Della Tanner has been an activist in Anacostia long enough to know the trouble spots in her community. For three decades, she and her neighbors have fought liquor licenses, construction projects, and blighted street cornersoften turning to their elected advocates on Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 8A for support. But now, the trouble spot is the ANC itself.
“The office is shut,” says Tanner. “There haven’t been any advertisements of the [monthly] ANC meetings like we used to have. I know there’s no phonethe last time I called, it was disconnected. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know it’s not functional.”
Tanner doesn’t know the half of it. The Anacostia ANC hasn’t just failed to answer telephones or open its officeit has managed to hold only one official meeting in two years. It has forfeited thousands in D.C. government dollars that could have been funding community programs. And its representatives are tougher to find than a downtown parking space. The breakdown is the work of two scourges familiar in D.C. politics: apathy and financial mismanagement.
“[The ANC has] just disappeared from the face of the earth,” says Anacostia activist Phil Pannell.
The withering of Anacostia’s grass-roots democracy dates back to 1992, when political upstart and retired D.C. firefighter David White was campaigning for a hotly contested ANC seat in his Chicago Street SE neighborhood. Thanks to the redrawing of boundaries in the ANC’s seven districts, White faced two ANC incumbents. The race created an unprecedented tide of community interest, which culminated in a 276-276 tie between White and Hannah Hawkins. Despite losing by one vote after a recount, White resolved to become a player on the ANC, which stretches along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE from the Anacostia River to St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Within two months, White had snared a job as administrator in the ANC’s MLK Avenue office. It was messy work: The city had withheld the commission’s funding for the first three quarters of 1993 on account of record-keeping irregularities. But after White addressed some reporting glitches, the ANC’s full allotment of $32,000 arrived in the final quarter of that fiscal year. White pulled down about $8,000 in wages from the kitty.
White, however, was not content with simply managing the commission’s affairs and challenged Hawkins again in the 1994 ANC elections. This time he prevailed and promptly resigned as office administrator. When the ANC took office in January 1995, White won election as commission chair. And in an even bigger coup, a few months later he managed to recapture his old administrator’s slot as a paid employee.
“I told them I was willing to come back for $300 every two weeks,” White says of his dealworking the same 9-5 weekday shift for which he had been getting a biweekly $441 earlier. “Yeah, it was crazy. But a lot of things that could have been done were not getting done.”
As juicy as White’s conflict of interest was, a stinging May 1995 report by the D.C. Auditor didn’t even bring it up. It had plenty of other material, starting with the $19,000 White had earned before his election. The audit determined that White’s hiring had never been officially ratified by the ANC and that he had been signing his own time sheets and expense reimbursement forms. The audit recommended two options: that the chairperson at the time, a White ally named Lewis Ecker, repay the $19,000 or that the ANC ratify White’s position in a new vote. (It also questioned other financial discrepancies, such as a suspicious theft claim involving a petty cash fund, numerous irregularities in checkbook registers, and various unratified grants made to local organizationsincluding one to which White belonged.)
White’s response to the auditor’s report is somewhat disjointed. At first, he says, “I don’t know why they say those issues were never resolved.” Then he switches to another defense: “There’s minutes to support when I was hired and minutes to support what I was to be paid. If I had stolen all of that money, then they stole two years of my life, because I was there for two years, every day. Nobody stole a thin dime.” Hawkins, however, insists no such minutes exist. “He was never voted in,” she says. “He was an illegal employee.”
The auditor’s office sticks by its May 1995 findings, and White’s ANC hasn’t filed a quarterly report since 1994, an oversight that has prompted a three-year cutoff of city funds to the commission. Despite the dysfunction, Anacostia voters returned all five incumbent candidates to office in the 1996 elections.
Luckily for White, there are a lot of malfunctioning ANCs and plenty of larcenous bureaucrats on the auditor’s hit list. Of 37 ANCs in the city, no fewer than 29 had funds frozen by the auditor last year for failing to file financial reports. That includes one ANC that hasn’t filed reports in more than five years. At one point last spring, Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams held more than $260,000 in frozen allotments.
Although the auditor’s office issued a tough-sounding 30-day deadline for action on its original findings for White’s ANC, the edict expired with no action. A follow-up letter sent in January 1996 set a new 30-day deadline, but that also passed with no action.
“Normally, we would go back and check on these recommendations, but we are so short of staff that it’s something we can’t do as efficiently as we could,” says W. Donald Wright, a staffer for Anthony Cooper, who is leaving his position as D.C. Auditor in December to become head of the D.C. Lottery board. “It might be a while before we can get back to 8A.”
They won’t find much when they get there. White says the commission’s funds were exhausted in mid-1996, when the ANC’s treasurer wrote him a check with the remaining funds as his “compensation.” “When I left as office manager, they owed me at least a month and a half’s pay,” he says.
White says he can’t fix the ANC’s money problems because he can’t get a quorum. “One man is not a quorum,” says White. “I can’t sit there and do all the paperwork myself.”
In White’s defense, the ANC does have some unique attendance problems. For starters, there’s no need to save a seat for commissioner Ecker, who is prohibited by a D.C. court order from leaving the grounds of St. Elizabeths mental hospital, where he has been a ward ever since a 1960s murder charge. Anacostia voters overlooked the court order when they re-elected him last November.
And White says fellow commissioners Al Freeman and Benjamin Davis won’t show for meetings because they bear personal grudges against him. Freeman, however, says he’s ready to convene but complains that White simply never calls meetings. “Quorum or not, we ought to meet at a regular time,” says Freeman.
When asked for an account of how the ANC fell apart, White doesn’t dwell on the poorly kept books and the apparent financial improprieties. Instead, he blames a divisive commission battle in 1995 over Galloway’s Liquors. White and other neighborhood types claimed the liquor store was dealing heroin under the counter. The police followed up on the complaints and busted the store. Under pressure from White, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board subsequently revoked its liquor license.
White says the demise of Galloway’s alienated Davis, and the rest of the ANC followed close behind. “Davis did everything he could not to close that liquor store. He’d been hanging around in there almost every day of his lifeit was a staple he didn’t want to lose,” says White. “Our complete commission fell apart when I closed Galloway Liquors.”
Whatever the cause, White all but concedes that the ANC is dead. “I don’t believe we had a quorum in 1996. Maybe one,” he says. “We definitely haven’t done anything this year.”
That’s bad news to longtime residents like Tanner. ” We’ve got a Metro coming through here, and I don’t know anything about it,” she says. “I’m just interested in the ANC functioning right. I’m not interested in a whole lot of pettiness.” CP