Proposals for Reforming D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions

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.

ANCs in Mid City

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.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I’m not a big fan of term limits, but in this case that might be necessary. Would there be enough people wanting to participate that would allow term limits to work, though?

    My other thought is: why aren’t DC late night patrons better organized? In SF we had the San Francisco Late Night Coalition that registered voters outside of bars and clubs and built up a constituency to combat NIMBYs.

    Maybe it’s DC wanting to turn off politics in part of their lives — in SF there tends to be no division between work and play and play and work.

  2. I like the idea of expanding the areas of each ANC, thereby reducing the number in each Ward. I’d probably halve the number. That would likely ensure that each representative was vetted by a larger and more diverse population and there would be less unopposed seats (which often leads to crackpot candidates).

    As for DC liquor licensing, it is among the most lax in the nation. Let’s not lose sight of that. If your not in a moratorium zone, there’s basically nothing you can do to stop it. The worst example I recall was the Queen of Sheba incident with Shiloh Baptist, but even there QoS eventually got their license. And FYI- I am glad it is so easy to get a liquor license. It gives the city the vibrancy that makes it so great.

    Also, the ABC Board is paring back Moratoriums (like the one on 17th Street).

  3. first, rob, let me just say thank you for bringing up this topic! it’s something that i have wanted to discuss for a long while, and i’m glad to see someone taking the initiative to get a dialogue going.

    a small correction—not every ward has between 4 and 6 ANCs. ward 5 has only 3.

    this brings up what i have focused my thoughts on for some time—what is the ideal number of members in an ANC commission? one of the problems that has befuddled the 2C commission for so long is the fact that it has an even number (4) of commissioners. there are many 2-2 votes due to the nature of the commissioners’ loyalties and points-of-view.

    ANC2D has 2 commissioners and ANC5C has 12! why this massive disparity? why is there not more uniformity in the system? each of the ANCs in ward 5, for example, has a large number of commissioners, yet they don’t in ward 2.

    ANC2F, for example, split off from 2C at some point in time, due to the socioeconomic changes and stratification between the logan circle and central parts of shaw (at least, that’s the story i’ve heard, it would need to be backed up by someone who knows the full story).

    so, this is a good start, i’d say. anyone have any thoughts on the numbers game i’ve brought up here?

  4. great topic for discussion. As an ANC 2C constituent I have seen some crazy stuff in recent years :) the current situation of having 4 commissioners has been a big problem for sure. my neighboring ANC 6C has 9 commissioners, actual committees, and functions very well. I think one major problem is that when things go dysfunctional ala Shaw, there is no remedy other than the ballot box. We have one guy who oversees the ANCs but he has no actual power to enforce the laws governing them. So when certain commissioners (and people who think they are commissioners) do bad things, there are no consequences. So…the ballot box. basicly the recall process takes 18 months. when you have a 2 yr term its not worth the effort. And to top it all off the voter rolls are a mess. Something is very wrong when an SMD is supposed to have 2000 registered voters and about 260 actually cast votes.

    with regard to resources, website & all that…DC gov does have things available but many ANCs choose not to take advantage of them. I think some sort of web presence should be mandatory. The lack of communication with the community is sorely lacking, even with a functional ANC like 6C.

  5. I think the transparency and consistency could go a long way. Access to simple budgets or accounting for how the money was spent should not be so difficult.

    And I swear some of these ANC websites are geocities holdovers, how much would it cost to employ a couple web guys to update those more often? There has to be a better solution.

    I’m not really a fan of proportional representation, I think everyone having 1 member is good because it gives every geographic region a say. I could see a situation where one neighborhood dominates in a proportional system and another neighborhood is constantly underrepresented and undeserved. I’d be game for 1 at-large seat per ANC, but not making the whole ANC that way. It would be interesting to know how many votes wins one ANC district vs. another – this might tell us which neighborhoods would dominate in a proportional system.

  6. A bit about ANC history: The first city to have them was St. Paul, Minnesota. The Congressperson from there at the time the Home Rule Act was being written and proceeding through Congress, proposed an amendment that provided for the establishment of ANCs in the District, all to be approved or not by the voters in DC at a special referendum. On May 7, 1974, the referendum was held containing two questions: Do you want Home Rule? and do you want ANCs? The vote was a good bit larger for Home Rule than for ANCs but still a sizable majority for as opposed to against.
    After a 10 year struggle to get them, Los Angeles now has them. They are set up quite differently than ours in a number of ways but primarlily in that the qualifications, what a commissioner/commission can and cannot do are much more specific with the consequences for violations also much more specific and enforceable. In fact, what I read about them was all under the Attorney General’s Office.
    A city in Texas, I’m pretty sure it is San Antonio, has been interested and someone from there interviewed a commissioner from St. Paul about them. Very interesting interview in that they have problems similar to ours even though they are set up a bit differently too. I don’t know if San Antonio got them or not.
    I’m a 100+% advocate for ANCs. I think the fundamental problem with them in DC is that so few people take them seriously whether it’s the commissioners or the Mayor. The system is treated in general somewhat like other parts of the DC gov. The fact that it exists is good enough, it doesn’t matter how well it performs.
    I asked a panelist at an Emanciapation Day celebration where the whole governing history of DC from the 3 commissioners appointed by George Washington right up through the “Control board” to the Williams administration about the ANCs because none of them had mentioned them in their presentations. The response was “They were sort of an after thought.”
    To me, that was an “afterthought” that is an amazing expansion of democracy with an incredible amount of power if the system was taken seriously and we really did it right. Imagine for instance what might happen if every ANC were addressing the issue of voting representation in Congress at their meetings–how many more people just here in DC would know what that situation is and if every ANC were to stand as one in the demand for that, we could be a force that Congress could not ignore or toy with. It saddens me deeply that we have that power and don’t better use it.
    So, I really appreciate your thoughts on how it could be made better. Next time, I’ll tell you some of my thoughts on that.
    Thank you for your interest, concern and ideas for reform!

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