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Re: Article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Washington City Paper (“Democracy Inaction,” 5/29):
I was elected as a member of advisory neighborhood commission 4A in the first elections for ANCs in 1976. To me ANCs were an important vehicle of communication between neighborhood residents and D.C. government. To promote this communication we publicized our meetings, we had a periodic newsletter distributed throughout the ANC, and we established committees that included members of the community, in addition to ANC members. We did this before computers were common in homes, so it took more time, but some of us on the ANC thought it was important.
In 1978, I moved to another ANC area. For a time it seemed that this ANC was also interested in communicating with neighborhood residents, and I was pleased that there was a good working relationship between the ANC and the local civic association. During the past several years, however, there has been a significant lessening in communications between the ANC and neighborhood residents. It has been many years since there has been a newsletter (well before the decrease in funding for ANCs). There is generally no summary in the Northwest Current of what takes place at ANC meetings. The focus of ANC members seems to be concerned not with constituents, but with the opinions of the commissioners themselves, and it appears that some ANC members have come to consider themselves in more or less permanent positions, without regard to how they are responding to and communicating with constituents. There also seem to be somewhat excessive demands on city government officials to come to ANC meetings.
From what I know and read about ANCs, it is very questionable whether many have lived up the intentions of persons who supported their establishment. In this regard, I would note also that Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the City Paper article, attributes the establishment of ANCs to the wishes of residents of Washington who “hungered for empowerment.” As I recall, it was Congressman Donald Fraser of Minnesota who was the primary promoter of ANCs, rather than D.C. residents. I agree with Ta-Nehisi that some, perhaps many, ANCs are not working as intended. The solution, however, is not to give them more power. If we are going to retain ANCs, and I am not sure that we should, then there should be accountability for how funds are spent. There should be a requirement that funds be spent or returned to the city treasury, and not held from year to year. There should be communications with constituents, whose taxes fund the ANCs. There should be term limits, so that commissioners do not treat their positions somewhat as their personal property. If ANCs are filling a need and if people know about them, then there should be other people interested in becoming commissioners. If residents don’t know about them and if ANCs are not serving their intended purpose, then perhaps they are not something that should continue.
With regard to comments of Ta-Nehisi Coates related to funds spent by ANC 4B, I certainly agree that there must be accountability and control over how and for what funds are spent. I disagree, however, that spending money to distribute fliers about meetings is necessarily a poor use of funds. Coates says that elsewhere commissioners do it for free. I would suggest that in many cases, commissioners may not do it at all. To spend funds communicating with constituents and letting them know about meetings and issues is a valid and useful expenditure of funds and one that is consistent with the purpose of ANCs.
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