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Some District government agencies are antiques worthy of restoration. Others are ready for the trash heap. The advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) system is indisputably Supercan material. C’mon—you know it’s true.

How many folks even know that there are these things called ANCs? Or that they are supposed to weigh in on government decisions before they are made? Or that, in the current fiscal year, they will suck up $748,000 of government money?

And who even cares? In this month’s election, better than two-thirds of the ANC seats went uncontested. The average voter arrived at the polls expecting to vote for president, the D.C. Council, and the school board, but then was suddenly confronted with strange acronyms—ANC and SMD (for “single-member district”)—and unfamiliar names. In most instances, sample ballots, candidates forums, and mailings guide the electorate in choosing candidates. Yet there is nothing to keep them from slipping into the ANC abyss—no guides or information even on what ANCs do.

Back in 1976, when the District couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a capitalist or a socialist municipality, and civic leaders dreamed of bringing citizens closer to government, 37 ANCs were created throughout the city’s eight wards. The commissions were further subdivided into single-member districts, each home to 2,000 residents. The result was that 299 duly elected individuals would serve as a subbranch of government. The city would provide a budget for staff and other operating costs, and the ANCs would be allowed to raise additional funds, but the groups were prohibited from collecting more than $400 annually from any one source.

ANCs were supposed to advise government on “issues related to zoning, social service programs, health, police protection, sanitation, and recreation,” according to the enabling legislation. Their views would be given “great weight” in decisions made by the executive and legislature. They would make manifest all that rhetoric about government of the people, by the people, and for the people. ANCs would be the people. Great concept.

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Yet in practice, ANC representatives have become the Rodney Dangerfields of District elected officials. They are ignored or dismissed as know-nothings and busybodies. And they haven’t done a bad job of shooting themselves in the feet: There have been reports of infighting, of members locking each other out of offices, of erratic meeting minutes, of denial of access to official files. And there have been cases of missing funds and accusations of theft. One commissioner was convicted of stealing $10,000; she was placed on probation, after promising to repay the stolen funds.

A few years ago, everyone seemed ready to get rid of ANCs. But At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania came to the system’s rescue. As chair of the Committee on Local and Regional Affairs, he introduced and won approval for legislation that established executive-branch liaisons and an Office of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, with a director to train those elected to the posts and ensure that administrative and financial reports are filed accurately and on time.

“When [ANCs] work, they perform an incredible function for the city,” says Catania, explaining his resuscitation effort. “We’re seeing a real renaissance.”

What renaissance? Catania is either blind or dreaming. Of the 299 ANC seats that were to be filled during this month’s general election, 243 went uncontested: 173 with only one official candidate on the ballot, and 70 with no candidates besides write-ins. Two years ago, there were 255 uncontested ANC seats; in 1996, there were 259; and in 1994, there were 208.

It’s not just the uncontested seats that are troubling. It’s also the way people get elected. The rules governing write-in candidates are absolutely outlandish. If your name has been written in, by no matter how few people, you can simply walk into the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and declare yourself the winner. Unless someone else with more votes comes along, the seat belongs to you, say elections officials.

Until the mid-’90s, the officials explain, they recorded the name of each write-in—yes, even Donald Duck—and the number of votes each person had received. Then they hunted down the winners, nearly begging them to accept the honor bestowed on them by their neighbors. Now officials simply wait until someone comes knocking on their door. It’s much easier that way. But is it any way to run an election?

Catania retains his enthusiasm for the system.This year, he says, “in many communities, we saw the kind of competitive races we haven’t seen before.”

Now, that’s true. Take the race in Ward 1, SMD 1B08: Who would have thought Calvin Woodland Jr. could whip Gary Imhoff 311 to 62? Imhoff operates an online neighborhood forum and is the second most visible member of DCWatch, a government watchdog group. Generally, he is considered a man who knows his way around the city and its bureaucracy, and he has some clout. But Woodland had the backing of his councilmember, Jim Graham, who has privately called Imhoff and his wife, Dorothy Brizill, his nemeses. By putting in place his own hand-picked commissioner, Graham hopes to strengthen his political base and remove future barriers to projects he may want to advance, say sources close to the councilmember.

And no one ever expected Ward 5 activist Rick Sowell to lose to Vicky Leonard-Chambers in SMD 5C04 by 44 votes, 273 to 317. Sowell may be best known as the resident captured on a News Channel 8 television report sparring with former Department of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman about instituting the Roving Leader Program, a throwback to the ’70s that is supposed to reduce youth violence in the city. Sowell says he plans to file a suit in D.C. Superior Court to force the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to conduct a revote in this area. He claims that incorrect ballots were handed out to voters and that, although Mary Anigbo withdrew from the race, her name remained on the ballot; Anigbo is better known for her assault a few years ago on a Washington Times reporter, when Anigbo was principal of the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School.

Sandra Butler-Truesdale, a former member of the D.C. Board of Education and one-time council candidate, made a comeback, getting elected to SMD 4C07; her daughter, Tonya Butler-Truesdale, lost her bid in SMD 1B09. The Lockridges—R. Calvin and Wanda—won their respective elections. The former served for many years as the Ward 8 representative on the school board; the latter is the wife of incumbent school board member William Lockridge, who was elected earlier this month to represent the new District 4 school board seat. William and Calvin are cousins. The trio’s victories mean that the Lockridges maintain their political minidynasty.

For some candidates, the ANC seat is a consolation prize. Lenwood “Lenny” Johnson couldn’t win the school board election, but he won his seat for SMD 1A10. Then again, he was the only candidate on the ballot. So was Kathy Henderson in SMD 5B10, who also was an unsuccessful school board candidate. And Johnnie Scott Rice, the Ward 7 Republican who ran against Kevin Chavous, didn’t get her name on the council ballot—she was a write-in—but she made sure it was on the one for ANC. She was the only candidate for the seat in SMD 7E08.

ANCs may be manna for these folks and other political wannabes. For the rest of us, they are just undiluted crap. Ultimately, ANCs do nothing to enhance the civic culture. Those crazy “Taxation Without Representation” tags have a better chance at getting people interested and involved in agitating for improvements in the government.

Besides, residents shouldn’t have to be seduced into good citizenship with namby-pamby, make-believe offices, funded by nearly $1 million in taxpayer funds. Civic organizations or groups like the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), comprising several churches that boast membership of 20,000 families, demonstrate that when citizens are properly stimulated, they will respond. WIN has proved that without government funds or official status, it knows how to get the executive and legislative branches to respond favorably to citizens.

If District officials can admit that the 32-year-old Board of Education structure wasn’t working, they ought be able to grab an armful of newspapers, roll up the ANCs real tight, place them inside one of those 30-gallon black plastic bags, and dump them curbside for tomorrow’s pickup. —Jonetta Rose Barras

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