- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

The District's Advisory Neighborhood Commission system operates as a grass-roots conduit through which ordinary citizens can directly influence city agencies and officials.
But some business leaders in the District have begun to criticize the unchecked influence of ANCs, in light of a D.C. inspector general's investigation of two commissioners accused of pressuring bar owners for donations.
"Many of the people involved in the ANCs and the leadership of the neighborhood associations are amateur politicians who have too much power to affect the way that we run our businesses," says Constantine Stavropoulis, president of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association.
ANCs serve a mostly advisory role in city politics. The goal is to "ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of the residents of the neighborhoods" on everything from traffic and parking to economic development, according to the D.C. government Web site (www.dc.gov).
Many residents, business owners and city officials have said the ANCs wield the bulk of their influence in city lawmaking during the liquor-license-renewal and zoning-variation processes. City agencies such as the alcohol board and zoning board are required by law to give "great weight" to recommendations made by an ANC.
Gottlieb Simon is executive director of the D.C. Office of ANCs, which the D.C. Council set up last year to provide support for the commissions. He says it is important to note that, though protests brought forward by ANCs are given great weight, the ANCs are not the only neighborhood political groups allowed to protest the renewal of a liquor license.
Any group of five persons a neighborhood civic association for example can lodge a protest with the alcohol board, although the board is not bound by law to give "great weight" to the protest.
"We're seeing a huge participation of ANCs now, more than ever. They come in and lodge protests. And that's a good thing," says Roderic L. Woodson, chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board.
He adds that the process balances residential and commercial interests in the neighborhood.
Before hearing a protest from an ANC or a neighborhood association, the board requires that the protesting party and the party being protested attempt to reach what is called a "voluntary agreement" over at least a 30-day period. Under the agreement, the ANC or neighborhood association agrees to withdraw its protest if the party being protested will comply with new terms of its license.
"The ANCs have decided they want not just for you to comply with the law, but to comply with the law as the ANC sees it," says Bill Duggan, owner of Madam's Organ, a popular bar in Adams Morgan. "[The bars in protest] are established, already existing businesses that meet all zoning and regulatory requirements, all ABC requirements."
The Washington Times reported last week that the inspector general is investigating complaints that Adams Morgan ANC members Eleanor Johnson and Jobi Jovanka approached three of the neighborhood's bar owners for hundreds of dollars in November. Two of the bar owners refused, and a third said he "contributed" $200.
Both women have denied any wrongdoing to reporters, although The Times obtained a copy of a tape recording of one woman asking for money. City law prohibits the commissioners from accepting more than $25 from any single political contributor.
The ANC system dates to 1976, two years after the creation of the D.C. Council and home rule. There are 299 elected commissioners sitting on 37 ANCs across the city. The commissioners, who do not have to belong to a political party, are unpaid and serve two-year terms. There are no term limits.
Each ANC is given a portion of the $673,000 set aside annually in the D.C. budget to operate as a political body. The money is allocated as a grant to pay for such things as staff, office rentals, phone bills and publicly distributing copies of the minutes from the ANCs' meetings, Mr. Simon said. The amount of money an ANC gets depends on the population of the neighborhood its represents, and the ANCs are not allowed to provide personal grants.
However, the behavior of individual commissioners goes largely unchecked. No government oversight body exists to field complaints about ANCs or remove commissioners whose actions are unethical. The commissioners can be ousted only through voter petitions, but not during the first or last six months of their terms, according to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
If a voter has a complaint about an ANC or a commissioner, "you go to the inspector general or the D.C. auditor," Mr. Simon says. "The D.C. auditor has responsibilities and powers to safeguard the funds allocated to ANCs in the city budget."
Mr. Stavropoulis says that he is happy to have a democratically elected grass-roots system but that "the city government is afraid to go against these people for some reason."
He adds that his problem is mainly with neighborhood civic associations, which have the power to go directly to city agencies with their protests. "The lower down the political totem pole you go, the more heady these people seem to be, and the nastier the politics seem to be," Mr. Stavropoulis says.

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