Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, September 02, 2011

"Networked solutions" for some problems with ANCs in DC

DC has a level of grassroots government called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which are consulted formally (they have "standing") on matters before DC Government agencies, in particular zoning, planning (including historic preservation), and alcoholic beverage licensing matters. There are 38 individual ANCs, organized by Ward.

I am torn about ANCs. They can be a great thing, providing a means of systematic public engagement in local civic affairs. They can also enable pettiness and the creation of neighborhood fiefdoms.

One of my concerns is that by "governmentalizing" how people perceive issues and problems at the most grassroots level of the community, it reduces the likelihood of "self-help" as people begin to see "government" as the logical solution or actor for every ill. Citizens become infantilized as a result.

Also, ANCs end up in most neighborhoods of "creaming" local activists and potential leaders away from independent civic organizations and to these little proto-governments.

On the other hand, I think one of the biggest problems with ANCs is that they are given little in the way of training and capacity building resources. So it shouldn't be a surprise that many of these organizations aren't very effective.*

(* this is an under-studied area of local government. There are different forms of local neighborhood involvement. E.g., NYC has "Community Boards," Los Angeles has "Neighborhood Councils," Seattle has neighborhood commissions with representatives based on organizational membership, Atlanta has Neighborhood Planning Units, etc. In the Great Society era there were citizen planning organizations for social services and urban renewal planning, etc.)

E.g., even communities like Goodyear, Arizona provide civic capacity training to interested citizens (see "Goodyear revamps Citizens' Academy with ASU expertise" from the Arizona Republic).

Each DC ANC gets a fee per resident, around $2, and this money is used usually for a part time staff person, office space and sundries, and for funding community projects. DC Government agencies do not provide office space to any of the ANCs, except in extra-ordinary situations. Some ANCs rent space, others don't.

While the ANC funds are audited, it is not uncommon for there to be improprieties with regard to the use of the allocated funds. The Rhode Island Insider blog reports on the latest problem, with ANC5B in Ward 5, in "a positive step forward", and that the ANC chair has stepped down in the face of the allegations.

One of my complaints about how DC goes about supporting community organizations is that there isn't much thought to leveraging resources and capacities across the city efficiently.

It's not like the city is big.

I've mentioned this before in terms of the various Main Street programs and lately the possibility of the creation of separate friends organizations for various parks.

What I suggested for the parks is that instead of requiring each interested group to incorporate, get nonprofit status, etc., that there should be a master friends organization, with a system for creating "affinity groups" for each park, with separate, dedicated fund accounts assigned to each park, but with master accounting and bookkeeping operations maintained within the supra-friends group, along with the nonprofit status, so that the local friends outfits can focus on the parks, raising money, and programming, and not have to deal so much with the legal mechanics of maintaining the organization (when you get down to the neighborhood level, it can be hard to maintain a group, when you have to spend so much time focusing on the nuts and bolts of the organization, and less on outreach and programming and doing).

The same, I think, pertains for ANCs. Rather than expecting each ANC to have its own bank accounts, etc., I think that the City should manage the accounting functions of the accounts, with dedicated accounts for each ANC.

Each ANC would still need a treasurer, but the actual account and transactions processing would be managed by personnel in the City Office of the ANC.

So instead of recurring problems with accounting and misappropriation of funds at the ANC level, they could focus on making different mistakes.

Anyway, the City should commit to creating and maintaining a capacity building operation that supports ANCs, along with the provision of office space where possible (such as in schools, recreation/community centers, and other facilities).

Some of the government agencies have started providing more "training" to ANCs, but at the same time, representatives need access to more information than just being spoonfed by the agencies, because if you don't ever know more than you are told, you end up not being very effective.

That's why I am a big fan of the Urban Information Library at the main branch of the Dallas Public Library, which subscribes to a number of specialized publications, has books and other holdings relevant to local government, etc.

Combine that with a more robust training operation and a coordinated system of independent talks and programs, training conferences, etc., and likely ANCs would be a lot more effective.

(Of course, it's all relative. The groups could still suck, but be better than they are currently.)

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