Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson may be D.C.’s consummate nitpicker, but he is nonetheless well-known around the Wilson Building for dropping multibillion dollar budget proposals without much warning. He appears to be repeating that tactic in the Ward 3 redistricting debate, much to the chagrin of some Northwest residents.

The grueling, once-a-decade process of setting new ward boundaries wrapped up late last year, but the Council has spent another six months or so hashing out new lines for advisory neighborhood commissions to coincide with those changes and account for population shifts over the years. Lawmakers took a first vote on the new boundaries on May 24, but Mendelson stepped in to leave his mark on his old Ward 3 stomping grounds just days before the Council casts its final vote on the new maps Tuesday.

The chairman has proposed his own ANC map (finally made public over the weekend), tossing out the version the Council just approved. That was based on the work of a redistricting task force outgoing Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh assembled and the Council’s own redistricting subcommittee, which At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman helms, so it’s perhaps understandable that both of those groups are feeling a bit peeved right about now.

It can all feel like inside baseball, considering that those poor souls most obsessed with the granular details of local affairs generally dominate the world of ANC politics. But Loose Lips would argue that these issues, however complex, merit attention: ANCs have an outsize role to play in shaping new development, and some of the areas at issue in this Ward 3 dispute are set to see quite a bit of new construction. That’s no small thing, considering the broader debates about how the wealthy, overwhelmingly White ward can welcome more residents.

Mendelson’s antagonists suggest his actions here are all part of a broader pattern. The chairman has centralized control of so many issues in his office over the years, from the budget to education, that other lawmakers are left feeling shut out.

“I just think this illustrates Phil’s personality and approach to governing perfectly,” Silverman says. “He’s just going to do what he wants to do.”

So what does Mendelson want with the Ward 3 ANC lines? The proposals he’s circulated make a variety of small changes to the boundaries, but the most controversial one involves Cleveland Park, not far from his political launching pad in McLean Gardens.

Cheh’s redistricting subcommittee suggested creating a whole new ANC there, the ward’s seventh commission, centered mainly on Wisconsin Avenue between Tenleytown and Glover Park. That would move some areas on the western side of Cleveland Park from ANC 3C into the newly created ANC 3A. Mendelson’s map strikes that change entirely, in a bid to leave Cleveland Park all in the same ANC.

The way Mendelson sees it, he’s merely trying to be responsive to complaints from the community. He said during a May 31 meeting at the Cleveland Park Library that he’s received “hundreds of emails” from people concerned about the ANC maps, so he’s working to address those worries.

“Over the years, I have developed a sense for when there’s a lot of neighborhood upset as opposed to a little bit of neighborhood upset over an issue,” Mendelson told the crowd at the meeting, which generally seemed comprised of residents angry about the ANC lines, based on a video recording of the raucous gathering.

And there is no doubt that the proposed boundaries attracted opposition. A group of civic associations in the area began advocating vocally against the ANC lines, arguing forcefully that splitting up Cleveland Park in any way would be a drastic mistake. They began dubbing themselves the “Neighborhood Voices Coalition,” putting out yard signs urging the Council to “Stop the Split” and agitating for just the sort of changes Mendelson is now advancing.

“Essentially, the ward’s redistricting task force decided to propose more radical changes than necessary and stayed on its course in the face of increasingly strong community calls to change direction,” Barr Weiner, president of the Cleveland Park Civic Association, told the Council’s redistricting subcommittee during an April 7 hearing. “The primary objection was and remains that the task force approach was ignoring a core tenet: to strive to keep neighborhoods intact rather than split them across ANCs.”

But the redistricting task force members argue that they hashed out all these concerns as they went through their own process and generally found them meritless. Jerry Malitz, the task force’s chair, notes that his group’s main goal was equally distributing residents into each new ANC, rather than meeting a vague goal of keeping neighborhoods together. Besides, he notes, many communities are split across different ANCs because different sections of each area have very different populations. Silverman even worked to broker a compromise and sent one single member district from the new 3A over into 3C to appease these opponents, but that doesn’t seem to have blunted this criticism.

Ultimately, Malitz suspects the real reason Mendelson became so involved in this particular dispute is because many of his “old buddies” (and campaign contributors) are raising these concerns. As is so often the case in Ward 3, Malitz believes that many longtime residents are simply afraid of change.

“He still thinks Ward 3 is just his little enclave,” Malitz says. “He’s kowtowing to certain constituents.”

The task force members were particularly galled to hear Mendelson admit during that May 31 meeting that he hadn’t so much as read the 116-page report they’d spent hundreds of hours assembling, only to cast aside their recommendations so haphazardly. Mendelson told reporters Monday that he accepted the “overwhelming majority” of what the task force wanted, but felt justified in ignoring the group’s thinking on Cleveland Park because “advisory neighborhood commissions are about neighborhoods.” He doesn’t believe the task force acted appropriately in focusing on population in setting these boundaries, but members suspect that if he’d see the wisdom of the changes if he’d reviewed their work more closely.

“It’s just a horrific slap in the face to all of the volunteers of all of these task forces if the ultimate recipient is just going to do what he wants anyway,” says Troy Kravitz, a former Ward 3 ANC and a member of the task force.

Mendelson will put his version of the map to a full Council vote Tuesday, and there’s no guarantee it will pass. Cheh, in particular, may well be able to convince her colleagues to follow the task force’s recommendations instead, out of deference to her years of experience in the ward.

The task force members are certainly hopeful Cheh can turn the tide here (and they’ve been busy mounting an email campaign of their own to that effect). She’s seemed skeptical enough of the “Neighborhood Voices” bunch in the past that it seems likely she’ll at least mount a fight on this Tuesday (and a spokeswoman says Cheh is busy readying an amendment to Mendelson’s proposal to be released sometime Monday).

“The ‘Neighborhood Voices’ proposal perpetuates the exaggerated size discrepancies among the ANCs,” Cheh said during an April 28 redistricting hearing. “I take exception to the notion that lines of other entities, whether they be historic districts, neighborhood associations, Main Street programs or the like, are dispositive to ANC and SMD boundaries. The driver of SMD boundaries must be population. The same is not true of other organizations.”

This article has been updated with a comment from Cheh’s office.