Happy New Year! It sure does feel like a new year with two new Board members. What an exciting time to be in Arlington!
Clearly, some things are going to be different this year, but a lot will stay the same. We will build on the work of the great Board members who have gone before us, like Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada. Now, Jay Fisette, John Vihstadt, and I will bring continuity to the Board, and two new members will help us see things differently. I’d like to officially welcome Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol to the Board table. We’re all delighted you are here.
I really look forward to working with this strong and diverse Board team. My goal is to see that Arlington achieves its potential. We have challenges, like our commercial vacancy rate, our growing need for more school space, and our shrinking supply of affordable housing but this remains a wonderful community. Just look at:
- The wealth of highly educated and incredibly talented people we have here;
- Our diversity, which brings much of the world’s experience together in just 26 square miles;
- Our beautiful and safe neighborhoods;
- Our outstanding school system;
Our strong safety net to protect the most vulnerable;
And our committed and talented business community.
If you look at the resources we have, it is clear that the answers to just about any problem we have are right here. Our challenge is to tap these resources effectively. To meet this challenge, we still need to do a better job of engaging with the many people who live and work here. We must:
- Provide outstanding services that work well for everyone;
- Find better ways for busy people to participate in local government;
- And ensure that every Arlingtonian, people of all ages, interests, and from across the socioeconomic spectrum, can live and work here comfortably.
If we succeed in these three areas as a community, we can do just about anything we want. I’ll speak briefly about how we can do this.
First, we can focus on customer service, on making sure all our services work well for people, and that government supports them when they are trying to make life better. This is a place where public services generally work quite well, but we can do a better job supporting our residents and our businesses as they cope with everything from aging to zoning. Let’s take the customer experience with zoning and permitting as an example.
Many of us have heard sagas about zoning and permitting, especially if we talk with someone who has tried to enlarge their home, either to fit a growing family or to more easily age in place. In general, the permitting and zoning staffs are polite and friendly, but the two offices don’t seem to communicate well. The whole system is so Byzantine that even employees don’t always understand it. It can be hard to figure out whom you need to talk to or see. As a Board member, I also hear from large builders who find our processes frustrating and expensive. Private homeowners can find themselves totally lost.
We are working on doing better: we’re moving to online procedures, which will help a lot, but more coordination is needed. I plan to follow this closely, to make sure the good work we’ve started keeps moving forward. I expect that will involve changes in how both our staff and citizen planning processes work. We want issues to be clear from the beginning and we want the different offices and commissions involved to work closely, and efficiently, together. By this time next year, we will have much more understandable and efficient processes in place.
Transit is another example of a service we can improve. We can make it easier for people to move around without a car. A little over a year ago this Board canceled the streetcar project on Columbia Pike, and we have all been frustrated at how long it seems to be taking to design a substitute. At the end of today’s meeting, I will make a motion that the Manager report to us later this month about our transit plans, and in that report, he address issues like signal prioritization, off-board fare collection, a mix of express and local service buses, and the feasibility of level boarding throughout our system so those with wheelchairs or strollers can easily get on and off our buses. I am looking for how we can quickly step up our bus service on the Pike and throughout the County.
That said, our own system will only be as good as its connections with the region. Transportation is one of those issues that cuts across boundaries, so I will continue the conversations I’ve been having for some time with our counterparts in the area. We need to work regionally to improve the regional bus system and to get Metro back to being a reliable, safe, and efficient way to get around.
Finally, on transportation, I will not forget that many Arlington residents walk, bike, and drive cars. They need safe sidewalks, roads that don’t have potholes and places to park. This is part of our customer service, too.
Second, if we want to tap the incredible talent of the people who live and work here, we need to try different ways of connecting with them. Arlington is known for its civic engagement, but we must bring the Arlington Way into the 21st Century. Our processes keep multiplying and getting more complex so that it is harder and harder for both our residents and our staff to keep up. We’re pretty much conducting forums, hearings, and charrettes the way we always have, but doing more of them.
I will ask our Manager today to report on some of the good work that has already been done in this area, but we need to do more. There are still far too many people who have the talent and expertise our community needs, who want to contribute, but who cannot. Many have small children and/or demanding work schedules. Few of our residents and business owners have the time to sit in a long meeting every month as is required to serve on most of our commissions and task forces.
We must experiment with new and improved ways to involve people, and use technology even more. Commission chairs should have training available to them to run efficient meetings and to use the technological tools we have. We should use clear language, and not an alphabet soup of terms that confuses people and makes them feel like they can’t speak the language of Arlington.
I’m looking forward to trying out lots of different things from the high tech to the low tech. By this time next year, I expect we will have far more ways to tap into the incredible talent and expertise in our County.
Next, if we want to tap our talent and maximize our resources, we need to make sure Arlington is a place where it is easy to live and work for everyone: young, old, and in between. We have a lot going for us, as the continued increase in our population shows, but we can’t rest on our laurels.
Most community building comes from the people who live and work here. Local government can, and should, help our residents and businesses to improve our community, but we in government need to take care that we don’t overstep our role and risk stifling innovation. This Board, our commissions, and staff do well when we approach ideas and proposals with an open mind, but we don’t always. I think we can be more flexible.
An example that comes to mind is our sign ordinance. We have people coming up with really cool and exciting ideas for signs, and then we tell them their ideas don’t fit within the confines of our regulations. Part of the charm of Arlington, particularly along the Pike and in our older districts, is how not-standard everything is. It helps create an authentic personality, which draws and keeps people here. Our newer areas like Rosslyn and Crystal City need to be able to try different things as well.
Finally, flexibility and open-mindedness do not, of course, mean that we abandon the thoughtful planning that has been at the root of so much of our past success, but we need to be more intentional and strategic in our work. The survey we did for our Manager search and the work of the Facilities Study Committee last year showed that many people feel that Arlington lacks a clear overall direction, that our mission statement is vague, our priorities many, and that we need an overall strategic plan of some sort. This does not surprise me. I’ve been talking about the need for a strategic plan since I joined the County Board in 2012.
Currently, we have lots of plans for various departments, and that’s great. But it’s clear that we need a way to decide how those plans fit together, and which of them are our true highest priorities as a County. If we are not clear about what our highest priorities are, we cannot achieve them well and our public cannot support us well. I look forward to working with my colleagues on strategic planning, and I’m sure we will make good progress this year.
In conclusion, I’m confident that, together, our residents, our businesses, our staff, and this new Board will make sure that Arlington delivers outstanding customer service to all our residents and businesses, that every Arlingtonian who wants can have a voice in our government, and that we will work strategically to make this wonderful County even better.
I again thank you all for being here. I look forward to hearing my Board colleagues’ remarks. I’m excited to work with them, our staff, and all of you.