When Congress approved the Home Rule Act of 1973, giving the District of Columbia a healthy measure of autonomy, it also created an experiment in grassroots government - the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
Each of the 36 ANCs, according to the formulators of the idea, would be a link between citizens and their local government.
Now, more than six years later, some observers believe the ANCs are floundering, while others see them as strong community forces with growing influence in how the District government meets the needs of its citizens.
The 36 ANCs differ from one another in almost every aspect - from size to their responses to the varying needs of their communities.
The most obvious difference is size. Each ANC is made up of two or more single-member districts representing about 2,000 people, each with an ANC commissioner. However, because boundaries for the 36 ANCs are drawn along neighborhood lines, the number of single-member districts - and commissioners - in each ANC varies widely.
For instance, the smallest ANC - 1D in Kalorama Heights - has two commissioners representing a total of about 2,800 people. By contrast, the largest ANC - 2C in Shaw-Downtown-Near Northeast - has 19 commissioners representing about 37,000 people.
In both large and small ANCs, the majority of commissioners say their first obligation is to their own neighborhood. Thus, many ANCs have concentrated on issues which bother their neighborhoods most. That focus, some observers say, has made the ANCs important agencies for determining how their communities will develop. There is also a small group of ANCs, primarily in neighborhoods undergoing rapid changes, that are active in city-wide issues.
Focusing on issues - local or city-wide - is not the only role of the ANCs. Throughout the city, ANC commissioners and their staffs spend much of their time helping smooth out the individual problems of their constituents.
"People usually do not come out unless they have a personal problem, such as a pothole in front of their house," said Mozelle Watkins, chair-person of ANC 5 A in Brookland.
In fact, a few ANCs, usually in quiet, stable neighborhoods, do little else than expedite city services for their community. Whether the hottest issue is the construction of a city convention center or removal of snow and trash in Mount Pleasant, ANC activities are determined primarily by the interests of its citizens.
As Harold Valentine, of ANC 1 A in Columbia Heights-Upper Cardozo, puts it: "We're involved in whatever issue is pertinent to the neighborhood."
The personality of the individual commissioners apparently plays an important part in determining ANC activities.
ANC3E, for example, is a small five-member commission in Friendship Heights. But its current chairperson, Carol Currie Gidley, has brought ANC 3 E into prominence because of her work in several citywide issues, such as work to have the question of the proposed convention center put on the recent special election ballot. The City Council, however, rejected the referendum proposal and it was not put on the ballot.
Gidley admits that her interest in citywide matters takes away from the time available for handling local ANC problems, such as street repairs and stray dogs, but she believes ANCs must be recognized as powerful political forces in the city, before they can be effective locally.
Each ANC commissioner is an unpaid representative of his or her community. Because of that, some commissioners say, the class and status of commissioners sometimes can determine how much time the representatives can afford to devotes to ANC activities, or how well commissioners can serve their communities. Moreover, education, profession and social contacts often determine the quality of outside resources a commissioner can bring to an ANC.
Theresa Jones of the Far Southeast Community organization put it this way:
"The landed gentry of Ward 3 (west of Rock Creek Park in Upper Northwest) can live how they want to live; those of us east of the Anacostia (River) lives as our situation dictates.
"They can afford the time and money to support their interests. They can afford to take leave from work and go testify at meetings. The dayworker cannot come downtown to these meetings. We cannot afford to take time off from our two or three jobs to do research, or to go to meetings and be emotional about issues."
Yet Jim Hannaham, a commissioner for ANC 7B in the Naylor GardensFort Dupont Area, said he believes that in the next few years the city will see growing activism and energy in the ANCs east of the river.
"People are learning to use the ANCs as tools," he said, "and to work together to solve our problems."
The most sensitive issue for ANCs east of the Anacostia River is what ANC commissioners say is neglect of their citizens by both the city government and the media. Illustrative of this is their definition of terms.
