On the evening of Feb. 3, 1976, a nondescript pickup truck passed through Robert Lewis’ Northwest Washington neighborhood and accidentally dropped what appeared to be several large bags of garbage. Lewis, a former CIA employee, decided to investigate and discern the exact contents of the truck’s lost cargo. “It landed kind of funny,” Lewis later told the Washington Star. “Garbage would have hit and gone bang. But this hit and bounced and fell on its side.” When Lewis opened the bags, he found boxes filled with ballots from the first-ever election of the District’s fledgling advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs). The pickup truck had been carrying the ballots to be counted.

Authorities later recovered the missing boxes—not that there was much to recover. In the first ANC election, only 7 percent of registered voters bothered to participate. In Ward 8, races for half of the ANC seats drew no voters at all—aside from the candidates themselves. And in one race, not even the candidates themselves bothered to cast ballots.

Perhaps the people who had the first opportunity to vote for ANCs way back then sensed what we all have learned by now: A vote for an ANC commissioner is a vote for a title without power and an office without portfolio. It’s democracy at the grass-roots level, yes, but that’s where it stays. Nobody in power pays a whit of attention to the ANCs. They didn’t in 1976. And they don’t now.

When home rule became a reality in 1973, District residents hungered for empowerment at every level. They believed an elected D.C. Council would evict the appointed council that served at the pleasure of Congress. An elected mayor would sweep away his appointed predecessor and serve the people who elected him. And the ANCs would make sure that neither the mayor nor the council would forget the little people.

No one could argue with the ideal behind the ANCs, whose commissioners would serve without pay and without party affiliation. By canvassing their constituents on everything from tax rates to garbage collection, the commissioners would bridge the gap between city hall and the District’s far-flung neighborhoods. It all sounded sweet enough: Give true democracy to the people who need it the most and have experienced it least.

But what started off as a promising civics project has fizzled into a comedy of meaningless votes and mismanaged budgets. Since their inception 22 years ago, ANCs across the city have issued reams of resolutions, proclamations, and mandates. That’s all they produce: Forget about laws, or consensus, or, heaven help us, real change. ANCs still pronounce away, but nobody is listening.

The tendency of the D.C. Council and city agencies to ignore ANCs has eroded whatever measure of respect they temporarily enjoyed. And ANCs don’t even run their own show very well, let alone assist in running the city. They receive dismal marks from the District auditor because treasurers routinely run amok with the funds they receive from the District. If they’re not mismanaging their books, they’re often not spending money at all. It’s not uncommon for ANCs to hold more than $50,000 in anticipation of a rainy day. Every once in a while, the money gets spent, but in a few highly publicized instances, it has been disbursed for personal gain.

In the past few years, the appointocracy has wiped out the popularly elected board of education and emasculated the mayor. Statehood types have repeatedly decried these violations of home rule and democratic rights. But asking District residents to vote for powerless ANCs as a salve is worse than a fig leaf.

If the city manages to keep its budget balanced in the coming years, it will be allowed to throw off the yoke of congressionally appointed rule and try to govern itself again. As that moment approaches, apprehensive residents and politicians will cast about for ways to make sure that $700 million deficits and collapsing agencies don’t return, that democracy produces something besides rhetoric.

A good first step: Replace the ANCs.

Hope B. Etienne never asked to be an ANC commissioner. As a member of Southeast’s Park-Skyland Civic Association, she was already busy enough publishing the association newsletter and booking speakers for association meetings. But her neighbors decided she needed more duties and wrote her name on the empty ballot in the Park-Skyland ANC district in 1996.

Etienne’s first battle as commissioner had been simmering for several years. Since 1994, Habitat for Humanity had been shopping a proposal to build single-family homes in Etienne’s district. Etienne first learned of the proposed development through the civic association. Like most association members, Etienne opposed the development.

Residents voiced a number of concerns about the project: Habitat had failed to provide a playground for the development, which was to be situated on top of a landfill. Building codes required some sort of reinforcement for the lots the proposed houses were to sit on, but Habitat chose the cheaper option—railroad ties over concrete—and the community went ballistic. The citizens association collected 70 signatures opposing the move, while Etienne’s ANC launched a massive push to persuade the council and District agencies that the project was a mistake. The upshot of this glorious march of democracy?

