The birth of DC’s neighborhood commissions

[Remarks at a conference in 2006]

Sam Smith – Washington’s advisory neighborhood commissions came out of a time that seems distant today, a time before 9/11, George Bush, the closing of DC’s public hospital and the socio-ethnic cleansing of DC.

Sure, we were still recovering from the riots, but the very word ‘recover’ – one you don’t hear much today – implied that there was a least a chance you would. The writer Dorothy Allison described the spirit of the times: “I had the idea that if you took America and shook it really hard it would do the right thing.”

And so you proposed all sorts of new ideas and just talking about them made you feel hopeful. Central to a lot the talk was devolution – the idea that people could control things better if they were brought down to the local level. We tend to forget this now, but back then, decentralization and community power were important progressive ideas.

I wrote about them a lot in the 1960s and suggested that Washington needed neighborhood councils with members representing small districts that would get to approve the local police commander, help direct the schools, set up a neighborhood development corporation and so forth.

In the early 1970s, those of us in the new DC Statehood Party added the idea to our platform. We wanted:

– Neighborhood authorities and neighborhood housing banks

· Elected neighborhood legislative councils and neighborhood executives with power over selection of neighborhood police officials, selection of neighborhood school superintendent, school site selection and proposed roads.

· Community control of the schools

Then, as sometimes happens with ideas, something happened. Don Frasier, a progressive member of Congress from Minneapolis – where they already had advisory neighborhood commissions – added the plan to the DC home rule bill then under consideration.

It wasn’t well received by the local powers that wannatobe. Walter Washington, Walter Fauntroy and others who were in line to personally benefit from home rule weren’t happy to see some of their pending power being distributed to others. Someone – we never found out who – even snuck in a change in the Senate version of the bill that would have required a majority of all registered voters in the city – and not just those coming to vote that day – in order for the ANC referendum to be approved. Fortunately this con was caught in time.

The home rule bill was passed and the ANC referendum easily approved but the legislation had not fully defined the nature and power of the commissions. That was to be left to the new city government.

A group of us formed a citizens lobby for proposed rules under which the ANCs would function. At one meeting, someone suggested that the commissions’ views be given “great weight” by the city government.

“What does that term mean,” asked a lawyer.

“Damned if I know,” I replied, “but let’s put it in and find out.”

As luck would have it, the court case deciding what it meant would come out of my district and I would be one of the plaintiffs. It was a tough one for me for not only did it force me to betray my roots – it involved an Irish bar – but one of the owners, the bar’s lawyer and all of the complaining petitioners lived in my district. I had tried to get them all together but it didn’t work. In the end, the court handed down a decision on “great weight” that favored the commissions.

My own election had been somewhat problematical. It was the city’s first home rule vote and the ballots were being counted in the ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel. Some of them had already fallen off a pick-up truck on their way and were lost.

My wife was holding a Sunday School meeting that evening and I told her I thought I’d go to the Shoreham to watch the count. “Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit too seriously?” she asked. She had a point. My only opposition had been an older man who had hardly campaigned and, besides, I had seen scores of my friends come to the precinct.

When the morning count was finished, I was stunned. My opponent was ahead by a 7 to 1 margin. I got up my nerve and went to see Norval Perkins, the genial head of the Board of Elections, to ask for a recount. He shrugged and added my name to his growing list. Then I went and found where they were counting the afternoon votes and when they were finished I had won by a 4 to one margin. I went back to Norval and pointed out the dichotomy. “Well, Sam” he said, “it just looks like you have more afternoon than morning friends.”

As it turned out, all my morning votes had been accidentally given to my opponent and I now knew what Chicago politicians meant when they said “watch the count.” The point was reiterated the next morning with a Washington Post story saying that my district had gotten more votes than any in the city. The strange thing was that the numbers didn’t add up. Back at the Board of Elections I discovered they had added my correct morning and evening counts to the incorrect morning count. I now really knew what “watch the count” meant.

Our new commission worked remarkably well considering that all of us were playing it by ear. We made some simple rules that helped. For example, we would only deal with local issues. That way our national and citywide issue conflicts wouldn’t ruin our meetings.

