ABCs of ANCs: Your Advisory Neighborhood Commission

Photo courtesy of
‘My First ANC Meeting!’
courtesy of ‘Wayan Vota’

If you live in the District or read about District politics, you’ve probably heard the term ANC. You may have read a news story about how a local ANC is holding up a liquor license application, or how a certain commissioner is known to be a curmudgeon who hates all forms of change. Beyond these stereotypes, the ANC system doesn’t always get much attention. However, the mission of the District’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions is to provide a direct conduit between the government and citizens, so it’s something worth learning more about. This ABCs of ANCs will be an ongoing feature here, and this first part serves as a bit of a primer on the system.

So what is an ANC? An Advisory Neighborhood Commission is a government body representing a subdivision of a ward. Each commission is made up of ANC Commissioners, who in turn represent a Single Member District (SMD). A SMD is a sub-division of the ANC, generally consisting of around 2,000 residents.

Whew. It wouldn’t be government if there weren’t a dozen or so acronyms involved, right?

You are lumped in with about 2,000 other people and you elect someone from your area to serve on the local ANC. Most ANCs have five or six commissioners.

So what do they do?

According to the official ANC web site, “The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their neighborhoods, including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District’s annual budget.” Considering that encompasses just about everything in the world, let’s put it this way: ANC’s serve as the voice of a community, and have a bit of pull when it comes to negotiating in certain areas, most notably with development issues and liquor licenses. The Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration give strong consideration to the opinions of ANCs.
Photo courtesy of rllayman
‘DC ANC License Plate’
photo used with permission from ‘rllayman’

Sounds like a great system, what’s the problem?

We’re talking about city politics, so there’s no simple answer to this. ANCs were intended to be an independent body that could voice the concerns of residents. ANC politics generally becomes very contentious when it comes to issues of change. Certain commissioners have been accused of standing in the way of progress, and using the ANC as a way to hold up the establishment of new businesses or residential developments. This is where the reputation of curmudgeon NIMBYs comes into play. A recent example of this has been the hubub over Big Bear Cafe’s liquor license application. In that case, there were several commissioners who feared that granting Big Bear Cafe a liquor license would turn Bloomingdale into the next Adams Morgan.

Like DC’s many neighborhoods, though, the ANC experience can vary greatly from place to place.

Local blogger and Trinidad resident Geoffrey Hatchard notes “Some of them [commissioners] are professional, want to hear what you have to say, and feel excited to serve. Others see the ANC as their own fiefdom, something they reign over, and their sad little bit of power trip is something they refuse to allow to be diluted by dealing with the commoners. I’ve been at meetings that have included both, even on the same ANC.”

One commissioner, Brian Cohen from ANC 3B05, ran for the ANC because of these problems. “I got involved in my ANC precisely because I thought it was being run by too many NIMBY types,” said Cohen via email. “I thought that several members of our ANC, including the Commissioner that represented my SMD–were contributing to (indeed, were a cause of–the problem) – and decided that the way to fix this was to run for the seat myself.” Cohen cited the lack of progress on commercial development and renovations of schools as major issues facing his ANC.

To be fair, there are plenty of issues where the ANC provides a thoughtful and much needed voice for residents. ANC successes, whether getting a new streetlight installed or getting MPD foot patrols rarely make a splash in the blogosphere. “Good news never gets reported (“Tonight, at 11…no one died today!”) and something that everyone is in favor of generally doesn’t get too much airtime or column inches,” said Hatchard. “Controversy, especially when it’s of a NIMBY nature, can really get press.”

How can I get involved?

If you don’t know what SMD you live in, you can locate it using the DC Citizen Atlas. You can find your local ANC web sites via the ANC page as well. Many commissioners also have their own sites, which can be found through the DC site or via a Google search. Depending on your neighborhood, and what the issues are, you may find meetings that are passionate and controversial, or far less than thrilling. There are also plenty of neighborhood associations that you can get involved with also. What’s vital in all of this, and what will be discussed when we look towards improving ANCs, is getting involved. It’s often said that DC is a transient town, that people don’t stay long or make investments in their neighborhoods. This attitude results in all levels of local government being dominated by those who speak for the “long time residents.” In truth, though, these long time residents were once newcomers who decided they were going to play a role in shaping the future. The ANC system was designed to be a voice for all residents, in a democracy you don’t get extra votes for having lived here longer.

Coming up next, we’ll take a closer look at some of the contentious issues facing ANCs, as well as the ANCs and their relationships with the DC Council.This gets a bit juicier, so stay tuned.

Dave has been following DC news and politics for nearly eight years and previous authored the blog “Why I Hate DC.” Dave tries to give a voice to those frustrated by the “politics as usual” in the area. By day he works in the technology department of a non-profit, by night he writes about news and politics and works at a local hardware store. Dave is also a contributor for Greater Greater Washington. You can follow him on Twitter or read his personal blog.

3 thoughts on “ABCs of ANCs: Your Advisory Neighborhood Commission

  1. Great post. Very informative for this relative newbie to DC. I look forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Pingback: ANCs Get New Level of Scrutiny from Bloggers | Borderstan