Self-confidence and enthusiasm merged with political optimism last week as the city's 346 newly elected ANC commissioners from 36 ANC districts took office at a crowded and boisterous swearing-in ceremony.
Although often plagued by citizen disinterest and official rebuffs, members of the four-year-old Advisory Neighborhood Commissions said that they saw themselves as an increasingly powerful force in city politics. A dozen commissioners said, in interviews, they believed that the ANCs were stronger and better prepared to have an impact on issues such as condominium conversion, poor voter turnout and economic redevelopment. Of the city's 367 ANC seats, 21 remain vacant.
"A lot of people have begun to realize the clout the ANCs have," said Roland Roebuck, a Ward 1 commissioner, who says he is the first Hispano elected to the ANC. "Now we can form coalitions to bring political pressure on those who make decisions affecting the folks."
Ernest Darling, a Ward 6 commissioner, said he looked forward to the future of the ANCs with confidence.
"When it was (first) formed it was a struggle . . . Now I think we're going to receive more help from the government and constituents. We're more respected now. We have elected officials (supporting the ANCs) from the mayor on down."
Earlier in the evening, Mayor Marion Barry reaffirmed his commitment to the ANCs, saying, "At my last cabinet meeting -- and I see several cabinet heads here -- I encouraged them to listen attentively to ANC commissioners. We intend to be serious about the ANCs."
Barry spoke to a noisy, wall-to-wall crowd jammed into the Masonic Temple at 10th and U streets NW for the ceremony and reception that followed.
By uniting with various community and civic groups on issues such as housing, the ANCs have learned that there is strength in unity, said Evelyn Wagstaff, a Ward 6 commissioner.
"Some of the civic groups felt the ANCs were a threat," Wagstaff said. "We were able to unite them with the ANCs over the Safeway issue," she said. Twice last year, the community was able to help halt the shutdown of the store in Anacostia. The store is one of four supermarkets south of Good Hope Road serving 155,000 people. The doors are now slated to close April 1.
Similar coalitions between the ANCs and civic groups, or other commissions, have been formed throughout the city.
In Ward 2, neighbors have even won help from the military.
Ethel James Williams, chairperson of ANC 2D, said that the ANCs have sought help from the Coast Guard to develop recreation and career programs for youth in Southwest.
"The Coast Guard is meeting with the group to provide career development guidance for young people," she said. "Our mission is to have many more educational programs for the young people."
In Ward 5, commissioner Alyce L. Lynch is trying, she said, to "effect some unity and build on the programs already started." In Ward 3, commissioners concerned about the loss of rental properties are leading tenants associations to help neighbors threatened by condominium conversion.
"We're also beginning to work hand-in-hand with the citizens associations in the city," said Marie Fitzgerald, a Ward 3 commissioner for an area including Cleveland Park and Forest Hills. "Where they don't fare so well with the city (officials), we do better."
Several commissioners complained of administrative foul-ups by the city in the handling of ANC funding. Pat Belcher of ANC 3F02 said the city's quarterly payments have not been received on time.
"They said the computers broke down," Belcher said. "We're now due two quarterly payments," about $3,000. As a result, he said, printers' bills and office rents, among other bills have gone unpaid.