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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions: Part 1

Since (1) the November election looms, (2) I have been asked to serve as a co-moderator for an ANC candidates forum for the part of ANC5A serving the Fort Lincoln district on the edge of DC's border with Prince George's County, (3) certainly a plurality of DC residents don't know what an Advisory Neighborhood Commission is, and (4) some evident gaps in government oversight provide some opportunities for ANCs to step up and bring attention to these matters, it's worth discussing DC's closest form of "neighborhood-level government," the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

What is an ANC?

DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are a form of local government oversight authority, a legislative body, subsidiary to the City Council and the Executive Branch.

Gravestone, Congressional Cemetery
Gravestone, Congressional Cemetery.  Clearly, being on his local ANC and serving as an ANC Commissioner was very important to William V. McFarland.

There are 39 Commissions, organized by Ward, and each "Single Member District" represents about 2,000 residents.  (Other cities may have similar kinds of units such as "Neighborhood Councils" [LA], "Community Boards" [NYC], or bodies specifically set up to deal with planning issues, such as the "Neighborhood Planning Units" in Atlanta.  Montreal actually has subsidiary units called boroughs--like London actually--with separately elected councils, a budget, and very specific responsibilities for certain actions, while the overall City Government provides certain services, such as libraries, schools, road maintenance, etc.)

The geographies of ANCs and Single Member Districts are set every 10 years, after the Census, during the process of ward redistricting.  Some ANCs are small, some very large.  Usually large is bad, because areas with very different issues are combined into one large ANC.  But one of the problems with population growth is that it may lead to breaking up neighborhoods into multiple ANCs, although some ANCs have dealt with that by having both Wards represented with the ANC, such as in Chevy Chase, which used to just be in Ward 3, but over time has been split up into Ward 4 sections as well.

The number of commissioners is based on the city's population, so I would presume that there should be about 300 Commissioners in this next election, based on the population increase from 2000 to 2010.  ("D.C. population soars past 600,000 for first time in years" from the Washington Post)

What authority do ANCs have?

The Commissions were formed to provide local residents with the opportunity to weigh in on matters before DC Government agencies such as the Zoning Commission or the Alcoholic Beverage Commission's licensing of local establishments to sell liquor.

ANC8A in Anacostia has their office prominently located on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

ANCs also receive a small fee per resident and this money is used to support the activities of the commission and as a grantmaking source for community organization activities located within their geography.  DC Government does not provide ANCs with office space as a matter of course.  Some ANCs rent office space, and some don't have permanent offices.

The legislation creating ANCs affords "great weight" to the Commission, in terms of how their views are presented and considered by the various agencies.  According to the ANC website:

The ANCs present their positions and recommendations on issues to various District government agencies, the Executive Branch, and the Council. They also present testimony to independent agencies, boards, and commissions, usually under the rules of procedure specific to those entities. By law, the ANCs may also present their positions to Federal agencies.

In the UK, this would be called a "consultation."  It's about "listening" or considering what citizens and other stakeholders communicate about the issue, not necessarily about "doing" what the consultee recommends.

Problems in understanding what "great weight" means

In DC, many ANC commissioners believe that they personally are afforded the "great weight," and many people believe that ANCs have the authority to "approve" or "reject" matters before them.  Neither is true.  Although one element of "great weight" is that ANCs are afforded "party status" on matters before the Zoning Commission for example, which allows them to present a position and question witnesses.

And just because ANCs can "weigh in" doesn't always mean anything.  If there aren't "remedies" in the law (for example, while it's better than nothing that ANCs are notified about demolition permits, there are no special remedies available to the ANC to challenge the granting of a permit; the only remedy available is filing a historic preservation landmark nomination, which has to meet very specific criteria and a high bar in order to be granted).

Finally, to be afforded "great weight," comments are supposed to be relevant to the matter at hand, in terms of the legal parameters (laws and regulations) that guide the agency's decision-making process.  For example, general concerns about development (e.g., a landmark nomination will restrict redeveloping a building) aren't relevant to the Historic Preservation Review Board, which by law is restricted to considering whether or not a building or district or site is worthy of designating as historic, based on very specific criteria concerning historicity and merit.

On various matters, it's not uncommon for ANCs to communicate positions to DC agencies based on criteria outside of the parameters of the relevant decision-making process.

The ability to challenge the granting of permits but not to sue DC Government

ANCs also have the legal authority to file challenges (provided the challenge is filed within the appropriate time frame) to the granting of permits and certain other land use actions, based on the assertion (and of course, only factually based assertions will be upheld) that the permit was granted in error/counter to the regulations.

But while ANCs can file challenges using allowable administrative procedures that are provided, ANCs are not allowed to sue the DC government, using monies provided by the DC Government--although I argue that ANCs can sue DC Government agencies, just not with DC-provided funds.

Stunting ANC effectiveness

For the most part, substantive capacity building institutions don't exist in the city.  Sure there are lots of organizations, from the League of Women Voters to the DC Federation of Civic Organizations, but I would argue that "training" citizens in government and participatory and representative democracy structures doesn't happen in an effective, substantive way.

Plus, the original proposal for ANCs included the creation of a whole city body, the ANC Assembly, which would have had representatives from every ANC and provided a forum for ANCs to meet and share experiences and knowledge, and as an additional forum to focus attention on neighborhood matters.  But the City Council thought the ANC Assembly could become a competitive body, and so that element of the ANC structure was eliminated.

