Summer is always a good time to blog about things that have been bouncing around my head for a couple months, or in this case, years. The topic: reforming Washington, D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs.
The ANC system was created in 1976 as part of the D.C. Home Rule Charter. In order to provide a means for local engagement and participation in public policy, the city established 37 commissions across the city, each representing a portion of a ward. (The names are the ward number followed by a letter, such as 1C, 2A, etc.) Each commission is composed of people elected from Single-Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2,000 people. Thus, across the city every resident is represented by exactly one ANC and one of the 270 commissioners. This map, showing the ANC and SMDs of the Mid City neighborhoods of U Street, Adams Morgan, and Columbia Heights, illustrates the dense geography of the ANC system.
I was reminded of the topic when a friend sent me this blog post about the latest ANC scandal, about an ANC commissioner and his partner apparently trying to obstruct the renewal of a liquor license for two popular restaurants. Indeed, the area of liquor licenses is often an area of intense conflict. Local residents oppose loud, noisy bars open late, and the attendees of loud, noisy bars open late aren’t a particularly organized constituency. The result is (unknown to most D.C. residents) that some neighborhoods (specifically, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Glover Park, and Adams Morgan), have moratoriums in effect for new liquor licenses. The effect of the limited supply is the existing bars are even louder and busier, but that’s an issue for another day.
Before describing potential reforms I think it should note that most ANCs function relatively well most of the time. They are groups of citizens, serving unpaid, who have regular meetings to discuss issues of neighborhood concern. It’s important to note the critical role the ANCs create in providing a forum for neighborhood-level discussion, and to allow city government a formal way to communicate with local residents about proposed developments and policies. In fact, the intense emotion surrounding some ANC races speaks to the important role they provide. Although some throw up their hands and call for them to be abolished, I believe they play an important role and should continue to exist in some form.
Since no political system is perfect, this post serves to discuss some potential improvements. Here are too general categories of criticism.
First, too often ANCs are not representative. As a result, ANCs disproportionately represent the views of older, more affluent property owners. The views of the significant renter population in many neighborhoods is limited in many ANCs. Additionally, because of these biases the views of all may not be represented. In Adams Morgan, 1C is all white despite the huge diversity of the neighborhood. (See members today). In other neighborhoods, the patterns are different by no less troubling, with ANC commissioners not representing every facet of the community.
Second, ANCs are highly varied in their operations. The ANCs are independent, receiving only a small amount of support from city government. As a result, the quality of their websites, publications, location and openness of the meetings, and other aspects of operations varies widely, resulting in frustration and making them susceptible to manipulation.
Partly responding to these criticisms, below are four possible avenues of reform:
1. Modify the structure of Single Member Districts. The SMDs ensure every resident exactly one ANC commissioner to report to, however they suffer the same problem of any geography-based electoral system: diffuse interests are often not represented. (renters, immigrant populations, etc.) For this reason many city councils, including D.C., have at-large seats. The ANC boundaries could remain the same and all commissioners could be elected at-large within the ANC. Or, a compromise option, each ANC could have one at-large commissioner in addition to those elected from SMDs. The number of SMDs could be reduced, or the total number of commissioners in each ANC increased by one.
2. City government should enforce greater transparency and consistency in operations. The city could mandate the ANCs report their budgets, agendas, and other documents to a central repository. Access to these documents is often uneven. ANCs could be provided access to a system to allow them to set up a website through city resources. The ANC office in general takes a very hands-off approach, which is understandable given limited resources. However, a more active ANC office could standardize the operations of each without threatening their autonomy.
3. Reduce the number of ANCs or enlarge SMD sizes. Although some neighborhoods enjoy active ANCs, others are less active and successful. Each ward contains 4 to 6 of the groups, perhaps the total number should be reduced and the corresponding SMDs enlarged. Currently many neighborhood civic organizations and ANCs cover similar areas, making the ANCs slightly larger would reduce this apparent redundancy. Having fewer ANCs might also increase the quality of their participation in public policy as it would cut down on the number of meetings necessary to reach every neighborhood in the city. It would, however, dilute the power of individual votes and reduce the number of elected commissioners.
4. Term Limits for ANC Commissioners. In Shaw, and other ANCs throughout the city, ANC commissioners can be very long-served, with mixed effects. Although they can be trusted voices and amass deep historical knowledge, long-serving ANC commissioners may prevent others from getting involved. The same arguments for and against term limits for any representative seat applies. Commissioners could have term limits, something fairly long but enough to ensure some turnover, perhaps 5-10 years.
These are just some tentative proposals based on my limited knowledge and experience with the system. Additional viewpoints are welcome. ANCs should be recognized as a valuable D.C. institution that is become a critical part of the local political life. However, like any political system their structure and operations need not remain static and fixed.
Note on boundary maps: The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has this gallery of maps of the district boundaries. However, I think they are inferior to an older series that has been removed. For example, the new maps don’t contain labels for all the SMDs. Luckily, these maps are preserved in the Internet Archive here. For the technically inclined, KML and ESRI Shapefile versions are available from the city here.