On Jan. 21, several ANC commissioners converged on Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast for a public safety meeting that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), standing next to Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Lindsey Appiah, hosted. (Courtesy of the Mayor's Office)
On Jan. 21, several ANC commissioners converged on Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast for a public safety meeting that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), standing next to Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Lindsey Appiah, hosted. (Courtesy of the Mayor's Office)

In her third term as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, Tiffani Nichole Johnson has her sights set on continuing to advocate for traffic safety measures that make walking, biking and driving in her community safer.

Johnson said embarking on this endeavor over the last four years has required repeatedly emailing the D.C. Department of Transportation and submitting testimony to the D.C. Council, some of which she felt were ignored. 

Johnson, a D.C. government employee and single mother of one, currently represents more than 2,000 residents in Manor Park in Northwest. 

Like many of her counterparts across the District, she often invests time and, in many cases her own money, to spread information to her constituents, organize them around community-specific issues, and relay their concerns to D.C. council members and city agencies. 

For Johnson, being an ANC commissioner has been a cumbersome, yet rewarding experience that has the potential to get easier with the District’s investments to increase staffing and resources provided by the Office of the ANC (OANC). 

She said these additional resources could pave the way for ANC commissioners, level of experience notwithstanding, to acquire guidance on how to effectively communicate with all of their constituents and navigate an increasingly bureaucratic local government. 

“We all need training on a yearly basis on different agency functions and different databases,” said Johnson, commissioner of single-member district 4B06. 

“What are the confines of the agency, what can they do, what has to be legislated and how soon can we do that? Comprehensive trainings will help ANCs execute the duties of their position and effectuate critical changes needed in their communities.”

On Jan. 21, Johnson counted among several ANC commissioners who converged on Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast for a public safety meeting that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) hosted. The forum provided an opportunity for ANC commissioners to not only talk about the extent of D.C.’s gun violence problems, but also express concerns about the manner in which the Metropolitan Police Department responds to crime. 

This meeting fell on the same day as an ANC training session that Greater Greater Washington (GGWash) conducted. 

GGWash, a volunteer-led, nonprofit organization, facilitates advocacy around urban, walkable communities. Its programs include journalism and a coalition focused on sustainable transportation in the District. This organization also endorses candidates for political office and conducts training about running for an ANC seat.  

However, GGWash’s most recent training, scheduled for Jan. 19-21, was originally intended solely for recently elected commissioners. That training almost ended before it started when, in early January, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) said GGWash was soliciting an “impermissible gift” to an elected official. 

BEGA eventually reversed its decision after collaborating with GGWash to modify the training and open the event to the public. GGWash’s executive director, Chelsea Allinger, said that 15 ANC commissioners attended the revised event, which focused on how ANCs operated and how constituents could better engage them. 

Well before BEGA changed course, several commissioners, including Erin Palmer, took to Twitter to question the decision, primarily out of frustration with what they described as a lack of guidance around the job of a commissioner. 

In an interview, Palmer, a former D.C. council chair candidate, decried it as part of a system that sets commissioners up for failure when it comes to moving the needle on important policy issues that concern their constituents.

“I think we’re just a scapegoat for residents to complain to in many ways,” Palmer said. “[Citywide elected officials] don’t want us actually weighing in on legislation and policy and holding them accountable. They want us to just be there to have residents yell at us, so they don’t yell at them.”

Palmer said a lack of continuing training contributes to ANC commissioners’ disempowerment. “I’d say most commissioners in some way have a budget request, something they think government money should go to. But we are not trained in how to do budget advocacy,” she said.

Palmer, in her third term as commissioner of single-member district 4B02, said that a lack of consistent training and guidance has, in part, impeded commissioners’ abilities to carry out their duties. The most she recalled receiving immediately upon entering office in 2019 was advice from a panel of former commissioners, training about Robert’s Rules of Order, and a spreadsheet listing the liaisons for the District agencies. 

Of the ANC commissioners elected this past November, 204 of them — more than 60% of the cohort — are serving in the role for the first time. The initial orientation training for those newly elected commissioners took place over five and a half hours on a Saturday in December. More than 140 ANC commissioners showed up, Boese said.

But not all training facilitated by OANC, usually in partnership with government agencies or community groups, are so well-attended. Boese said one training on conflict resolution, held in September last year, only had six attendees.

“Since commissioners aren’t paid, many of them do work full time,” Boese said. “And so they’re constantly juggling. Do you have [a training] during the day when they’re likely working? Or do you have it in the evening — but then again, some people work in the evenings.”

Boese said the OANC helped coordinate 10 trainings in 2022. So far this year, he said there have been three trainings offered, and the office has six more planned through March 4. GGWash contacted Boese about the training in December and worked with the OANC over several weeks to make sure their planned training did not repeat the same information as OANC trainings. Though the OANC does sometimes partner with community groups outside of the government to offer trainings, the office did not partner with GGWash on this one.

