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Mary Treadwell learned a few lessons about political survival when she was married to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. back in the ’70s. Her former husband has shown that he will drag down the nation’s capital before giving up the city’s top elective post. Taking a cue from her ex, Treadwell is battling just as hard to cling to the bottom rung of the District’s political ladder as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Life.

Treadwell has served three two-year terms on Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 1B, which encompasses Columbia Heights and “the new U” Street. And since 1993, she has served as 1B chairman. Two weeks ago she won re-election to a fifth consecutive one-year term as chair over the objections of several commissioners, who pointed out that the commission’s bylaws limit the chair to two consecutive terms. Treadwell and her allies, in the tradition of all formidable despots, suspended the bylaws so that she could be re-elected.

But Treadwell, who went to jail in 1984 for skimming federal low-income rent subsidies at the Clifton Terrace housing development, may no longer get to lead 1B’s deliberations on trash pickup, panhandling, and improving the quality of life in subsidized housing. New D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper had his financial sleuths over at the ANC’s office last week scrutinizing 1B’s records to determine how Treadwell has spent nearly $175,000 in city funds that poured into the ANC’s coffers during her four-year reign.

Thanks to last fall’s elections, Treadwell also has three federal attorneys, including U.S. Justice Department lawyers Glenn Melcher and Jan Gray, serving alongside her on 1B, watching her every move. “I noticed Mary sweats a lot around federal attorneys,” observed a 1B commissioner.

ANC 1B commissioner and IRS attorney Tom Coumaris led the anti-Treadwell faction at the Feb. 12 chair election. Coumaris still questions Treadwell’s re-election to her fourth term last year, claiming the ANC failed to hold a single meeting during 1996 that attracted a quorum of members. But Treadwell and staunch ally-cum-control-board-basher Lawrence Guyot insist the ANC did get a quorum for one meeting last year—the one at which Treadwell was re-elected chair.

Last week Treadwell, who works in her former husband’s Office of Policy, called an emergency meeting of the ANC, the sole purpose of which was to dress down Coumaris in front of his followers for trying to block her re-election as chair the week before. Treadwell warned that if she went down she would take Coumaris with her, since he has been on the ANC ever since she became chair.

It was the first time the other commissioners had been inside 1B’s U Street office (monthly meetings are held at the nearby Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U Streets NW), because Treadwell keeps a firm hold on the only set of office keys. Perhaps Treadwell wanted to protect the expensive office furnishings she claims to have bought with ANC funds in recent years.

“I wanted to scream, ‘Mary, call the police! Somebody has stolen the $20,000 in office equipment!’” Coumaris joked this week.

Under Treadwell’s stewardship, 1B has been transformed from a cash-strapped commission into the richest of the city’s 37 ANCs. According to the city’s 1995 audit of ANCs, the latest one available, 1B ended FY ’95 with $68,423 in the bank, all of it coming from annual allotments from the city’s dwindling coffers.

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At one point during Treadwell’s four-year reign, 1B had a bank account fat with more than $100,000 in cash, $30,000 of which had been deposited in an interest-earning CD, according to Coumaris and other commissioners. But 1B is not the only ANC hoarding city money while its constituents clamor for delivery of basic services.

According to the latest audit released last summer, 15 of the 37 ANCs ended FY 1995 with cash balances in excess of $10,000; 10 of those had over $20,000 in the bank, and five had more than $30,000 on hand.

Capitol Hill’s ANC 6B was the second-biggest saver, behind 1B, and finished 1995 with $41,866 in its bank account. Two Ward 3 ANCs had cash-on-hand in excess of $29,000, and ANC 3D, which includes Palisades, Spring Valley, and Wesley Heights, transferred $10,000 of its $14,000 city allotment into savings that year.

Even so, ANC commissioners throughout the city spent much of 1995 denouncing the D.C. Council for cutting their total subsidy from nearly $1.2 million to $572,000 in an attempt to address the District’s worsening financial crisis.

McLean Gardens resident Phil Mendelson, chair of ANC 3C, says the commissions must maintain cash balances because of the city’s sluggishness in doling out the quarterly allotments. For instance, some ANCs last week got checks that were due last Sept. 30. “There’s no way around this. It’s been going on for 20 years,” said Mendelson.

Maybe so, but it’s tough to argue that the commissions need over $30,000 in the bank to get them through the thin times. “When substantial surpluses are maintained by an ANC from fiscal year to fiscal year, concerns are raised as to whether the commission is actively fulfilling its mission under the ANC law, and whether these funds should become part of the investment portfolio of the D.C. Treasurer,” then-D.C. Auditor Russell Smith noted in last year’s report.

LL uses the term “annual ANC audit” loosely here because Smith admitted in his report that his conclusions were based on unaudited quarterly reports each ANC is required to submit to receive its allotment from the city treasury. And the four quarterly reports for 1995 submitted by Treadwell for ANC 1B showed that the commission had not spent a single cent for anything that year—no office furniture, not even a paper clip.

Yet 1B maintained an office with a part-time secretary and telephones. Treadwell failed to return several phone calls from LL to explain how she managed to keep her ANC running on a zero budget.