“We wrote everybody on the council about this, and nobody did anything,” Etienne says.

Habitat’s ability to trump Etienne’s ANC is just one example of the District government’s wanton flouting of ANC recommendations. In spite of the fact that ANCs are instruments of neighborhood will, councilmembers have never put much stock in the reams of resolutions they produce.

From the moment home rule unleashed the ANCs on the District, councilmembers began devising ways to keep them down. In a recent Washington Post piece, former council chair Arrington Dixon noted that councilmembers were “concerned about junior city council people coming at them and rattling their cages. You had to watch [the ANCs].”

Watch them flounder, that is. The architects of home rule—many of whom went on to elected positions in D.C. government—made sure the ANCs would never challenge the city’s ruling class. Originally, commissioners weren’t even allowed to meet with their counterparts from other ANCs—a restriction that offended the First Amendment, not to mention activist commissioners. Though this rule was eventually jettisoned, the charter divested the ANCs of decision-making authority, insisting that the council and city agencies merely give ANC resolutions “great weight” when reviewing a matter. The vague standard was a license to ignore ANC recommendations altogether.

The toothlessness of ANCs extends to crime, an issue that preoccupies most neighborhood groups in D.C. Capitol Hill ANC Commissioner Dennis Dolinger has lived in his neighborhood for 22 years. About two years ago, he started getting complaints from constituents about a crack house on the 1600 block of E Street Southeast. The house had been severely damaged in a fire years earlier and was therefore an ideal spot for drug dealers and users.

Neighbors of the blighted property weren’t asking for much; they just wanted city authorities to shutter the place with cinder blocks—standard procedure for hollowed-out structures. They appealed to then-Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil and didn’t get much help, so they turned to Dolinger, their commissioner.

Invoking the full weight of his commissioner status, Dolinger wrote to Brazil and his successor, Sharon Ambrose. Nothing happened, even though Brazil—after switching to an at-large council seat—took control of the committee that oversees the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which is responsible for shutting down crack houses. It took two full years of agitating by Dolinger, his ANC colleagues, and concerned citizens to get DCRA to close this single crack house. Dolinger, head of his ANC’s nuisance property task force, has a long list of other houses that remain untouched. He isn’t optimistic that the ANC’s concerns will become a priority down at the council. “I don’t believe they give much weight to us,” says Dolinger.

The ANCs aren’t the only ones in the business of representing the interests of D.C.’s neighborhoods. The District’s civic associations date back to the District’s first civic problems. Historian Robert R. Hirshman traces the origins of civic associations back to 1878, when Congress suspended a temporary period of home rule and gave federally appointed commissioners governing power over the District. Divided along racial lines until the 1960s, the associations long served as the voice of many D.C. residents.

The city’s first crop of ANC commissioners purported to represent communities that had already found ways to organize, to clean up their alleys, and to press for better services from city hall. Granted, the civic associations did not adhere to the strictly democratic ways of an ANC—they were generally dominated by cabals of hyperactivists who wouldn’t necessarily survive community-wide elections. Yet association leaders never hesitated to speak for their neighborhoods.

They still do, often at the expense of the ANCs.

In the spring of 1995, JR’s Bar and Grill at 17th and Church Streets NW applied to the city for a license to operate a sidewalk cafe. Before the city could rule on the application, though, the Dupont Circle ANC was asked to lend its great weight to the matter.

The application should have been a piece of routine ANC business: Dupont Circle establishments frequently applied for sidewalk cafes. JR’s, however, was different. Led by members of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), the opposition argued that the club was too noisy and differed from neighboring restaurants with outdoor cafes in one key respect: It served almost nothing but alcohol and therefore attracted a boisterous crowd. Supporters pointed out that the strip was a thriving commercial area and that JR’s was one of the few establishments that lacked outdoor space.

At some point, the two sides abandoned all civility. JR’s proponents were cast as conniving and unprincipled, and opponents of the gay club

as homophobic.

