Is D.C.'s ANC Worth It?

When "authority" becomes "respect my authoritah!"

A few years ago, the election I cared most about was for my advisory neighborhood commissioner. When I said this to a friend, she laughed. But the candidate I liked won by a margin of two votes, so I felt like I had made a difference.

But do the commissioners themselves make much of a difference? Nearly 35 years into this unique D.C. experiment in hyper-local representation, it’s hard to say.

The commission was created in 1976. Part of the motivation was that the D.C. statehood drive was in full swing, and the commission could become a legislature-in-waiting. Today, each ANC member represents about 2,000 residents. They receive no salary, and have no actual power to adopt or reject legislation.

Rather, as the name says, they are advisory. The city’s official ANC website says the goal “is to ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of the residents of the neighborhoods that are directly affected by government action.”

The Borderstan blog explains that if, for example, a restaurant seeks a liquor license, “there is a process the owners must follow to get the license -- including going to the ANC.” Your commissioner can also assist you with zoning variances -- or block your request. So they are more than just elected activists -- there is some authority attached.

Unfortunately, “authority” can quickly become “respect my authoritah!” While many commissioners are residents with a deep commitment to their neighborhoods, some are just folks on a power trip. Stories abound about domineering ANC chairs, contentious meetings that devolve into screaming matches, and even fights over things as trivial as who gets to hand out the agendas.

Blogger Geoffrey Hatchard told We Love D.C. that some commissioners “are professional, want to hear what you have to say, and feel excited to serve. Others see the ANC as their own fiefdom, something they reign over, and their sad little bit of power trip is something they refuse to allow to be diluted by dealing with the commoners.”

It’s an unwritten rule of politics that the lower the office, the higher the ego-tripping. Members of Congress may have big heads, but they also have a lot to do, and have a lot of fawning followers. The local pols in the small town where I grew up were far more dictatorial than anyone I’ve encountered in D.C.

So power trippers will continue to be drawn to the ANC. A bigger problem is that some seats don’t get filled at all. According to We Love D.C., 26 seats had no announced candidate in 2008. One ANC I know was elected as a write-in candidate, simply because no one else wanted the gig.

And there are abuses that go beyond verbal abuse. Congress Heights on the Rise highlights ANC audits by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor. The Ward 8 blog says, “The shenanigans involving some of these ANC funds and operations is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief” -- including “embezzlement, mismanagement, and total waste of a lot of taxpayer dollars.”

Part of the problem is the limbo state in which the commissioners operate. The stakes are too small to attract much attention, and so seats remain empty, or filled again and again by the same incumbent. (More than 180 ANC elections featured just one candidate in 2008.) The power is mostly that of persuasion, and the allocation of a small pot of funds.

Maybe there are too many seats. While the notion of one representative for every 2,000 residents appeals to the democratic ideal, the reality is that the seats are not being filled, and many are not filled well.

Or maybe the D.C. Council could be expanded from its current 13 members to twice or three times that number -- and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission could be phased out entirely.

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