Fully two-thirds of all D.C. advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) seats citywide will again have either no candidate running for election or only one uncontested candidate name will appear on the ballot in the November general election.
As has now become commonplace, the 296 hyper-local ANC non-partisan positions are plagued by a startling lack of community interest. According to a preliminary ballot count based on filings at the time of the D.C. Board of Elections candidate petition deadline last week, 197 of those positions are uncontested or no one is running.
This massively dominant number of no-candidate or one-candidate contests is nearly identical to filings in recent years throughout at least several ANC two-year election cycles.
Even those running in the small minority of contested races typically generate a far lesser number of actual votes from among those who show up at the polls and choose to cast a choice between candidates in their micro-district race.
Opaque candidate zone designations, officially Single Member Districts named SMDs, are nearly hieroglyphic. The nomenclature consists of the political ward, an ANC alphabetical reference and a two-digit SMD numerical designation, separated by a hyphen. My ANC commissioner, for example, purports to represent those living in 2F-01 (and, yes, I had to look that up).
There are 40 ANCs, each sub-divided into the smaller SMDs of varying number ranging from only two to as many as 12. Each SMD is intended to represent approximately 2,000 people but that number can vary based on the explosive growth in the number of residents in certain parts of the city since the last Census-based reconfiguration.
Most of the time, voters have no clue about the solitary or competing candidates who are running for election, or even who they are. Fewer have any idea what these mysterious names might do in supposedly representing their small neighborhood areas if or once elected.
The most neighborhood locals might know is whether the group has made business difficult for a local business or new development. Not much else typically seeps out to command community consciousness unless it’s a salacious scandal or screaming scene that manages to hit a local blog.
These SMD representatives and ANC groupings typically meet once a month in often-lengthy hours-long sessions attended by only a handful of area residents. ANC meetings can infrequently attract a slightly larger audience if the group has taken on a particularly controversial neighborhood issue for which the advisory recommendation might have specific impact within a city board or regulatory agency.
Although they have no decision-making authority, these commissioners can have influence on some neighborhood matters, albeit only as an advisory suggestion. Their opinion is theoretically required to be bestowed an essentially hypothetical and undefined “great weight” if filed with a regulatory body or city agency, which often merely means that a written response must be provided.
This ANC “influence” can include offering opinions on agency decisions affecting the opportunity for additional housing density needed across the city to meet the needs and affordability of a still-increasing population, or regulatory restrictions that can determine whether local community small business enterprise can or will succeed. Zoning approvals and nightlife venue licensing details are the primary occurrences and generates most notorious ANC controversies.
Of course, D.C. Council members tend to favor the existence of these uncompensated ANC commissioners and their dabbling in localized minutiae. It allows the Council to distance itself from direct neighborhood engagement. You can almost imagine Council members peering down while smirking from the upper-floor windows of the Wilson Building marveling at ANC commissioners flailing about in the gutter-muck of mitigating mundane matters that would otherwise be their responsibility.
The city would better benefit from a Council more focused on nuts-and-bolts service to residents with less mischief-making time on their hands to explore and exact additional mind-numbing rules, regulations and restrictions.
Until then, we’re left to ponder who, what, why – and even whether – ANCs.