ANC 4B, in Ward 4’s Brightwood section, was the only other commission that filed a report showing no expenditures for all of FY 1995.

At a citywide meeting of some 200 ANC commissioners last weekend hosted by Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, Cooper told the gathering it was difficult to justify using his small staff of auditors to analyze ANC spending, which amounts to a microscopic fraction—1 percent—of the city’s annual $5.1-billion budget.

Yet Cooper has decided to give ANCs a closer look in this year’s audit, due out in May, because of the huge surpluses and wide discrepancies in spending reported in last year’s audit.

ANCs were set up in the late 1970s, after the District won home rule, to give residents a greater say in their new government, and broader opportunities for elected political offices. With few exceptions, though, the ANCs have done neither.

ANC actions are not binding on the mayor, the council, or District agencies. However, city leaders are supposed to accord ANC decisions “great weight”—license to ignore the ANCs altogether. Once in a while the ANCs do manage to exert some influence in their neighborhoods, usually by opposing the renewal of liquor licenses and pushing for stepped-up police protection.

In 1993, Georgetown’s ANC 2E brought neighborhood power brokering to a new level as it killed plans to build a tax-exempt, privately run commercial cogeneration plant on the bucolic Georgetown University campus. But more recently, 2E commissioners have devoted their energies and resources to waging a costly court battle to deny ANC seats to two Georgetown University students they were unable to defeat at the polls last fall. Their case is pending in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Notwithstanding Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who moved from the Dupont Circle ANC chairmanship to a council position six years ago, ANCs have not served as a political springboard for the city’s next generation of leaders. Instead, the ANCs have become a rickety stage for self-important activists who otherwise have trouble finding an audience. And sometimes they act as vehicles for private gain.

When an Adams Morgan bar owner was facing renewal of his liquor license three years ago, he said two ANC 1C commissioners agreed to testify before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that his business had complied with the ANC’s conditions of operation. But an hour before the hearing, the business owner said the two commissioners had demanded to be paid for their testimony. One of the commissioners said she needed money for an upcoming gambling trip to Atlantic City.

The bar owner refused their requests, and the two commissioners failed to appear.

“There have been some people who tried to extract favors from businesses, but they have been shut down right away,” claims Pat Patrick, head of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association.

CFO Williams got an insider’s view of the ANCs last weekend at his three-hour forum at Shiloh Baptist Church. He came loaded down with handouts about the city’s budget, bios of his staff, and a slide show to demonstrate the tough choices that go into fashioning the annual budget.

Instead of a worthwhile give and take, Williams got barraged with gripes from a roomful of snarling Rodney Dangerfields, all complaining that an ANC commissioner can’t get any respect. They weren’t interested in any talk of cost cutting, and nearly all had areas where they thought spending should be substantially increased. By the end of the session, ANC commissioners were shouting each other down.

Williams began the meeting by joking, as he often does, “Please limit your questions to 30 minutes.” But ANC commissioners wouldn’t know a joke from a lecture on Robert’s Rules of Order. After the crowd attempted to silence one commissioner who had gone on too long, she earnestly protested, “But I haven’t used my 30 minutes yet.”

WARD 6 RACE, ROUND 1

The first debate among the 14 candidates in the Ward 6 council race turned into a shootout between the Rev. George Stallings and public safety advocate Sandy McCall. Right out of the starting blocks, Stallings challenged McCall’s advocacy of a law cracking down on “cursing, fighting, urinating, drinking” within 100 yards of a bar, restaurant, school, library, or other public gathering place.

“We cannot look at pissing on streets the same way we look at drugs in this city,” the minister said to applause from some in the crowd of 300 at Hine Junior High School Feb. 19. McCall’s single-issue emphasis on beefing up law enforcement energizes and polarizes Ward 6 voters.

But he drew the biggest applause of the evening when he confronted Stallings after the break-away Catholic priest urged his rivals to join in his pledge to give back the post’s annual $80,000 salary if elected to the council.

“If I was getting money from all your tax-exempt churches, I wouldn’t accept a salary, either,” McCall told Stallings. The audience roared.

The first forum, for the most part, was a learning experience for the contenders. Sharon Ambrose appeared to have the largest number of supporters in the auditorium, which also contained a sizable faction of undecided voters—a rarity for D.C. candidate forums. But Ambrose was just beginning to hit her stride when she was cut off in midsentence in her closing statement. That prompted chants of “Let her speak!” from the audience, but she didn’t get to.

John Capozzi, the only candidate with prior capaign experience, didn’t use his supposed advantage to get ahead of his various opponents. Capozzi performed competently, but not that much better than the novices. In a bit of self-promotion, Capozzi thanked “those who have asked” about his broken nose, which he said was mending nicely since his clash with a gang of thieves after he stumbled onto a burglary in progress last month.

LL didn’t hear anyone ask.

Rob Robinson seemed to make the only news of the night when he embraced the control board’s review of Initiative 51, passed overwhelmingly by the voters last fall to open up the property-tax appeals process to public scrutiny. Robinson said councilmembers told him in December they realized the initiative created problems for small businesses, but they preferred to do nothing and let the control board tackle the issue.

That’s standard behavior for the council.CP

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