Armed with files, stacks of photocopies, and tape recorders, members of the Columbia Heights advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) eye one another uneasily as they shuffle in, pour coffee into plastic mugs, and take their seats. Vice Chair Ida Lowe Blocker calls the May 21 meeting to order. All rise as she recites a prayer “for those in authority” and for the city of Washington.
The 11 commissioners at tonight’s rendezvous have ostensibly gathered at Howard University to conduct business, but it becomes immediately apparent that the only real item on the agenda is political infighting. After Blocker notes that there are no minutes from the previous meeting, Gary Imhoff, a commissioner sitting at the other end of the table, announces that he has brought his own minutes and begins to distribute them. In the process, he ignites a 45-minute debate.
Blocker declares that the commission is not responsible for the contents of the minutes. Sitting at Blocker’s side, ANC secretary Catherine Hammonds demands to know if Imhoff has elected himself secretary.
“We will have order tonight,” declares Blocker, optimistically.
The palpable animosity has less to do with the minutes than with a deep and resilient fissure that split the commission over two months ago. D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper accused the ANC’s former chair, Mary Treadwell, of improperly diverting $10,900 allocated by the city for community services. A federal grand jury is now looking into the charges. Treadwell, who is Mayor Marion Barry’s former wife and works in the mayor’s Office of Policy, has denied wrongdoing.
In the 22 years since they were established under the home rule charter, the District’s 37 ANCs have provided a soapbox for loudmouth activists but have never wielded any power in city politics. Symbols of hard-fought democracy, the commissions are elected by the public to debate liquor licenses, zoning regulations, and the like. But infighting, coupled with a lack of statutory authority over neighborhood issues, have turned this democratic experiment into a civic embarrassment. The recent developments in Columbia Heights illustrate just how badly the experiment has failed.
Ever since Cooper issued his audit, the ANC’s meetings have become first unseemly and eventually farcical, as many members have refused to attend. Tonight, for the first time in months, the commission has a quorum. But at this ANC, quorums don’t last long beyond roll call.
Seconds into the meeting, commissioners are doing what they do bestarguing over parliamentary procedures to the exclusion of their neighborhood’s real problems.
Commissioner Lawrence Guyot, at Blocker and Hammond’s side, moves to reject the minutes. The other members debate Guyot’s rationale. Then they argue over how the motion was phrased. The vice chair inexplicably announces that the vote has been taken, whereupon her colleagues inform her no votes have been taken. After clearing that up, the commissioners argue over whether the chair is allowed to vote.
A member of the sparse audience raises his hand. “Sides have been taken here….The group that’s left out are the people that live in ANC 1B,” he says quietly. “It’s an insult to the community….You better get on with governing this thing before somebody gets really mad.”
The bickering proceeds unabated until, two motions later, the commission finally votes to reject the minutes. Jan Gray, one of the new members, moves into the audience to dissociate herself from the proceedings.
Five minutes later, half the commission gets up and leaves the meeting altogether. Although the remaining members do not constitute a quorum, they continue to do business, electing a new acting chair and voting on commission issues.
D.C. residents baffled by their city’s tolerance for waste, cronyism, and mismanagement should attend a Columbia Heights ANC meeting, assuming the group ever holds another one.
Although the charges against Treadwell are severe and damning, a group of her fellow ANC representatives has gone on the offensive, frequently refusing to meet with a group of commissioners that has condemned her alleged wrongdoing and appealed for new leadership. Petty factionalism and posturing, at the expense of good governing, appear to thrive at the grass-roots level as well as at 1 Judiciary Square.
Before the auditor released his report, Treadwell predicted that the findings would clear the commission. But Cooper found myriad deficiencies and striking evidence of mishandled funds. Some of the ANC’s payments had not been authorized by commissioners, Cooper charged, and taxes were not withheld from certain paychecks. When the auditor asked for copies of the ANC’s canceled checks, the commission came up 200 checks short. Finally, FBI agents broke into the office and found the missing checks in a tidy folder. Earlier this month, two people whose names appear on ANC checks told the Washington Post their signatures were forged.
Treadwell’s position in the middle of the mess comes as little surprise. In 1983, Treadwell was convicted of conspiracy for skimming rental subsidies from tenants of the Clifton Terrace low-income housing complex. Once released from prison, she took a job from Barry at the D.C. Parole Board and later moved on to her job in the mayor’s office. For five of her six years on the ANC, Treadwell has served as chair, and she has hired two employees with prior criminal records.
Along with his scathing report, the auditor handed the ANC a long list of recommendations: Find out where diverted funds went and get them back, come up with a quarterly financial report (something the ANC hadn’t delivered in five quarters), and complete within 60 days an accounting of all ANC spending, which has totaled about $185,000 over the last three years. The ANC’s funds are currently frozen.