“I’m perfectly agreeable to collaborating with any group, as long as we can make sure that the content that is being offered is authoritative and accurate, which I think is key,” Boese said. 

Boese noted in an email that his office had not sought out a determination from BEGA about the GGWash training, and the OANC “neither supports nor opposes efforts by non-governmental organizations who wish to work with ANCs.” But he had received messages from commissioners who he said in an interview seemed “caught off-guard” by the original commissioners-only invitation from the advocacy organization. 

Some ANC commissioners had questioned whether the training was above-board, Boese said, though others opposed BEGA’s determination that the training didn’t satisfy ethics rules.

While she declined to speak about the political motivations behind BEGA’s letter about the GGWash training, Palmer described BEGA’s move as reactive. She went on to say that ANCs need more guidance about what’s allowable in their role.

“There’s no discussion about [where] you can read more about [BEGA’s] advice on gifts [or] other opinions they’ve given that might be helpful,” Palmer said. 

“It’s not presented as…here are some things you can do…to get the knowledge that you need to be an ANC,” Palmer added.

Office of the ANC Charts a Path Forward

The advisory neighborhood commission model is unique to D.C local governance. The 1973 Home Rule Charter established ANCs, and District voters approved the system by referendum the next year. 

Legislative reforms over time have tinkered with the rules and scope of commissioners’ jobs. One such law, in 2000, created the OANC to provide technical, administrative and financial reporting assistance to the commissioners. 

Over time, the map of commissions and the single-member districts within them has shifted: the latest redistricting created four new commissions and 49 new single-member districts, according to OANC Executive Director Kent Boese.  Still, the underlying system established in the 1970s remains largely intact. 

D.C. law requires agencies to notify commissions about a wide range of actions — including on planning, streets, recreation, social services programs and sanitation — that impact their neighborhood directly. Agencies also must “give great weight” to commissions’ official opinions about those actions. But commissioners have little legal power to compel agencies to respond to requests or otherwise meaningfully engage.

The advisory neighborhood commissions do not operate in either the legislative or the executive branch of city government. Commissioners’ power to shape District policy largely rests on informal influence and relationship-building across government departments. 

That makes guidance on how to effectively navigate agency systems and legislative processes particularly crucial if commissioners want to have a real impact. Boese said the OANC, boosted by budgetary support from D.C. Council, has added several new full-time staffers in recent years that can help ANC commissioners get more of the support they need. 

Four additional positions remain unfilled, including a general counsel and a land use attorney who will be able to help commissioners navigate zoning complexities.

Boese, who spent more than a decade as ANC commissioner for Ward 1’s Park View neighborhood, discussed several key priorities — in addition to improving training opportunities — that he hopes to address in his new role. Those include enabling every ANC to host a user-friendly website; crafting a series of short how-to guides for common actions like compiling zoning documents; implementing a new, easier-to-use software system for financial reporting; and coming up with best practices to help commissions run hybrid meetings for in-person and virtual attendees. 

Improving opportunities for all commissioners to communicate with his office, possibly by creating an advisory board made up of commissioners from across the city, also appears high on Boese’s priority list. 

“I don’t think that the communication I get is as fully representative of all the commissions and commissioners as I would like it to be,” he said. “We do hear from some frequently; their ideas are great, we love to hear from them. But I think we need to do a better job of outreach to the commissioners and commissions we’re not hearing from. I know they have equally great ideas.”

Some commissioners, like Anthony Lorenzo Green, relish the opportunity for more OANC support, especially when it comes to zoning. 

In his tenth year as an ANC commissioner, Anthony Lorenzo Green knows all too well the necessity of a general counsel in zoning matters. While Green said he and his colleagues have been able to make do without a general counsel, he lamented having to go against industry titans on behalf of the people without a government-sponsored subject-matter expert. 

In 2013, when Green served his first role as commissioner in single-member district 8B04, which includes the Ft. Stanton community in Southeast, he quickly learned about zoning laws and procedures at the behest of the late Mary Cuthbert, who encouraged him to follow what he described as one of the most consequential aspects of his job.  

Shortly after moving back to Deanwood, Green won an ANC commissioner seat in single-member district 7C04, where he has since jumped into the fray several times at the request of residents who felt unheard by District agencies. 

One such situation happened in 2018 when Green brought the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking and other local agencies to the table with two Deanwood elders who didn’t receive compensation from the city after losing their homes in a sinkhole. 

Green said the two elders eventually left the D.C. area, but not without a settlement from the District government they were able to secure once Green amplified their fight in the media. 

In other instances, Green acts on behalf of his constituents when developers are attempting to construct buildings that are liable to change the character of the community and further induce displacement. He and other commissioners in ANC 7C also weigh in on matters involving constituents who apply for variances, which allow them to change their residence beyond the scope of what zoning laws allow. 

