Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A Chair Daniel Pernell carved out a new boundary for grass-roots political rhetoric at a meeting last week: “I gave up my sex life…for the ANC,” said Pernell to a packed audience at St. James Episcopal Church on 8th Street NE.
Pernell had a good reason to play up the sacrifice theme: He was facing removal as chair by fellow commissioners opposed to his leadership style. Pernell’s opponents had begun circulating a resolution calling for his ouster following revelations that he had solicited a $20 contribution from Ethel Harper, an H Street restaurateur with business before ANC 6A (LL, “Checkbook Diplomacy,” 4/16). Pernell deposited the contribution into his own checking accountan ANC rules violation that prompted an investigation by D.C.’s Inspector General.
The referendum on Pernell’s tenure turned into a big political eventdrawing such luminaries as At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, renowned flake Faith, and community types Sally Byington and John Capozzi.
The crowd had mustered with the expectation that a Pernell-led ANC could always furnish what even the Tuesday edition of 20/20 can’t: real-life grudges, off-color insults, and the possibility of a fistfight among elected officialsa scene normally reserved for Asian parliaments. Pernell and his colleagues complied on nearly every front, bickering over parliamentary procedure and shouting just above the melodies of the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Washington, which was rehearsing in the room above.
Pernell himself justified the cost of admission, employing stall tactics that could slow down only a deliberative body as lame as the ANC. In an early effort to forestall a vote on his leadership, Pernell said that he hadn’t received the resolution in a timely manner. When fellow commissioner Darryl Walker said he had witnessed Pernell receiving the document, the chairman replied, “I never open envelopes in the presence of others.”
And once the chairman had used his sex life to plead for his ANC power line, no trump card was off-limits. “I have fought against white, bigoted institutions before,” he said, referring to his tenure at the Library of Congress. “Just like I am now.” Pernell neglected to explain how his 14-member ANC, which has 10 black members, wields its racism.
With each utterance, Pernell sank the city’s 23-year experience with neighborhood democracy into further disrepute.
Maintaining order at the meeting required the vigilance of no fewer than three Metropolitan Police Department officers. The beefiest of the trio, Lou Ferrigno-sized officer T.E. Hardy, stood with his arms folded behind Pernell and Brazil, whom ANC members had drafted to mediate the meeting. Hardy called for order several times and even lurched at a couple of commissioners, who quickly corrected their behavior.
Not even Hardy, though, could prevent the meeting from ending in a tense drawwith Pernell still standing and his colleagues yelling that they’d been wronged. After two-and-a-half hours of nattering, the ANC never even managed a vote on the resolution it had convened to consider. The cops hurried the crowd onto the street.
On the following night, police were again called out to play ANC parliamentarians at large, this time in Shaw. At the conclusion of a monthly meeting last Wednesday night, ANC 2C commissioners Leroy Thorpe and Norma Davis charged that fellow commissioner Lydia Goring had absconded with the cassette tape of the night’s proceedings. Sensing an immediate threat to public safety, Thorpe called in D.C.’s finest.
The scene that ensued could have come straight out of Adam 12, with Thorpe, Davis, and a police cruiser chasing Goring on the rugged streets of Shaw. After a short ride, they caught their suspect chatting with a neighbor on the 400 block of M Street. Goring refused to surrender the tape and volunteered to be arrested, according to an informed source. The situation confused an officer on the scene, who radioed for backup. Once the backup arrived, the assembled cops decided that the dispute involved political transgressions, not criminal ones. They left commissioners to wrangle over the tape.
Police Chief Charles Ramsey faces several obstacles in his quest to blanket city streets with patrol officers: funding problems, cruiser shortages, and the department’s legendary deskocracy. Now add the ANCs to D.C.’s list of police responsibilities.
To boost crime prevention in the citynot to mention the credibility of its political systemit is time to abolish D.C.’s ANCs.
A glance at the numbers demonstrates the depth of the ANCs’ failure. TK reports over the past TK years by the D.C. Auditor have condemned ANC accounting miscues and other abuses. Twenty-four percent of the city’s registered voters don’t even have an ANC rep, because no one has bothered to run. Among the other fun facts unearthed by LL, there is only one registered voter in ANC 6C01, and in last year’s election, ANC 8B had no declared candidates on the ballot.
No wonder, then, that the ANCs have trouble getting the ear of decision makers downtown. The commissions churn out enough resolutionson everything from the Pennsylvania Avenue blockade to tax cutsto fill the Fort Totten dump, which is a suitable destination for them. When they oppose seamy liquor establishments, they get steamrolled by K Street lawyers; and when they hold forth on bigger policy issues, they bring little credibility to bear. After all, each commission represents roughly one-thirty-seventh of the D.C. populace. Democracy without power yields procedural bumbling and ineffective government.
Propose abolishing the ANCs to any good-government activist, and you’ll get a predictable response: The majority of ANCs provide a critical public forum and take up issues that affect residents’ quality of life. “They’re like the girl with the curlicue in the middle of her forehead,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “When they’re good, they’re really good. And when they’re bad, they’re horrific.”