Since the report came out, the ANC has held five meetingssort of. No more than half the commission showed up at any of them before last week. Without a quorum, no official business can be conducted. Many of the auditor’s reform recommendations have yet to be enacted, and the commission’s bylaws are in limbo. The result is an ANC that can’t vote, won’t communicate, and languishes in stubborn stagnation.
The 12 Columbia Heights commissioners fall into two hostile camps: One side consists primarily of newer commissioners, including the ANC’s three white members. The other group is made up of all the executive officers, who have been around longer and who seem reluctant to hold Treadwell accountable for the lost funds.
Tom Coumaris is one of their adversaries, although he has served on the ANC for five years and has lived in the neighborhood for three decades. “A lot of new commissioners are resented by the old commissioners,” Coumaris says.
Blocker, of the old-school camp, says she doesn’t know what her ANC has been doing for the last two and a half months. She didn’t go to the last four meetings because they weren’t called by executive board members, and so, according to her, they weren’t official. The ANC’s bylaws, she says, support her conclusion. But the public has no right to see those bylaws, she claims.
“If I discussed anything, I probably wouldn’t be current on anything.” In sum, she says, “I am not at liberty to discuss anything because I don’t know anything.”
The ANC cannot take any action on the auditor’s recommendations without voting. And it can’t vote until a majority of the 12 members show up for a meetingand stay there. Only six ANC commissionersmost of whom oppose Treadwellshowed up for a special April 1 meeting to hear the auditor’s presentation, according to Imhoff. At the monthly meeting held on April 9, five commissioners of the same faction appeared and called another special meeting for April 23. The same six from the auditor’s meeting returned. Finally, at the May 14 regular meeting, only three commissioners bothered to appear, Imhoff reports.
Imhoff stands firmly in the “pro-auditor” camp, as he puts it. He claims his team called all those meetings so that the ANC could get busy fixing itself. But the others won’t cooperate, he says, because they are “angry not at what the auditors said but that an audit happened at all.” They think the embezzlement allegations are “just politics,” Imhoff says.
Like Blocker, Guyot says he didn’t show up to the earlier meetings because they weren’t real. “The bylaws are very clear. The only people who can call ANC meetings are members of the executive committee.”
The bylaws for ANC 1B are indeed very clear. They say special meetings can be called by “the Executive Committee or by written request of one-sixth of the Commission Membership.” All the meetings that Guyot’s faction missed were called by well over one-sixth of the membership.
No matter, Guyot says, maintaining that the meetings should not have existed: “I feel that ANC meetings can and should be called by the executive committee.” He claims the members passed a resolution to suspend the old bylaws earlier this year, so they are no longer relevant. But the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel notified the ANC last month that it could never suspend its own bylaws. To date, the ANC cannot even seem to agree on the rules by which it operates.
Technicalities aside, the ANC’s executive officers did not even attend the regular monthly meetings scheduled by Treadwell. Guyot says that’s because his colleagues needed time to “develop a position.”
“The entire commission has come under an attack that has a quasi-vigilante tinge to it….We were making sure that we had enough advice to deal adequately with the onslaught,” Guyot says.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this ANC has gone through the looking glass and into a land where logic and causality have no bearing. At last week’s meeting, Guyot introduced a resolution to adopt some of the auditor’s recommendations. But the list of accounting reforms does not include the most important mandate: to investigate thousands of dollars in lost funds and make every effort to retrieve the money. It didn’t matter much, though, because the ANC passed Guyot’s resolution without a quorumrendering the decision meaningless. Guyot claims the ANC was operating in an emergency session and didn’t need a quorum. Imhoff outright rejects the commission’s ability to do such a thing. But he does not seem surprised.
“Lawrence Guyot isn’t persuaded by facts,” Imhoff says. “His position is based on what’s convenient at the time.”
The back-and-forth gets dizzying, even for ANC die-hards. The investigation over the missing funds ultimately seems tangential to a deeper sickness. In the typical ANC, Coumaris says, “you have a lot of people who are big fish in small ponds and you throw them all together.” Talking about his tenure at ANC 1B, Coumaris uses words like “nasty,” “uncivil,” and “venomous.” In D.C., he says, “You have to have a very thick skin to be involved in neighborhood affairs.”
Coumaris says he has received one death threat and one obscene phone call stemming from the ANC’s current crisis. As he walked down the hall, abandoning the latest meeting, Coumaris muses that his faction may attempt to force a recall election of the other, or vice versa.
Behind him, the remaining commissioners continue to plow through the evening’s agenda. Blocker reads aloud a letter from Treadwell announcing her resignation as chair, and the six members still at the table move to elect Guyot as the ANC’s acting chair.
“I am honored,” he says, and moves to adjourn the meeting.CP