic of questions: “Why are we doing this?”
In 2018 we’ll be working on context setting. As part of the effort to improve our public dialog, we’ve posted on our website a draft guide on Civic Engagement. I encourage folks to check it out and to comment. Clear and consistent methods to foster public dialog should help us all shed more light and less heat on the issues before us and thereby increase the effectiveness of our conversations.
Indeed, I believe improving civic dialog and general civility in our discussions is another challenge for us. We’re working on a “code of conduct” for public discourse as part of that draft guide. Hopefully we will conclude with some simple and generally accepted statements of how we conduct our civic discussions. Perhaps it is because of the poor examples we are seeing on the national stage, but I’ve been hearing more and more, recently, about inconsiderate and unpleasant interactions in public meetings on County issues right here in Arlington.
This concerns me because incivility lowers the level of dialog, inhibits real listening and communication, and drives people away. As we enter 2018 and all its challenges, we cannot afford to waste time and energy on ineffective conversations.
Happily, we are not starting from scratch in creating a good public dialog where people learn about an issue, its context, and why we are talking about it. We already have many avenues for discussions. These include our long established civic organizations like the Civic Federation and the Committee of 100; the Rotary, Lions, and Optimist Clubs. They have different purposes, but also are building blocks for civic engagement, with a natural structure to inform people about issues and to foster back-and-forth dialog. For this and other reasons, I’m delighted our Civic Federation is joining with us again to start off the year.
Besides our long established groups, I look forward to engaging some of the many new activist groups that have sprung up in the past year. There is a lot of energy out there on national issues. And involvement in national issues often introduces people to the importance of local government. I welcome and encourage these groups and their members to get more involved locally. Let’s face it, local government is where the rubber, sometimes literally, hits the road.
All that said, I want to be clear that efforts to strengthen civility should take away nothing from honest and sometimes difficult dialog, or from telling us where we need to improve. We need always to work to build trust that we are listening to our residents, even when discussions are difficult and our ultimate decision not the one they wanted. And I recognize that people get understandably frustrated when our government services are not working well and our efforts to improve are not immediately apparent.
Our former manager hired a business ombudsman and our current manager, Mark Schwartz, went one better and hired a resident ombudsman. Both Shannon Flanagan Watson and Robert Sharpe have put a human face on government for businesses and people and they provide important support and guidance to those having trouble navigating our processes. And, what is better, they share what they learn with the staff and with us, so we can improve for everyone.
In 2018 we will continue to work on improving our customer service; we still have a long way to go in some areas. This is another challenge. Last year at this time I said that I looked forward to being able to say soon that you could pay for permits online. Well, soon has come and gone, but you STILL cannot pay for permits online. I understand that in just a few more months, we will have this most basic of services available. So, I expect that in my remarks here next year, I will be celebrating it as an early success of 2018. This transition from 20th century technology and procedures to 21st century ones is far harder than any of us would like. Thank you to our staff for persisting, and thank you, even more, to our public for your patience.
In sum, for me, good government is all about our Board and our community working together as effectively possible, because if we do that I know everything else will fall into place. I think of Arlington as one big team: we want to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.
2018 will be challenging. I suspect we will need to have serious and difficult discussions about setting priorities and sticking to them.
We will need to work together more than ever if we are to preserve what we all love about our home.
But, looking at where we’ve been and who we are, I’m confident we have the resources we need and, most importantly, I think we have the political will, too.
It is going to be a year of challenges, but also a year of opportunities. It’s going to be exciting and, dare I say it…fun. I look forward to working with everyone to build a better and better Arlington. Thank you.