September 29, 2016 at 4:49 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Will D.C. repair licensing and open door to all voices?
Anita Bonds, gay news, Washington Blade, liquor-licensing system

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It all boils down to basic fairness, to repairing an out-of-balance D.C. business licensing system residents across the city have long lamented and more often than not cursed.

Current regulatory protocols deny a common desire to allow all community voices an equal opportunity to have input absent bestowing special “standing” and intervention powers to self-anointed groups representing only a few.

The D.C. Council is currently weighing reform of the liquor-licensing system for the District’s largest hometown business segment – the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that are enthusiastically supported as popular amenities enlivening the city and filling government tax coffers. The outcome will determine whether there is sufficient commonsense to fix a byzantine and broken system.

It’s actually a simple proposition: Will the D.C. Council broaden the regulatory reforms initiated a half-decade ago and designate advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) to serve in their intended role as micro-area advisers conveying community input for consideration by city agency administrators and licensing adjudication boards?

Under current law, ad-hoc “gangs of five-or-more-persons” and “community associations” sometimes formed exclusively to file regulatory protests opposing neighborhood development and business licensing continue to wield a veto-like power over everyone else by abusing the system and gaming the process. Small businesses endure unnecessary delays and incur both substantial legal costs and lost revenues as a result of such shenanigans.

In my role as director of the local nightlife hospitality trade association, I hear the never-ending complaints from both business operators and community supporters.

Residents usurped of meaningful input are left pondering why they are essentially “frozen out” and their opinions cast to the sidelines, a result of the procedural hijacking through outside-lane licensing protests filed by these small groups.

Those who have witnessed the lengthy licensing battles endured over the years by well-regarded neighborhood spots such as JR.’s Bar, Hank’s Oyster Bar restaurant, Compass Rose Bar & Kitchen and The Left Door cocktail bar, and legions of other dining and drinking venues citywide, know exactly what’s at stake.

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds, who chairs the committee overseeing ANCs, spent nearly a year meeting with commissioners throughout the District and has introduced legislation to remedy this situation.

Bonds hopes to affirm the legitimate and beneficial advisory-input role ANCs can contribute. Included in the lengthy bill, which primarily addresses ANC organizational support and assistance while also establishing commissions as the agency-required “go-to” groups for channeling community input, are two provisions that remedy lingering licensing problems that plague local hospitality entrepreneurs.

These components would eliminate the special legal standing of “citizens groups” and “gangs-of-five” allowing them to file independent license protests. The bill would also require that conducting ANC business, negotiating with businesses, and voting in committees on licensing agreements be reserved for elected commissioners only and not unelected volunteers.

The extramural groups are predictably upset about losing their special status and are pressuring Council members to preserve their outsized powers to separately intervene.

These special-interest entities portray the proposed reforms as taking something away from them, excluding them, tossing them to the curb. Instead, they’re only being asked to participate in an open and transparent discernment process on equal footing with other stakeholders.

Elected ANC representatives, accountable to their neighbors, would determine the ANC’s advisory recommendations to city licensing and regulatory agencies.

In this way, the doors would be flung open with everyone allowed equitable engagement in community discussion and collective discernment, without special powers and privileges for some.

The Council is on the right track. It should permit the nonpartisan elected commissioners to serve in their unique capacity for providing the open and accessible forum at which all stakeholders can voice their opinions and express their concerns. ANCs are the appropriate arbiters to weigh those community considerations in determining an advisory recommendation to city officials on licensing matters for community hospitality establishments and other enterprise.

The proposed reforms provide a long-overdue dose of fresh air and should be adopted.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

  • While it is true that bonafied citizen’s groups have legal standing, the current legislation already provides that any protest by a so-called “gang of five” is void if the establishment reaches agreement with the ANC having jurisdiction. Conversely, it is highly unlikely that the ABRA Board would elevate a citizen group protest over a settlement agreement endorsed by the ANC. The current legislation adopted in 2012 works just fine for residents however I get why Mr. Lee shills as he does on behalf of his handlers and why they want it repealed. What I don’t get is why the Blade persists in providing a forum to a paid lobbyist.

    • *PAID* freakin’ lobbyists?!? Oh, no, no, no! We can’t have that in DC!

      BTW, hasn’t the Blade gone way out of its way to provide an easy-to-use forum for its readers’ comments, too?

      It’s not really my thing. But Lee and Bonds are consistently thoughtful people. They always bring more light than heat to an issue.

      However non-specific, IJS, your comment read like your customary reasoned comments. Then there was this…

      \ … I get why Mr. Lee shills as he does on behalf of his handlers and why they want it repealed. What I don’t get is why the Blade persists in providing a forum to a paid lobbyist.//

      Too frequently, I step on my own messages, as well.

  • Not to mention Mark Lee’s tipping habits. Thank you.

  • It only makes sense that the ANCs and not community groups should be the sole venue for community discussion of licensed business establishments, including bars and restaurants. As elected representatives of their neighborhoods, the ANCs, not community groups, should also be the only organizations with standing to represent their neighborhoods before City Council or at any public or private hearing convened by a department of District government.

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