More than 100 Dupont Circle residents packed the June 1995 ANC meeting on JR’s. On the table was a compromise resolution designed to address the concerns of the club’s opponents. Under the resolution, JR’s would have had to serve food and close its outdoor cafe an hour earlier than other outdoor joints on the strip. Over the vociferous objections of the DCCA, the ANC voted to support the compromise and sent it along to the Department of Public Works’ public space committee for approval. (Full disclosure moment: The Washington City Paper’s senior editor served on the ANC.)

At a hearing of the public space committee months later, JR’s supporters discovered that DCCA carried greater weight in city hall than the ANC. The committee voted down the ANC resolution. JR’s would have to keep its business indoors.

Four years ago, Takoma, D.C., resident Paul Montague decided to launch a campaign to bring every commissioner on his ANC to court. In 1991, Montague had begun to notice that commissioners were trying to hide their quarterly reports from constituents. After some wrangling, Montague managed to get his hands on some of the reports and noticed some serious accounting irregularities. Montague asserted that since 1976, ANC 4B had embezzled over $90,000 in taxpayer dollars. “I told them, ‘If you keep stealing, so help me God I’ll shut this ANC down,’” says Montague.

Under District law, all ANCs must be audited at least every other year. Although the audit of Montague’s ANC did not support all of his claims, it did find some unsavory practices. Chief among them was that between 1990 and 1994, commissioners in ANC 4B had paid themselves more than $17,000 to distribute fliers advertising ANC meetings—a job that commissioners everywhere else do for free.

Payment of commissioners is a violation of ANC rules, but 4B chair Vannie Taylor says the ANC used the money to pay local kids to distribute fliers. Montague doesn’t buy it and points out that the audit turned up no evidence to validate Taylor’s defense. “That’s a damn lie,” says Montague, “Why aren’t there any vouchers, then?”

At the very least, the commissioners in 4B insufficiently documented their expenditures, leaving them open to more sinister charges. Whatever the civic lesson, the financial one is clear: Qualified, civic-minded bookkeepers are not on hand in every neighborhood.

4B isn’t alone in its shoddy bookkeeping. The D.C. Auditor has documented a citywide plague of fiscal mismanagement and even outright corruption. The most recent audit available, detailing activities of fiscal year 1996, notes that the majority of the mandatory quarterly reports raise concerns about record-keeping and cash disbursements. “In several instances quarterly reports that were submitted, did not have appropriate signatures, records of votes approving the report, grant request letters or bank statements,” reads the audit.

It’s hardly a surprise. After all, the city invests almost nothing in training ANCs to manage their budgets. There’s one annual workshop for ANC treasurers, but it apparently teaches them little. Instead of getting steady guidance from city authorities, they’re left to thumb through ANC bylaws to figure out what constitutes a legitimate expense, how to categorize disbursements, and so on. “Money management is a severe problem,” says former commissioner Albrette “Gigi” Ransom. “When a councilmember comes into office, they get some type of government training. ANCs go to one orientation, but there’s no real substance to our training.”

Some commissioners, of course, have found a simple alternative to standard accounting practices: Just take what you want. Charges of improper fund management are as old as the ANCs themselves. In 1977, Edward H. Moore, a Ward 2 commissioner, wrote the Washington Star to complain about his fellow commissioners paying themselves out of ANC funds. Since the inception of the ANCs, at least four commissioners have been charged with stealing money from their commissions.

But none did it as prolifically as University Heights ANC chair Mary Treadwell, ex-wife of Mayor Marion Barry. Last year, a throng of FBI officials kicked in the door of Treadwell’s ANC office and seized financial records that she’d refused to hand over to other commissioners. The auditor’s office accused Treadwell of embezzlement, and she eventually pled guilty. It was the second time Treadwell had been convicted of embezzlement: She went to jail for skimming federal rent subsidies back in 1983. Her handling of funds split the ANC into warring factions that broke out along racial lines and prompted the auditor’s office to recommend cutting off the group’s funds.

Even though Treadwell confessed to embezzlement, a formidable faction of her ANC remained loyal to her, blocking attempts by opponents to elect a new chair. The D.C. financial control board expressed its disapproval of the ANC’s shenanigans by cutting its budget in half. Commissioners say the punitive measure has made it hard to fulfill basic office needs.