Whatever they are, they’re not worth fighting for. As the high number of uncontested elections demonstrates, only the greenest of do-gooders take seriously the requirementlaid out in the 197TK legislation that implemented the commissionsthat the D.C. Council and regulatory agencies accord “great weight” to ANC rulings. Unable from the very beginning to wield real power, too many of the bodies have failed to attract motivated candidates and real scrutiny. In the vacuum, people like Pernell appeared to further abuse the quarrelsome bodies.
The preservation of ANCs is no longer a priority even for home rule warriors. Democracy First Executive Director Timothy Cooper last January testified before a panel chaired by At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz in favor of replacing the ANCs and the council with a 120-member legislature. “Since then, we have heard not a word from Schwartz, not a word from D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and not a word from the mayor,” says Cooper.
He can’t be surprised. D.C.’s political establishment would sooner share office space with the Republican Caucus than cede power to 120 neighborhood activists who unlike the ANCswould wield real clout. But At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who has held several hearings on the ANC crisis, does say the council will consider all kinds of reform proposals at hearings this summer. “We need to take a look at how we are going to make this better,” says Catania.
Democracy First’s plan is as implausible as the current system is embarrassing. As a former ANC commissioner, LL’s solution is to keep D.C. Council intact, abolish the ANCs, and replace them with eight subcouncilsone for each ward. Nine elected officials would staff each subcouncil, which would rule on the same issues as the ANCsliquor licenses, zoning disputes, city planning, and so forth.
The subcouncil plan would erase all the nonsense that has made the ANCs laughingstocks. First, the panels would anchor their constituents to familiar political turfthe wardsand discard the airline-gate terminology used to designate the ANCs. What the hell is an ANC 7A? 4B? 2F? Anyone who knows the answers without reference materials should be barred from all public meetings in the District.
Another bonus: Subcouncils would free up the D.C. Auditor and inspector general to investigate more pressing matters. No longer could commissioners shanghai public funds and otherwise abuse their authority in secret. By consolidating the sprawling map of 37 commissions into a tidy eight bodies, the plan would open the system to the scrutiny of freelance watchdogs all across town, people like Dorothy Brizill, Paul Savage, and Beth Solomon.
The broader constituencies of the subcouncils would vest them with greater weight than the ANCs. And if LL were drafting the legislation, their decisions would be finalunless the council and the agencies specifically rebutted subcouncil opinions before overturning them.
And, best of all, the plan would provide some competition at the polls for Pernell, who skated unopposed to re-election last November.
When Mayor Anthony A. Williams in January named Max Brown as his legal counsel, he circulated a résumé touting his appointee’s “more than ten years of professional experience in the legislative and legal arena…” Brown’s years in the legal trenches may have prepared him well to assist the mayor with labor relations, control board power-sharing disputes, and contracting regulations.
But according to eight members of the D.C. Council, Brown’s CV comes up a bit short to qualify him as the next corporation counsel, an appointment that Williams has been quietly promoting in recent weeks.
The council, in fact, has gone to the extremes of specifying just how much more experience Brown needs before taking over the position John Ferren vacated on April 19. In a bill introduced on May 5, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and seven colleagues stipulate that the corporation counsel should have “not less than 12 years of legal experience…and a record of accomplishment in litigation and management.”
Question: Is the council really that worried about Brown’s two-year experience deficit, or is it just that they can’t stand the guy? The idea that Brown would occupy the office most recently held by legal heavyweights Ferren and Charles F.C. Ruff irked the many denizens of One Judiciary Square who’d had opportunity to rub up against Williams’ famously abrasive staffer.
Under the ancien régime of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., of course, the council would have approved willy-nilly any appointment advanced by the mayor. But in today’s climate of open mayor-council hostility, disputes get aired in the council chambers, the newspapers, and the pending-legislation box at the council’s Office of Legislative Services. By merely putting the bill into circulation, Patterson has all but headed off a Brown appointmenta dynamic that she alluded to in a May 5 letter to the mayor: “While I am not certain how quickly this legislation will move, I wanted you to have the benefit of the viewpoint of a majority of the councilmembers while considering a new corporation counsel, since the position requires council approval,” wrote Patterson.
When asked about his prospects as the corporation counsel appointee, Brown followed Rule No. 1 in the office seeker’s handbook: Don’t bare your ambitions. “I am happy to serve the mayor and hope to continue to do so,” Brown told LL. And if the council perseveres, his service to the mayor won’t involve an office move.
* Every time residents of Ward 8 look up, they discover something new about the positions of their elected leaders on a proposed prison at Oxon Cove. The latest surprise came in a packet of materials prepared by John Ray, a lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private prison operator that has its sights set on Ward 8.
Among Ray’s documents is an Aug. 3, 1998, letter from Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen and Patterson to the mayor’s office. The letter calls on “appropriate executive branch officials” to negotiate with CCA for the use of over 10 acres of D.C.-owned land “to facilitate CCA’s proposal to the federal Bureau of Prisons to develop a correctional facility.”
At the time the letter was written, Allen was supposedly undecided on the divisive prison issue. Under heavy pressure, she declared her opposition to the facility last fall, but she remains suspect in the eyes of anti-prison die-hards.
The involvement of Patterson, who has yet to issue a public position on the project, is even more baffling. “Here you have a white woman in Ward 3 telling Ward 8 that they should have a new prison,” says project opponent Eugene DeWitt Kinlow. “I thought politicians were supposed to know better than that.” CP
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