Kevin Blackwell thought it would be easy: Last spring, the neighborhood group he heads decided a few planters and some flowers would spiff up its Petworth enclave. For funding, the group approached the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) for a $1,000 grant.
ANC 4C, which serves parts of Crestwood, 16th Street Heights, and Petworth, unanimously approved the application at its April meeting; the check, Blackwell was assured, would be forthcoming. But months later, his group, UNTS (clunkily named for its boundaries—Upshur, New Hampshire Avenue, Taylor, and 7th Streets NW), still hadn’t gotten its money. “When it came to actually signing the check, there was always an excuse,” Blackwell says.
The excuses all came from one man: the ANC’s chair, Timothy A. Jones. For months, despite the commission’s approval, Jones repeatedly refused to approve the disbursement—mostly, some commissioners say, because he doesn’t like Blackwell.
Now Jones’ obstinacy has imperiled more than the flower pots. Though the check was finally signed this month by other commissioners, the fiasco threatens to shutter the ANC: Jones is the only incumbent running for re-election to the body’s 10 seats on Nov. 2. Overall, only two seats will have candidates on the ballot.
According to Gottlieb Simon, who oversees the operations of the District’s 37 ANCs, if fewer than six of the commission’s 10 seats are filled this November, the body will be dormant. So barring a rash of write-in campaigns, the ANC will be unable to conduct official business, spend money, or lend its counsel to policymakers. (Simon notes, though, that seats can be, and often are, filled after the term begins.)
The uncompensated tedium of serving as an advisory neighborhood commissioner leads to a considerable rate of turnover, but to have nearly an entire commission’s worth of people up and quit with no one offering to replace them, Simon says, is exceedingly rare.
But that’s essentially what ANC 4C is doing: One commissioner cites health reasons for declining to run again. Another seat was vacated by a commissioner who moved to another part of the city. The rest cite the fatigue of public service, as well as another reason: “personality conflicts.” Virtually all the conflicts involve Jones.
Here are a few of the ringing endorsements of Jones from his fellow commissioners:
•“He found it hard to learn people’s personalities,” says George H. Brown.
•“We have not been effective,” says David Jannarone, noting that “the leadership is the problem.”
•“He doesn’t always speak in a clear voice,” says Shawn Fenty. “He’ll just be over there mumbling.”
•“He can’t form simple sentences. You can’t understand him,” says Karen Archer. “He’s just not all there.”
Fenty says he ran for the commission “almost as a personal favor” to his brother, Adrian Fenty, who vacated the seat after being elected to the Ward 4 D.C. Council seat in 2000. Lacking his brother’s panache for bureaucratic maneuvering, Shawn Fenty has long since figured that the vagaries of public office aren’t for him, and the UNTS check was the final straw. “When it degenerated into the petty personality conflicts, it didn’t seem worth it,” he says. “The commission is in disarray, and me coming back wouldn’t really make it better.”
The commissioners say they deferred to Jones’ experience when they selected him as their chair, but under his guidance over the past two years, the commission business has dwindled to a halt in the face of, as Fenty puts it, “crazy bickering sessions” fueled by the chair.
Asked about the flower-pot ordeal, Jones defends his decision: “The check did not meet our commission guidelines,” he says, which state that any grant request must be presented to the ANC by the commissioner whose district it would affect. In this case, one of the commissioners affected was Jones. Because the group went around him, Jones says, he wouldn’t sign the check.
Blackwell says he had tried working with Jones unsuccessfully in years past, but he didn’t bother this year; instead the grant was presented by Archer, whose district also includes part of the UNTS area. Blackwell says Jones has refused to deal with him ever since he offhandedly expressed interest in at some point running for Jones’ ANC seat in 2001.
Into the void created by the mass exodus, three new candidates have seen an opportunity, initially including Nabil Elberry, owner of the Foxy Playground, a now-defunct Georgia Avenue strip club loathed by neighbors. Archer, whose seat Elberry signed up to contest, calls his intentions as a potential commissioner “suspect” and geared up for a write-in campaign to keep him out. The worries ended up moot, however: After neighbors challenged his residency (he listed a Taylor Street towing business as his home), Elberry withdrew his name from the ballot.
Jones declines to comment specifically on the other commissioners’ complaints about him; “The enemy is always within,” he cryptically offers, along with a simple explanation for the glut of vacancies: “It shows a lack of commitment,” he says.
On Nov. 2, Jones will face opposition for his seat from Bill Crandall, a Petworth photographer. When Crandall visited the ANC’s Sept. 14 meeting, he says, “The level of scorn and hostility [among the commissioners] was pretty apparent.”
“It sounds like there’s room for some positive energy in there,” he says.
Even if Jones wins re-election, commissioners concede that another solution to the impasse would be not re-electing Jones as chair. But they don’t want to stick around out of fear he may still pull out a win: “That would solve the issue,” says Jannarone. But “what happens if he’s chairman again? It’s a gamble, and it’s so bad people don’t want to take the chance.”CP