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Sun Gazette: Herring: Advisory referendum on streetcar not allowed under Va. law Print

BY:  SCOTT McCAFFREY

Created:  Friday, November 7, 2014  8:00AM

 

A voter referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar? It's possible, but only if tied to a bond issue.

That's the conclusion of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who on Nov. 6 released an advisory opinion upholding the county government's position that there is no legal way to hold a stand-alone advisory referendum on the controversial transit project.

Arlington "lacks the authority" to conduct an advisory referendum, Herring said in a letter to Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), who requested the opinion.

The reason: Unlike some other Virginia localities, the Arlington County charter does not specifically allow for advisory referendums, and the General Assembly has never provided the county government such authority.

Herring's opinion does not have the force of law, but effectively ends any question about the legality of an advisory referendum. His three-page response to Hope's request is consistent with the legal position of both the county attorney's office and Clerk of the Circuit Court, and puts the ball in the court of state legislators to determine if they wish to grant Arlington the authority to hold a vote.

Hope supports the streetcar project but also has come out in favor of a referendum. His new colleague, Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th), said while campaigning in an August special election that he (Sullivan) would introduce legislation during the 2015 General Assembly session to allow Arlington officials to call an advisory vote.

A 3-2 County Board majority supports the streetcar plan and opposes the idea of a referendum. Should community pressure build, they theoretically could work around the prohibition by holding a referendum that is tied to a sale of general-obligation bonds for the streetcar project.

The present funding plan for the $350 million, five-mile streetcar line does not require general-obligation debt, but that wouldn't necessarily prohibit County Board members from putting a nominal amount – say, $1 million – on the ballot to serve as a referendum.

Even absent a referendum, the future of the streetcar will be decided at the ballot box. The seats of pro-streetcar County Board members Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes are on the November 2015 ballot, and anti-streetcar forces need to knock off just one of them to take control of the County Board and kill the project in early 2016, before construction has begun.


 



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