And we also developed some good habits, such as retiring to the Zebra Room to debrief over drinks after each meeting. We accepted our differences and played by the rules, remained friends, and it all worked pretty well.

I was named chair of the education, recreation, and agriculture committee. I added that last term because we had the largest community garden in DC. Soon I wished I hadn’t because a big dispute developed over how long people should retain their garden rights on public land. I proposed what I thought was a modest seven years but the gardeners saw that proposal as the moral equivalent of eminent domain.

I had more luck with the Great Hearst Playground Dispute. A hundred and fifty tennis players came to me with a petition to have a backboard constructed at Hearst playground. Knee jerk politician that I was, I successfully pressed for the backboard. The Rec Department, however, constructed the backboard without consulting anyone and made a huge cinderblock wall that blocked some of the neighbors’ view of the playground. Next thing I knew, there was a petition from 150 neighbors wanting the backboard removed.

The matter was ultimately resolved during a five hour meeting with the Rec Department and disputing parties. I proposed that a new backboard be placed at a 90 degree angle so it didn’t block anyone’s view. Geometry worked where politics had failed.

I was overwhelmed with problems, some solvable, many not. I had far less clout that many residents thought but I worked overtime to conceal the fact. This didn’t help. Their expectations just seemed to mount.

As I looked around the city things weren’t going as well as I had hoped. For one thing, the rules the city council had passed deliberately restricted the councils’ power: no incorporation, no spending of public funds in joint projects with other commissions and so forth.

From the beginning, and to this day, the city government considered the ANCs to be an annoyance to be controlled more than to be included. I had argued from the start that our prime goal should be to take the “A” out of ANC. . . to make these bodies functioning units of government rather than merely advisory. Instead they were dismissed by the media and co-opted by politicians and bureaucrats until only the bravest and most self-reliant commissions dared to act as the law had envisioned.

From the start in 1974, city officials began to set up bureaucratic and fiscal hurdles for the fledgling commissions to jump over and they adopted the view that the ANCs were just another part of the city government. At workshops and in regulations, they treated the ANCs as subservient and ancillary. Many commissioners, unschooled in either ANC history, law, or politics accepted this more menial role without question. They also accepted the gross and widespread falsehood that ANCs were banned from meeting with one another. In fact, the law only prohibited them from spending city money to do so.

Instead of seeing themselves as a sleeping giant — a grassroots political system that could actually be run from the grassroots — the ANCs tolerated a lesser role.

This subservience continues to today.

The situation has not been helped by gentrification. There are unhappy reports of ethnic and cultural conflicts being played out in commissions just as elsewhere.

We seem to have forgotten how to share space with others. For example in one part of town we have churchgoers mad at a gay bar and gentrifiers mad at churchgoers’ double-parked cars. As a heterosexual agnostic I have no money on this race, but I know the answer is most likely to come when both sides accept the notion of reciprocal liberty – that we can’t be free to do what we want unless we grant others a similar right. Out of such an attitude can come, for example, valet parking on Sundays and a hefty contribution to a local rec center by the gay bar.

ANCs can be important at such times or they can add to the conflict. It’s one of the many choices their members have to make.

ANCs are still a sleeping giant. Don’t believe what city hall tells you about what they can and can’t do. They can do almost anything if they do it the right way.

For example, the chairs in a ward could get together each month at someone’s house and share what their commissions agree about. If they have differences, forget them for the time being. Look for the unity and then let your councilmember, school board member, mayor, and media know about it.

Practice this awhile and then try it citywide. Three dozen commission chairs working together could become a de facto lower house of the city government.

You don’t need city funding. Get a church or a bar to give you free space and get a few grants from a friendly funder. And when they tell you it’s against the law, just point to the First Amendment.

And it’s not just a local matter. In increasingly corrupt and anti-democratic America, local solidarity and action are oases of freedom and decency from which a new future can grow. As we find ourselves in a post-constitutional society where our leaders in politics and business consider themselves immune from either morality or legislation, we must constantly tend these community gardens of hope.

Just as during the century of segregation with no home rule, neighborhood organizations in DC were the voice and organizing strength of this city, so today our communities are where we must begin to make things work again with decency, democracy and fairness.

Our neighborhood commissions can be central to this if they remember the words of a woman who passed away just a few days go, Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

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