"Anacostia," said Hannaham, "isn't the name of everything east of the river. It is the name of Old Anacostia, or Uniontown. We have many other communities out here as well - Naylor Gardens, Fort davis, Fairfax Village, Kenilworth, Mayfair, Deanwood, Lincoln Heights, Congress Heights Bellview and Shipley Terrace, to name a few.
"When the press reports on all these areas as being in 'Anacostia,' the impression given is that we all have the same problems as Anacostia. We do not. There are some fine communities here, like Fairfax Village. There are others which need help that is not coming to them because few people downtown understand that they even exist."
Many ANCs east of the river got off to slow starts, and one claim by some critics of the ANC concept is that this shows that poor people don't know enough about how to govern themselves to create effective political organizations.
But a ANC meetings visited in the area, not only were important and substantive issues addressed and well handled, the parliamentary procedure and seriousness of the meetings rivaled that of any of the ANCs visited in the area west of Rock Creek.
One problem that has confronted ANCs across the city is how far they can go in aiding other ANCs and community groups.
In Ward 3, for instance, the problems of commercial development along Wisconsin Avenue have helped foster cooperation. Indeed, one of the most effective local lobbies in the city is the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Committee, an aggregate of virtually all the ANCs and other community groups along Wisconsin Avenue.
On the other hand, in Brookland, a stable, middle-class neighborhood in Northeast, the primary interest seems to be in maintaining the peaceful environment there. One ANC commissioner in Brookland expressed it this way: "We support the fights of other ANCs just so long as they don't bring them here."
Within individual ANCs, the continuing population shifts have caused some problems.
Commissioner Anthony Hillary, of ANC 1B in Columbia Heights, says that when he was first elected in 1976, his constituency was mostly black, and he, as a black, felt he could represent them well. Now, he says, his district is almost entirely white, and he finds he has much less in common with his neighbors.
Such changes have affected ANCs and their constituents in at least two ways. In Ward 1 in the Shaw area, the established ANCs, largely black and Hispanic, are often ignored by the newer residents. On Capitol Hill and in Southwest, both old and new residents are active, although newer residents, with more resources, education and time, seem to be taking over the ANCs and the older residents feel left out and alienated.
One problem all ANCs face, commissioners say, is a lack of money. Because ANCs range widely in size, and because funding is in proportion to the number of people they represent, their budgets range widely as well.
For instance, in 1978, the average funding for each of the seven ANCs in Ward 3 was $16,000. In the same year, the average funding for each of the seven ANCs in Wards 4 and 5 was $34,000. The difference is due to size; funding is on a per capita basis and the larger the ANC, the more funds it is allocated.
Tied to the failure of the city and Congress to give ANCs the full funding specified by the Home Rule Act, this has meant that some ANCs have completed and well-equipped offices, with paid legal consultants and staffs, while others are lucky to afford just an office and a telephone.
Indeed, ANC 3E in Friendship Heights survives on a shoe-string budget only because it has been loaned office space, has staff members who work many more hours than those they get paid for and have commissioners who chip in to pay some expenses, such as ANC due to the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Committee.
Yet, even the larger ANCs complain that they don't have enough money to work effectively. As ANC 5A Chairperson Watkins said: "Here at Brookland we can't expand - we only get enough to pay the secretary's salary and run the office."
The ways in which ANCs spend their money says much about their differences in operation. More active ANCs tend to have an office, a telephone, a phone answering machine, regular office hours, paid staff and a frequently published newsletter of flier. In fact, it is hard to tell whether active ANCs have better communications with their constituents, or rather, that ANCs with good communications become more active.
Ayo Handy, a staff member with ANC 8D in the Bellview-Washington Highlands area, stressed the importance of a communications link. For several months, the 8D office was closed because it was without staff, and Handy said that with the office closed there was no way for residents of Far Southeast and other community groups in the area to get any information about what has been happening downtown.
"The so-called apathy of people is mostly just because they don't know what's going on," Handy said. "We need to organize the community to sustain ourselves - let people know they can call on us now."