Some ANCs don't function properly according to the law: Public Meetings and Committees

In the past at least, I know of one ANC that met in Executive Session to conduct their votes, even though such actions are supposed to be made in public.

Plus most ANC Commissioners don't schedule regular meetings with their constituents, and fail to attend the meetings of local civic organizations.  Hence, many Commissioners claim to represent the view of their constituents living in the SMD but fail to consult with them.

And many ANCs don't provide residents with the ability to sit on committees, even though the law affords residents this right.

ANC bylaw and responsibility changes to ensure greater accountability

The bylaws for each ANC should be checked to be sure that they are consistent with DC law in terms of conducting business in public and the ability for residents to serve on committees.

ANCs should also add bylaw provisions requiring that each ANC Commissioner hold a minimum number of constituent meetings annually, at  least one each quarter, and Commissioners should be encouraged to attend the meetings of various community organizations locating within their SMD and the Commission boundaries.

The ANC should have to make a status report semi-annually, tallying the public meetings held by the Commission as a whole, for each Commissioner, and for each committee, and the membership roster for each Committee, designating whether members are elected commissioners or residents.

ANC Committees are potentially very powerful

While the legislation creating ANCs allows for non-elected residents to serve on ANC committees and to even chair them, many ANCs don't have committees at all, and those that do may not allow for citizen representatives on the committees.

DC Code § 1-309.11(f) Chairmanship of each Commission committee or task force shall be open to any resident of the Commission area. The chairperson of each such committee or task force shall be appointed by the Commission. Each Commission shall make a good faith effort to involve all segments of the Commission population in its deliberations regardless of race, sex, age, voting status, religion, economic status, or sexual orientation.

I wouldn't claim to be familiar with every ANC in the city, but I do know that in Ward 6 ANC6A and ANC6C, and all four of the Ward 1 ANCs (although ANC1C allows residents to serve on committees, but not vote, which I think is counter to the intent of the legislation) have standing committees with non-elected residents as members.  In ANC6A specifically, I know that non-elected residents have served as commission chairs.

Committees are important both to spread the workload as well as serving as a "farm system" offering opportunities for local residents to participate in local civic affairs and become educated and skilled, perhaps later to stand up for election and serve as an ANC Commissioner.

Problems with ANCs: could they be solved through support and capacity building systems?

DC ANC license plateFor a variety of reasons, many ANCs aren't very effective or are seen as a hindrance to change, and so some people argue that ANCs should be abolished.

I think that's a pretty facile response to problems with democracy and the functioning of representative government institutions, although hey, why not get rid of Congress too?

My counter argument is that ANCs aren't given the technical support and the city government doesn't provide the capacity building infrastructure necessary for individual Commissioners and ANCs as a whole to be effective.

While I probably have written dozens of entries on this topic, this one covers it well enough "(Even more on) ANCs (Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in DC)" and this one lays out some ideas for providing certain kinds of "shared services" to ANCs to enable them to be more effective and reduce the opportunity for embezzlement, ""Networked solutions" for some problems with ANCs in DC."

Another problem with ANCs: reducing civic involvement

Campaign signs for ANC Commission seats, Massachusetts Avenue NW.

One final problem (although I suppose this isn't an exhaustive list) with ANCs is in my experience, they have two negative effects on the development and maintenance of a thriving civil society at the neighborhood level.

First, the system of ANCs encourages residents to believe that all problems are solved by government action, even the most picayune of matters.  This reduces the impetus for residents to self-organize and help themselves and solve problems on their own, the kind of behavior that struck Alexis de Tocqueville as particularly "American," and which he discussed in Democracy in America.

Second, given the limited number of people willing to get engaged and participate actively in neighborhood organizations, because ANCs operate at a larger scale and provide a bigger forum, I wonder if ANCs "cream off" a goodly amount of the organizational and community capital within a community, thereby stunting the ability of neighborhood associations of various types to recruit and retain members and conduct their activities.

Those are problems that I don't have answers for.

Wait one more problem: DC Government employees serving on ANCs

DC Government Agency employees work for the Executive Branch.  ANCs are legislative bodies.  DC Government employees are subject to the "power of the executive" and therefore can be influenced by the Executive to do their legislative bidding on ANCs.  That's not good.

Similarly, people who work for Councilmembers and serve on ANCs may not represent their constitutents as much as they are doing the bidding of the Councilmember to hoard power and control.  (I'm not saying this happens as a matter of course, but it does happen.)

While it would be a restriction of people's rights to serve, I wonder if DC Executive and Legislative employees should not be allowed to serve as ANC Commissioners, because of this inherent conflict of interest.


IN any case, I think that ANCs are important bodies to have, and it's particularly important for ANCs to have committees, and to allow for non-elected residents to serve on such committees.

I also think that if, as a city, we want ANCs to be effective, we have to provide the capacity building and support infrastructure that is required to enable them to be effective.

And even if you don't want to run for ANC Commisioner (running for City Council in Ann Arbor once was enough for me), it's worth considering sitting on an ANC Committee, especially those committees on planning and zoning or transportation and public space, and helping to shape your neighborhood positively going forward.

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