It was September 2011. The basement of St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church, near the corner of Fessenden Street and Wisconsin Avenue, was packed with swimmers—like fish out of water—there to attend a meeting of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (or ANC for short). The issue on the table? The schedule of lane line rearrangements at the Wilson Aquatic Center pool.
A parent in the neighborhood had written a petition asking the city to split the pool’s time between its usual lane configuration and another one more suitable for swimming classes in the shallow end, according to Tom Quinn, an ANC commissioner. But the swimmers—who, unbeknownst to Quinn, had relied on the Wilson pool as the only one with full-time 50-meter lanes within the Capital Beltway—were “furious” about the proposal.
“It just completely caught us off guard,” Quinn said. The issue mattered to people.
This small controversy was an exception to a veritable truism in the United States: Citizens don’t focus on local politics as much as they should. It seems especially true this year, as the nation is embroiled in a contentious and consequential presidential election amid a pandemic, economic turmoil and continuing reckoning about race.
Government doesn’t get any more local than Washington, D.C.’s nonpartisan ANCs. The city has 41 of them, each comprised of commissioners who represent single-member districts (abbreviated, in classic governmental fashion, as SMDs) of around 2,000 people for unlimited two-year terms.
“The ANC is as close to retail politics as you’re ever going to find,” said Jonathan Bender, who represents GDS’ district and serves as the chairperson of ANC 3E. “I guess another way of saying that is, depending on how you look at it, it’s sort of at the basement of D.C. government.”
But as Quinn noted, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson both started their political careers as ANC commissioners.
The commission holds monthly meetings—once held in a classroom of the American University Washington College of Law, but now on Zoom—to discuss business, hear input from constituents and vote on official resolutions. They generally last over three hours. “Meetings are supposed to be in public as opposed to with the public,” Bender said, “but we try to do our meetings with the public.”
“Emotions are often heated” during meetings, Bender told the Bit in a video call interview, sitting in his book-filled office with his cat nearby. Most neighborhood residents are politically active and concerned about those less privileged than they, he said, but they also have reason to care about issues that affect them more directly.
Matters can come before the ANC in several ways. Sometimes, D.C. government agencies or quasi-judicial boards such as the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) or the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) are required to refer applications to the ANC, Tom Quinn said. In such cases, the commission deliberates about the proposed change and adopts a resolution which the relevant agency is required by law to give “great weight” to in its final decision.
Other times, constituents raise a topic or the commissioners themselves decide to consider one. Quinn, who works for the American Occupational Therapy Association, said he has focused on pedestrian safety, bike infrastructure and trees.
Because the extent to which the ANC’s resolutions persuade city agencies “depends significantly on the quality of our writing,” Bender said, the commissioners usually draft resolutions in advance of the meetings in which they are adopted. “That sometimes rubs some people the wrong way” because they feel the “decision has already been made,” he said.
Quinn said he spends anywhere from one to 12 hours a week on ANC-related work; Bender said he sometimes spends up to 20 hours on it. Unlike the members of the D.C. State Board of Education, though, ANC commissioners are unpaid volunteers. “It’s 100 percent psychic income,” Bender said.
“It makes me happy walking around the neighborhood and seeing all the new trees that have been planted because I put the orders in,” Quinn said. He finds meaning in the fact that the ANC’s small, local improvements will have an impact on a large number of people.
However, considering the amount of time he invests, Bender said, “I think there’s a lot to be said for at least a stipend for ANC commissioners.”
Bender, an attorney who practices internet and general business law, was first elected to his seat in 2008 and hasn’t faced an opponent since. (He said being on the same ballot as Barack Obama was “a thrill.”) “When I did have to have a contested election,” he said, “it was very [much] retail [politics]. I knocked on a lot of doors; a lot of shoe leather got burnt up.”
Tom Quinn, meanwhile, is no stranger to political opposition. He lost his first ANC bid to an anti-development incumbent, but won a contested election to replace her when she resigned a term later. Since his initial swearing-in in 2011, he’s beaten one other challenger.
Quinn said that while some ANC candidates campaign on broad, city-wide policy issues such as education, tax reform and social justice or on “generic platitudes,” his focus is on neighborhood matters such as the upkeep of crosswalks and local parks. “I think most ANC races pivot on the hyperlocal things,” he said.
Amid polarization in national politics, the ANC 3E commissioners are largely in agreement on their fundamental approach to their work. “We all have some different ideas, although I think we’re all sort of united at the 30,000 foot level,” Bender said. He said the commissioners tend to vote unanimously on development issues, sharing a common belief in “smart growth principles.”
Jeffrey Houser, GDS’ chief financial officer, lives in a house he rents from the school that is located adjacent to the high school building. As a resident of district 3E03, he declined to endorse Bender (the only person running) as a matter of principle, but said he’s “doing a great job.”
Houser said he’s been in ANC meetings in which property-owners have had to present to the commissioners about alterations as small as changing their fence’s height or “add[ing] a few shrubbery to the front of [their] lawn.” But he said the ANC is an “effective mechanism” that is “ultimately pretty good for the neighborhood.”
Bender and Quinn both pointed to GDS’ recent campus unification project as an ANC success story. Like all property owners seeking variances from their zoning requirements, GDS submitted an application to the BZA and presented its development plan to the ANC commissioners, Houser said.
A major aspect of GDS’ discussions with the ANC was the effect the campus expansion would have on thoroughfare congestion. Many residents “had a great deal of worry about their daily lives changing for the worse, largely from traffic,” Bender said. According to Houser, the school worked to convince the commission of its traffic mitigation strategies.
The ANC urged the school to invest in aspects of the campus that could benefit the community. For example, GDS purchased high-quality green-colored furniture to beautify the city-owned triangular patch of grass near the intersection of Ellicott Street and Wisconsin Avenue, which Houser called “the parklet,” at the commission’s suggestion.
Per the BZA’s order, the school is also paying for the city to install a new traffic light and crosswalk at the corner of Wisconsin and Chesapeake Street.
“I think that was a good collaborative example of working with an applicant and getting a better outcome by pressing them,” Quinn said, “and I think it’s going to be a better outcome for the community and for them as well.”
As for the outcome of the Wilson pool dispute? Through their elected representatives, the people spoke, and the ANC backed the proposed change. Nowadays, Quinn said, “the poor lifeguards” have to change the lane lines periodically.