More than six years after Advisory Neighborhood Commissions were created under the D.C. home rule charter, ANCs appear to remain relatively obscure to many Washingtonians.
In a survey of 100 residents throughout the city, more than half said they knew nothing about the commissions that were created specifically to serve them.
The 100 residents also were asked to grade their ANC on its ability to get things done, with an A for excellence and an F for failure. Only 53 residents responded to the question. The report card: A-9; B-13; C-18; D-9; F-4.
One Capitol Hill resident said he was dissatisfied with his ANC because it spent too much time on issues such as zoning and housing instead of the immediate needs of the community.
"I'm sick of seeing garbage cans out all over the sidewalks and streets," he said. "Why don't they rezone them ?"
Commissioner Anne Hargrove of ANC 1C in Adams-Morgan is aware of those by types of complaints, but notes, "We have more than we can handle. We'd like to help out with the little things, but the zoning problems are so involved. You have no idea."
One complaint voiced by commissioners is that few residents bother to attend ANC meetings. Only six of the 100 residents interviewed said they had ever attended an ANC meeting. Commissioners say that 40 persons is considered a good attendance, while two to 10 per meeting is typical.
An Adams-Morgan resident said he had tried to attend an ANC meeting, but when he showed up at the publicized place and time, he discovered the meeting date had been changed.
Part of the problem could be attributed to the way residents perceive the ANC's role. When the 100 residents were asked about problems they would like to see their ANCs tackle, the answers ranged from keeping the streets clean to zoning regulation. Even with such specific suggestions, few of the 100 residents said they felt motivated to contact their ANC on a problem or to help with ANC work.
"The ANCs? Sure I've heard of them," said one resident. "They're supposed to deal with the little things, but I hate to say it, they aren't too good at it. I've never called my commissioner, because by the time they get around to solving my problem I could do it myself. I'm chagrined to say I've never been to a meeting, but I intend to remedy that someday soon."
Many ANC commissioners believe this attitude comes, in part, because people are concerned only with their "gripe of the moment." Many residents will attend a meeting if their building is threatended with condominium conversion, for instance, and never show up again.
"One of our major problems," according to Commissioner James Onley, of ANC 7D in Lincoln Heights, "is communication. How do you communicate to the citizens about the problems in the area and about the real need for their voice?"
Ben Richards, executive secretary of ANC 3A in Georgetown, believes the very nature of city affects participation in ANC activities.
"Most people here are transient," he said. "As long as the buses are running they don't care. They probably don't know or care who's on the City Council."
But among the 100 residents, there were a few who actively supported ANC activities.
"D.C. needs the ANCs. This is the voice of the people," said one of the 100 residnets interviewed. "We need the community organization to get our voices heard. I'm working with my ANC because I couldn't stand to see something as necessary as ANCs slip through our fingers."
Many people who decide to work with their ANCs do so for specific reasons. One man was fighting the city to get a broken limb removed from a tree in front of his store; he went to his ANC for help. Eventually, the D.C. government not only removed the limb, but took the whole tree. After that episode he gave up going to ANC meetings.
A few people surveyed said they belonged to community organizations other than ANCs. They believed the active people in the ANCs represented their interests and saw no reason to attend the meetings. They did not opt to join the ANCs, but preferred to remain with the established neighborhood groups.
In many cases, however, past experience in civic organizations was cited as a reason for becoming active in ANCs.
When people do work for an ANC, they tend to work very hard. One study found that well over half of 18 commissioners interviewed had full-time jobs and still devoted a great deal of spare time to ANC projects. One Capitol Hill man described his commissioners as doing "a hell of a lot of work."
Carol Currie Gidley, commissioner of ANC 3E in Friendship Heights, describes the ANC activist this way: "We are white and black, owners and renters and all different ages." The one common factor among commissioners, she said, is "previous activism."