But the ANCs’ biggest problem isn’t churning through money—it’s not spending their budgets. The 37 ANCs each year receive a little more than $500,000 from the District treasury, an amount designed to cover the commissions’ operating expenses and fund neighborhood activities and improvements. Judging from the 1996 audit, however, dishing out cash is just too much to ask of ANC commissioners. In 1996, 37 percent of the citywide ANC allocation went unspent. Mount Pleasant’s ANC, for example, spent none of its funds that year. “Mount Pleasant has always had strong ANCs, but we had an open seat and couldn’t re-elect because of the rules,” says commissioner Bonnie Cain. “No one wanted to serve as treasurer, and we couldn’t get a quorum.” The upshot? The ANC newsletter wasn’t published, the ANC’s annual Mount Pleasant Pride Day was canceled, and the annual Mount Pleasant Festival went on without ANC support.

The Petworth ANC spent only 9 percent of its 1996 allocation, a figure that commissioner Gregory Bridges estimates has climbed to 10 percent this year. And that 10 percent, says Bridges, has paid for both legitimate and questionable ANC projects, like producing newsletters and buying flowers for constituents. The commissioners wanted to give away grants but could never get a quorum to discuss specific criteria for their issuance. As a result, the ANC has more than $50,000 waiting to be spent, Bridges estimates.

And it will continue to sit there until the community finds some new commissioners. “No quorum, no business,” says Bridges.

Civil service is part of Gigi Ransom’s family heritage. Ransom’s grandmother helped found the New York Police Athletic League. So when she settled into her East Capitol Hill neighborhood, Ransom thrust herself into community affairs, taking over as ANC commissioner for 6B10.

Ransom was active with kids, launching back-to-school notebook giveaways and establishing a computer learning center in a neighborhood church. She also created community service opportunities for parolees and children by organizing them to shovel snow during the blizzard of 1996. The D.C. Federation of Civic Associations named her Office of the People’s Counsel Consumer Advocate of the Year, and she also became the first commissioner nominated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments for its Public Service Award. When people think about what an ANC commissioner should be, they’re thinking of Ransom.

Like any public official worth her title, Ransom made enemies. Fellow commissioners, she says, occasionally snarled at her for “being a threat to the status quo,” as she puts it. She also angered local drug dealers when she loudly opposed an application for a 24-hour barber shop. Ransom’s penchant for controversy had a price. Over the period from August of 1997 to January 1998 Ransom’s tires were slashed 18 times; she was assaulted twice and threatened with a gun.

Although Ransom expected to catch hell from neighborhood thugs, she didn’t quite expect the treatment she received from fellow commissioners and city authorities. “No respect,” says Ransom, “The overall impact is that the city doesn’t respect you, and of course the criminals don’t respect you.”

Ransom quit her ANC and doesn’t plan to return.

D.C. Board of Elections spokesman Bill O’Field says 25 of the 299 citywide ANC seats are currently vacant. In the 1996 elections, 155 of those seats went uncontested. Those statistics alone cast doubt on the ANCs’ viability.

The apathy toward ANCs has many explanations—their powerlessness, the political malaise of the District as a whole, and divisive community disputes. The structure of the ANCs themselves is a fundamental part of the problem. The ANC map divides the city into 299 bite-size chunks, little so-called “single-member districts” that fail to register with voters. The University Heights ANC, for example, has 12 districts. “Many people out in the community don’t really understand what the ANCs are,” says Capitol Hill’s Dolinger.

A D.C. elections official notes that voters often punch the slots for mayor, councilmembers, and school board members—and then skip over the ANC contest. “Most residents who know the ANCs exist don’t even vote for them,” says political gadfly John Capozzi.

And even if an ANC district votes in a full slate of commissioners, that hardly guarantees that the people’s work will proceed. A commissioner with a personal agenda can cripple an ANC almost at will by preventing a quorum from being reached. Without a quorum, defined as one more than half of the commissioners, an ANC can’t pass recommendations, approve a budget, or conduct any official business. When commissioners fear losing a critical vote, they can boycott the meeting and prevent the commission from acting. Personal rivalries among commissioners often drive the boycotts. “You find that ANCs tend to personalize a lot of decisions,” says Ransom.

