The Arlington County Board met on January 2nd, 2019 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, Mr. Chair.
First, a few words for my Board colleagues. Congratulations to Mr. Dorsey on becoming our new Chair. Christian, I know you will do a great job. Thank you to our past Chair, Ms. Cristol. Katie, you did an excellent job leading us through a sometimes-intense year. Thank you, Mr. Gutshall, for your kind words nominating me. Erik, it was, indeed, an intense first year, and you’ve become a valued member of the Board team. Finally, welcome to our newest member, Mr. de Ferranti. Matt, I know you’ll be a good Board colleague and I look forward to working with you on this team. I thank all of you for your confidence in me to be your Vice Chair this year.
To our Manager and all our County staff, thank you for everything you do, day in and day out, seen and unseen, to make Arlington work. You are the backbone of our County. And, I’m so pleased to be able to start my remarks by saying that people can pay for permits online! I’ve been promising this at Organizational Meetings for at least two years now, and we finally did it in 2018. It took longer than any of us wanted, but that’s because it was not easy. And so, I say a big “thank you” to our staff for keeping at it and making it happen.
And to everyone: Happy New Year! It’s great to be starting off the year with our Civic Federation again. 2018 had many successes for our community, and that is a compliment to everyone who lives and works in Arlington.
As I enter my 23rd year of elected service, I’d like to reflect a little on where we’ve been and where we are going, because while New Years are always a time of transition, this is more obviously a transition year than most.
It seems to me that just yesterday Arlington was a sleepy bedroom community for government workers. When my husband and I came here in 1976, we would go into DC if we wanted an ethnic restaurant (that is, good, cheap food). The shiny, new, exciting Metro subway was still a year away. As their children grew, families often left Arlington for the “better” schools in Fairfax and the more desirable suburban big house and big yard.
I’m proud to have been among the many Arlingtonians who worked to improve our schools and our County, making Arlington what it is today: an exciting place where people want to be. Today, many people come here before they have children, and then stay for our schools. Bike lanes, transit, and now scooters have given people new ways of getting around. We’ve even become “hip”. I was startled a few years ago to open up an airline magazine and see articles on the cool places to go all around the world…and Clarendon was one of them. During those transformational years we were helped by our location—next to Washington, DC at a time government was growing and attracting businesses to the area. We had a strong tax base and that made everything easier.
However, when I arrived on this Board 7 years ago, those relatively easy times were ending. The combined effect of sequestration, BRAC, the ’08 recession, and telecommuting all hit at the same time, and suddenly, office buildings were emptying out. Our vacancy rate soared to over 20%, which meant a lot of reduced revenue. This is the situation we continue to face today.
Luckily, we have created advantages for ourselves. All the work done to change Arlington from a sleepy, government town to an exciting place where people want to be is paying off and attracting innovative companies like Amazon.
But someone’s progress is someone else’s unwanted change, and the strain is showing. Some residents find their neighborhoods less quiet. Bike lanes can make it harder to drive or to park on the street, and even walking can be a dicey proposition at times with bikes and scooters whizzing around. We see the conflicts when beautiful, large trees are cut down, and large new homes replace modest houses, or when people clamor for more land for parks, while at the same time others clamor for more land for schools. And almost everyone is worried about the soaring cost of housing and living here.
So I think our challenge today is this: Everyone says they want to preserve what they love about Arlington, but for some people that means a quiet, treelined street with single family homes and for others it means a bustling urban landscape with bikes, scooters, restaurants, food trucks, and lots of people moving around pretty much 24/7. For everyone, it means affordability.
So, we are changing, and want to preserve what we love best about our community. But what does that mean for us? What are we becoming? Where will we be in another 30 or 40 years? Or to put it a better way: Where do we want to be? What goals should we be setting for ourselves now to get there?
I read an article recently about the happiest city in Finland. That sounds nice. Should that be our goal: to make our residents the happiest they can be? Or, do we want equity, and/or sustainability, and/or…what?
Perhaps we want to be a thriving urban community, which means to me that there are jobs and housing available up and down the income scale, that we really support our families with children, that we use resources sustainably, and everyone feels welcome. It seems to me a thriving urban community would, by definition, be one that is sustainable, equitable, and where our residents are happy.
But that’s just my view. I believe we need to figure out together, as a community, what we want Arlington’s future to be. The only way for us to get to where we want to be in the future is to know, now, where we want to go. Planning our future is an important exercise for all of us.
But the first step to our future is to deal with our present challenges. We’ve got some tough budget years to get through, which will force us to focus on efficiencies and priorities in a way I don’t remember us doing. Figuring out our priorities, making them explicit, and finding efficiencies that align with those priorities will be hard. But this difficult work can be the start of figuring out where we want to go.
Our new guide on Civic Engagement will be helpful. It is a work in progress. Sticking to our communication and engagement processes, knowing when we did not get it right and need to do something over, and when we did get it right and just need to move on, will continue to be a challenge. But I’m sure we in Arlington will all get better with more practice.
We’ve also been working on providing smaller, more intimate settings for discussions. Last year, our chair led several “Big Idea Roundtables”. I continued my series of informal book discussions, and plan to continue them this year. And there have been other efforts to engage differently. We’ve had some good starts, but I believe that we can better focus discussions on our future if we provide more information to participants in advance.
So, maybe we can invite experts in various fields to come and talk about what they see for the future, what the possibilities are. We could read some of their books (I welcome book suggestions). We could then collectively start to focus more on what we want Arlington to be, and we could do it from a more informed position. No one can predict the future, but some people spend a lot more time thinking about it than those of us who have regular deadlines to meet, projects to complete, and people needing our attention right now. It would be good to get the perspectives of those who think regularly about what is coming as we try to look into the future and decide what we want as a community.
Finally, I also plan to focus this year on improving civic dialogue, and general civility. I realize this is something I said I’d do last January, as well. Everyone struggles with this. People can be so passionate that they forget decorum and how we should treat one another. It pains me when I read emails that say staff or fellow residents are “lying”, when it’s pretty clear to me that what we have is a difference of opinion, or a breakdown in communication that’s gotten blown way out of proportion. People sometimes jump to the assumption that intent is nefarious, or are all too quick to take offense when no offense was intended. This behavior drives people away.
There is a reason civility has the same root as the word “civilization.” Books on etiquette have been around forever. Last year looking for models, I found this one by George Washington. It was a writing exercise derived from a much older 1595 French version.
The first rule is, essentially, “Be respectful.” Be respectful: this is not rocket science. Wouldn’t things go better if everyone were respectful? How do we encourage that? Can we define what being respectful means? I’ll submit it is, in part, disagreeing with someone’s statement withOUT calling them a liar or other personal attacks.
Each of us needs to figure out how to be a leader in this. We have to set some basic standards, and then follow through by not allowing people to violate those standards and stay in the discussion, or at least not to dominate the discussion so that everyone else decides to leave.
I welcome suggestions from anyone on this and how to go about it, especially from our civic groups, like the Civic Federation who are with us tonight.
In sum: Clearly we are in a time of transition. We’re starting from a good place, but we need to decide, as a community, where we want to be in the next 30-40 years. To do that we need address our current challenges and also to look beyond the day-to-day or next few years. We need to inform ourselves of the possibilities for our future, and decide what we want Arlington to be.
To do that, we need to talk to each other effectively, and to do THAT we’ve got to be civil in our discussions. The Arlington Way has gotten rather frayed around the edges. Perhaps we could set a new model for how to engage in civil community discussions. Heaven knows, our country and the world need it.
I look forward to working on all this (and more) over the next year with my colleagues, our talented staff, our residents, and everyone here. Happy New Year!