Civic activist John Antonelli had it right a few weeks back: All it would take to bring Arlington’s wayward County Board back to reality is for voters this year to turn out incumbent board chairman Chris Zimmerman.
Overnight, the four remaining Democratic board members would get their collective act together and return to governing in a more responsible way.
Such a scenario is fantasy, of course. Zimmerman is going to win, and probably win big. Sigh.
Four years ago, we heard whispers from all sorts of Democrats, saying they were going to vote against Zimmerman to show how fed up they were with one-party rule. He won handily then, too.
So Zimmerman is going to win. But SHOULD he win, and, if not, which of his two challengers should be the one to replace him?
On the first question, we believe the answer is no. Zimmerman should go.
Individually, most board members are nice enough and, in general, adequate public stewards. Collectively, they morph into a coddled, smug, arrogant, humorless, thin-skinned, self-satisfied group.
Four years ago, we supported Republican Mike Clancy against Zimmerman, citing a variety of reasons. Our view has not changed: Despite his talents, Zimmerman is perceived – rightly or wrongly – as the behind-the-curtain puppetmaster of a board majority (sometimes of three members, sometimes of all five) that is more removed from the public it serves than ever before.
And here is what has resulted:
This disconnect with the public has led the board to disregard its own advisory committees, replacing members of those committees board members deem too independent.
This disconnect has led the board to emasculate its own county manager and county attorney on a number of key issues, and to continue to meddle in the management of day-to-day county affairs (we have no doubt senior county staff would be ecstatic to see Zimmerman fired by the voters).
This disconnect has led the board into confrontations with the business and development communities – confrontations the board has lost every time – and to a dysfunctional relationship, verging on adversarial, with the Arlington County Civic Federation.
This disconnect has allowed the County Board to permit county government to grow to an unsustainable level, on the backs of average taxpayers, a growth rate that, now that the real estate market is cool, will require even more tax increases to sustain a recklessly overreaching $1 billion county budget.
This disconnect has allowed the county government to preside over a doubling of a typical homeowner’s tax bill in four years, with no concurrent increase in services.
This disconnect has resulted in Arlington losing its status as having the lowest real estate tax rate among large jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, and has put its coveted AAA/AAA/Aaa bond rating in a degree of jeopardy not seen in years.
This disconnect allowed the County Board to raise the personal property tax rate for the first time in a generation, and to institute a “progressive” car-tax structure that resulted in giving residents incentives to keep pollution-spewing junkers on the road, rather than purchasing new, fuel-efficient vehicles. So much for environmentalism.
This disconnect allowed the County Board to continue the most regressive of all taxes – the $24 “decal fee” for vehicles – over the objections of the elected county treasurer and while Fairfax County officials did away with their own decal fee.
This disconnect allows the County Board to mouth platitudes about the affordable housing “crisis,” while doing little of substance to address it. (It has been a joy to see Green Party candidate Josh Ruebner pound Zimmerman on this during the campaign.)
This disconnect has allowed the County Board to accuse those who disagree with it on social issues, such as immigration and gay rights, of bigotry.
This disconnect has made the Arlington government a subject of derision in the General Assembly, which seems to delight in meddling in the county’s affairs on a host of issues. Even Democrats in Richmond toss Arlington under the bus on issues of importance to the County Board (such as Interstate 66 and solidifying the county government’s trash-collection monopoly).
This disconnect has led the Arlington government into a series of problems with the federal government on a host of issues, from spending on homeland security to compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
This disconnect has led the County Board to push silly pet projects, from something as relatively minor as an architectural discussion series that pays speakers five-figure stipends, to something as major as a $120 million trolley system for Columbia Pike which, while an interesting idea, is no longer realistic in the current economic environment.
This disconnect has allowed the County Board to confuse winning trivial awards from organizations such as the National Association of Counties with real success.
This disconnect has kept the Arlington County government from being neighborhood- focused. Snow removal and pothole repair continue to be a challenge, and now, the government has cut one-third of the staff dedicated to checking the advance of rodents (ironically, at a time when communicable- disease prevention is on everyone’s minds). Yet there always seems to be money found to pay for another festival or public-art project.
This disconnect resulted in the county government’s refusal to offer assistance to residents whose homes suffered flooding due, at least in part, to the antiquated public water-sewer system after June’s massive rainfall. “Call your insurance company” is what the public was told.
This disconnect has prevented the County Board from going back and significantly altering its revenue-sharing agreement with the school system, an idea that was good when it was conceived but one that has outlived its usefulness.
This disconnect has prevented the County Board from demanding accountability on capital spending. Projects and costs are out of control – that is, those projects that actually get started (still waiting for that Cherrydale fire station, aren’t we?).
This disconnect has given Arlington officials an inflated self-importance out of all proportion to the role Arlington plays in the broader metropolitan region.
Fact check: We are not Fairfax, not Montgomery, not the District of Columbia. Despite that, Arlington officials try to solve the region’s problems on their own, using the county taxpayers’ wallets to do it.
(There are some limits to this. At a recent board meeting, Zimmerman acknowledged that the county government did not have the sweeping ability to solve global warming. It was a rare admission that Arlington’s poobahs couldn’t solve all things for all six billion of us around the globe.)
Of course, Zimmerman will win despite all this. Neither Ruebner, the Green candidate, nor Republican Mike McMenamin has the money or name recognition to beat the Democrats this time around.
That doesn’t mean we think voters should stick with the status quo.
Ruebner’s presence in the race has benefited the process. He has done what a stronger Republican candidate would have done: called Zimmerman and Democrats out on their ineffective housing strategy.
But Ruebner, at present, lacks the in-depth knowledge of government affairs to merit our endorsement. We hope he stays active, becoming more so, in county government affairs.
As the president of the Maywood Civic Association and a member of the County Board’s own Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, McMenamin’s credentials are more substantial. He cannot be dismissed as someone Republicans simply put up to have a candidate.
And, in listening to McMenamin through the course of the campaign, we see that he understands the core issue – that hard choices are coming, and the business-as- usual days are over.
He (and Ruebner) told the Arlington Citizens for the Arts the hard truth, that there was no money for the cultural center they desire. Zimmerman, who has done nothing in his decade on the board to get such a center built, simply pandered to the constituency in front of him.
McMenamin is not a perfect candidate. Like Ruebner, he doesn’t understand all the nuances of county government.
Yet, we find him the most viable of all three candidates on the ballot. That’s why the Sun Gazette is endorsing Mike McMenamin for County Board.
If voters stick with Zimmerman, as we expect they will, it will be up to those within the Democratic Party itself to force change.
Perhaps we will see new, independent- minded and fiscally responsible Democrats choose to challenge the status quo next year. There are a number who want to, but are as yet unwilling to buck the party machinery.
One way voters on Nov. 7 can prod some of these independent Democrats into action is to vote against the status quo. As was the case four years ago, we hear from many who say they will. But we have our doubts.