“We have to negotiate every single development deal with resources and [guidance] from people in the community who know how to do that,” Green said. “I know how to navigate these waters but there have been times where I wish we had a lawyer to argue on our behalf for these zoning board cases where developers and property owners come in for variances. That’s a lot of our work. We know we can use more support and function as a full commission if the city believed in that vision.” 

Newly-Elected Commissioners Reflect on the Road Ahead

When the redistricting process created new single-member districts in Ward 8 last spring, Amanda Beale counted among dozens of residents who threw their hats in the ring for ANC leadership. 

For years, Beale, a wife, mother of three and D.C. government employee, has often weighed in on issues concerning youth engagement and mental wellness. She has also used her experiences as a native Washingtonian to bridge the gap between natives and transplants in her community. 

Beale described the ANC as the next level in her grassroots activism. 

In her role, she wants to lower crime in the Douglass and Congress Heights communities, where she has lived for nearly a decade. Fulfilling this goal, Beale told The Informer, requires fostering a sense of community among her constituents and investing more time and resources into students attending Turner Elementary School. 

Since launching her campaign last summer, Beale spent much of her time dispelling myths about the effectiveness of ANCs. She has done so by explaining the commissioner’s role to residents and allaying concerns about elected officials not fulfilling their basic responsibilities. 

Beale also collected information about the types of communication that her constituents utilized. She expressed a desire to boost engagement in her single-member district and ensure that more people actively participate in community discussions. 

In terms of OANC’s effectiveness, Beale touted the agency leaders for quickly responding to her emails and going as far as getting her badge delivered to her front door. However, she said there was room for improvement. Upon entering office, Beale signed a petition asking for printing, postage and public meeting spaces for commissioners. 

For the time being, Beale said she has what she needs to effect change, especially as someone with knowledge of District government and the ability to build rapport with her constituents. 

“People misconstrue that ANCs are ineffective, like what we do doesn’t hold weight with the government,” said Beale, commissioner of ANC 8C08. “Some people don’t believe that the mayor and D.C. Council pay attention to what we say and how we feel. The ANCs are [as] effective as the person [holding the position]. You have to be consistent, stay in the emails and with the council.” 

Similarly, the Rev. Wendy Hamilton has spent a significant portion of her time as a new commissioner navigating her role and dispelling misconceptions about the ANC’s effectiveness. Hamilton said much of what she heard about ANCs came from the frustration about what people described as the symbolic nature of the role, especially the submission of resolutions to the D.C. Council. 

Hamilton, a former candidate for D.C. delegate to Congress, was elected to represent single-member district 8D06, which includes parts of Southwest and portions of the Bellevue community in Southeast. Hamilton also represents residents of Danbury Street, a politically engaged, upper-middle-class enclave that’s clamoring for greater representation in the District’s most impoverished ward. 

In her first go-around as commissioner, Hamilton plans to address class schisms in her single-member district, collaborate with other ANCs east of the Anacostia River, and push for the revitalization of Fort Greble Park. While she expected to be on her own as a commissioner, Hamilton said OANC, and Boese in particular, have been supportive of her and others who are new to their role.  

Even with OANC’s trainings and quick responses to questions, Hamilton acknowledged that more could be done to ease ANCs’ jobs. One hurdle she mentioned involved the lack of a communication system to help commissioners directly reach their constituents. She said there’s no uniform system in place for web development, a listserv or mailing list that would allow ANCs some ability to quickly reach all of the people under their purview. 

Hamilton added that, like other commissioners, ANC 8D didn’t have a consistent public meeting space at a time when many of ANCs are transitioning to in-person meetings. Amid a robust discussion about securing stipends for commissioners, Hamilton said that compensation would help make the job a bit easier for those who fulfill their ANC responsibilities while working full-time and raising a family. 

One area where Hamilton sees potential for improvement is the relationships between ANCs and District leadership and agencies. During the Jan. 21 meeting at Deanwood Recreation Center, Hamilton established rapport with agency heads and has since found success in communicating with them about issues affecting her single-member district. 

In terms of working with Bowser, Hamilton sensed some tension around the question of who’s responsible for solving neighborhood-specific problems. Hamilton said therein lies the possibility of collaboration, particularly when it comes to informing constituents about recreation programs and other offerings provided by District agencies. 

Hamilton expressed a desire to be a conduit between the agencies and the executive for people in search of resources. At the same time, she said systems need to be put in place for ANCs so they don’t get burnt out working on behalf of the people. 

“We got sworn in and here comes every agency and every person trying to get the commissioners to sign on to this and come to this event,” Hamilton said. “They want to be in our meetings but we don’t know where the meeting is. My whole commission is brand new. We’re learning this thing and I’ve learned there is no learning curve.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated GGWash’s contact with the Office of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The organization contacted the office in December and worked with OANC Director Kent Boese via email and over the phone.

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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