Region Forward Blog

Q&A: Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette

Dec 14, 2017

Ten years ago, COG recognized Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette with its highest honor—the Elizabeth and David Scull Public Service Award for leadership and dedication to regionalism. Nearly a decade later and as he prepares to retire from the Arlington County Board at the end of the year, we sat down with Fisette to reflect on his time at COG. His many leadership roles have included serving as chairman of the COG Board of Directors, founding member and chairman of the Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Committee, and most recently chairman of the Transportation Planning Board’s Long Range Plan Task Force.

How did you get into public service?

I’ve always cared about public service. It’s just part of the way I’ve approached life—choosing the public sector over the private sector. It has to do with my own thinking, and my own value construct of what I wanted out of life. Volunteering has always been an integral part of that.

I initially came to this area because I was looking for a job after graduate school. I had been looking to live in D.C. However, the only person I knew in the region moved into Arlington, so I moved nearby.

This region is where it all happens for me. It’s where I’ve lived my life as an adult. It’s where I established my career and my family. Bob and I have been in the same house for thirty years.

How did you get involved with COG?

I was elected to the Arlington County Board in 1997, and took office in 1998. It wasn’t long before I rotated into COG. COG has always had good, strong leadership. It was always a place I gravitated to. Not every jurisdiction supports elected officials that give of their time to regional issues. But fortunately, Arlington is a place that does.

How has Arlington benefitted from membership at COG?

Regionalism is fundamentally important. While I pass policies inside my community, we’re also a small part of a larger region. What happens locally with transportation, emergency preparedness, or environmental protections, can have a big impact on others. At COG, you have an opportunity to have a voice in some of that policymaking and collaboration. And I think we have a history in Arlington of respecting that regional brand, COG’s regional role.

I have great respect for the people that work at the local level—both my fellow elected officials and the staff. This region attracts the best and the brightest. I see this reflected at COG, in the quality of the individuals who commit to public service and to improving the quality of life in their communities. We’ve built some wonderful relationships and friendships. And those can be very helpful in moving the ball forward in the region.

What are some ways that your work with COG has bettered the region?

COG has had some great successes.  

I was Chair of the County Board in Arlington when 9/11 occurred. Emergency preparedness took center stage. For that year after, we spent an enormous amount of time improving regional collaboration around this issue. Today, you have a region—that includes not only two states and the District, but also the federal government—with a very effective regional emergency preparedness plan, mutual aid agreements, and interoperable equipment. Everything has gotten better. We’ve got a great set of leaders in the public safety community. I think this is one of our very best examples of voluntary collaboration to everyone’s benefit.

Transportation is another area I’ve spent a lot of time on. Recently, it has been pretty exciting to be a part of the Transportation Planning Board’s Long Range Plan Task Force, where we’re beginning to look beyond just brick and mortar building projects. We are considering policies and programs that can make an impact on regional mobility and accessibility, and congestion. 

Despite our work knitting our regional transportation system together, congestion is still projected to be worse in the future. Officials stood up at COG and said ‘this plan isn’t good enough, we need to think a little differently.’ The Long Range Plan Task Force is opening up some good possibilities that could make a difference.

You’ve also played a pivotal role in addressing the region’s environmental challenges. How did you get involved?

After Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, the idea really began to stick. People began to care about our climate. And local governments, regions, and states around the country started to take up the mantle and study these issues.

A study, [the National Capital Region Climate Change Report], was done at COG in 2008, and one of the recommendations was to establish a standing committee.

COG had a Chesapeake Bay Policy Committee, and had always done some level of environmental work, but a new committee would take it to the next level. This was the point at which I got really interested and involved.

I care about a lot of things; I’m a generalist, and I do a bit of everything at the local level. But, the passion is strongest for me around environmental issues. It was natural for me to step in and try to help. I ended up helping to create the COG Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Committee. I then chaired the committee for a number of years.

When it comes to addressing greenhouse gas emissions, the government can only do so much. You have to look at the source of those emissions. The private sector and the non-profit sector have to be at the table. CEEPC was the first committee where membership was not just government, not just the public sector. It is public, private, and nonprofit. With the realization that it’s going to take all those actors to really make a difference.

Why is it important to be an active, engaged member of COG?

Having been a candidate and having run for office, I know that it can be a sacrifice. But, there’s great benefit. 

Yes, the regional work that COG promotes and is responsible for facilitating and helping support is all voluntary. We all want to protect our own jurisdiction’s authority, but there is the greater good to think about. There are clearly times when giving up a little gets you something far greater. Coming together around a common vision for the region, finding those places of consensus and clarity for the future, and doing a bit of extra work and collaborating helps the whole.

It’s also important to never lose hopefulness or aspiration. It’s okay to go into meetings and be practical, and I am. Yet, if you can’t aspire to something a little beyond—whether in the environment, regional transportation solutions, or human services—then anyone can come in and do the same thing. Hold on to aspiration and use COG to help steer the boat and move the region forward.

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