On a cold night last winter, in a building in Takoma Park, a handful of people sat and waited in silence. Two men huddled at a table and spoke in whispers.
As time ticked by, an impatient expectancy settled in the room.
Eventually, one of the men at the table spoke. "In case you're wondering," he said, "we're waiting for a quorum." He was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and this was a public meeting of the Takoma Park ANC.
When the meeting finally began, 45 minutes late, the atmosphere was one of forced formality among the commissioners. They started by referring to each other as "commissioner" and toward the end, as discussions and arguments became heated, came down to using first names.
Takoma Park is primarily a middle-income area near the Maryland line in Upper Northwest. Among the ANC commissioners are a postman, a car salesman, a part-time teacher, an advertising representative for a newspaper, three retirees and a housewife.
The major problems facing this varied group are funding and lack of response from city departments, according to the ANC's annual reports to the city. But there also are apparent personality conflicts and communications problems among the commissioners. They "don't respect each other," said a former office manager of the ANC.
Such problems were visible at the meeting. Most commissioners were formally polite, some were impatient and intolerant, others simply played the devil's advocate.
Several commissioners contend, however, that the Takoma Park ANC is one of the most active in the city. It ensures delivery of city services, takes care of barking dogs, street cleaning and parking problems, according to chairman Dorothy Maultsby.
Maultsby, who was a candidate for the Ward 4 City Council seat in the May elections, appears to be the moving force behind most of the recent activities of the ANC. Last year, she organized a leadership seminar, which cost the ANC more than $2,400 and was attended by 35 persons.
The seminar was meant to provide leadership training to commissioners and others involved in community activities. While it was generally viewed as a success by the commissioners and other community leaders, some questioned the amount of money spent on it.
Maultsby, who has a no-nonsense, aggressive approach, arouses mixed feelings from her fellow commissioners. Some admire the work she does, but others have reservations about her attitude, which one commissioner calls "dictatorial."
The commissioners also differ in their assessments of their ANC. Maultsby and Wesley Garrett, former chairman of the ANC, view the commission as the best and most active in the city. Commissioner Rose Ann Lee views it as "good as most." And Commissioner Sara Green says, "Our ANC is a bunch of baloney."
But, according to some observers, the Takoma Park ANC is fairly typical of grass-roots government. The commissioners may disagree over many issues, but they also manage to take care of the stray dogs and dead trees and occasionally dabble in larger issues.