In 1991, the six-member Georgetown ANC was paralyzed because two of the commissioners were bitter enemies who voted against each other on nearly every measure. Each commissioner had two allies on the ANC who voted in lockstep, producing months of gridlock.

In 4B, legendary for its endless squabbles, getting a quorum is well nigh impossible. 4B has 10 districts but only six official commissioners. In order to reach a quorum, 4B needs to have all six present—an event that hasn’t occurred in years.

At a recent ANC 4B meeting, only four official commissioners showed. Taylor, the chairman, was not present, and the commission’s secretary resigned on the spot. Throughout the meeting commissioners walked out until only two remained: Commissioner Robert Richards Sr. and unofficial commissioner Pat Kidd. Enraged residents attacked them, complaining about abandoned buildings and drug havens that hadn’t been dealt with in years. One resident noted that 4B hasn’t been effective in six years. Without a quorum, that term of ineptitude seems destined for extension.

But even when ANCs don’t have rogue commissioners, they can be hampered by vacancies in the ANC that prevent commissioners from reaching a quorum. The quorum equation is not based on the total number of sitting commissioners but on the number of seats—both vacant and active. Two vacancies and one commissioner absent for personal reasons can prevent some ANCs from conducting official business at their monthly meetings.

ANC 8B, with four vacancies, has been unable to conduct official business since 1997 because of this restriction. With their ANCs thus hogtied, local agencies are free to ignore whatever great weight ANCs are supposed to wield on the community’s behalf.

A spokesperson for Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who heads the Committee on Government Operations, says that new legislation will allow ANCs to calculate quorums based only on the number of sitting commissioners—statutory recognition of the ANCs’ inviability.

The District is one of the most underrepresented political jurisdictions in America. With one councilmember for each of the eight wards plus five citywide seats, the city has one legislator for every 40,000 residents. Combine this overburdened system with the inept and ineffectual ANCs, and it becomes clear why taxpayers never stop complaining about accountability.

Although the ANCs have the numbers to stay in direct touch with their communities, they lack the juice to make their mandates stick. The council has the reverse problem—plenty of juice but little outreach.

To resolve the disparities between the city’s governing structures, Tim Cooper of Democracy First has proposed a state legislature model for the District. Under Cooper’s vision, the ANCs and the D.C. Council would merge into a brand-new legislature, with 120 part-time representatives paid $8,000 a year—a sharp drop-off from councilmembers’ current $80,000 annual salary. “The ANCs are the true grass roots, but they have no power,” says Cooper. “When you don’t have that legislative link, you erode the energy for activism at the grass-roots level.”

At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz recently held a hearing on Cooper’s proposal. But Cooper says a larger legislature conflicts with the self-interest of Schwartz and her fellow councilmembers. “The council doesn’t want to dilute any of their power,” says Cooper.

Few observers believe that the council would seriously consider changing a status quo that gives them a big share of the limited power available in the District.

“The ANC structure is doomed to failure,” says Capozzi. “But the council likes anything that keeps them in high levels of power. Despite the sincere effort on the part of most ANCs, their power just isn’t recognized.”

Commissioners give the proposal mixed reviews. Robert Fleming, a commissioner for the Mount Pleasant ANC, notes that he has had problems with the council but says that his ANC has an effective relationship with the District’s agencies. “It would take forever to get things done,” Fleming says of Cooper’s system. Adams Morgan ANC Chairman Todd Mosley says that Cooper’s proposal “moves in the right direction.”

“If we had some power to approve or disapprove, you’d see a big change,” says Dolinger. “And you’d see a lot more interest in the ANCs.” Ransom is also supportive of the measure: “I’m all for it,” says Ransom. “I know the numbers are high, but we’ve got to get more people in power positions.” Other municipalities give neighborhood organizations the ability to veto or approve their own projects, a fact of life that quickly gives those governing structures credibility and influence.

Cooper says that he and his allies will now take the effort to Capitol Hill—a place with a short attention span for proposals to enhance democracy in town. But any proposal that starts with a critical examination of D.C.’s feckless ANCs is probably worth considering.CP