At a summit that was part traditional town meeting, part high-tech data crunching, nearly 3,000 people from all corners of the District turned out yesterday to tell Mayor Anthony A. Williams how to rebuild their neighborhoods and restore their faith in government.
From specific concerns to general complaints, in conversations and through electronic polling, residents from across the city sat for more than six hours and registered their opinions. It was the mayor's most ambitious attempt to incorporate the views of his constituents into his agenda.
"I hope during the citizen summit that each and every one of you will give your ideas, your energy, your questions, your unique talents and, yes, even your frustrations," Williams (D) told those gathered at the onset. "The citizen summit is a beginning, not an end."
Residents listed neighborhood revitalization as the most important issue they want Williams to address, followed by a desire to have the city invest in children. Keypads at each of the 241 tables permitted an instantaneous survey of the crowd, which was not a mirror of the population at large but still a close approximation.
By the end of the summit, Williams announced a series of specific tasks that the city is now prepared to accomplish. They include a $40 million street resurfacing project, $1 million to purchase new street- and alley-cleaning equipment and the rehabilitation of recreational centers throughout the city.
For Williams, who has been known to set ambitious timetables and goals for his administration, the summit, with its list of precise demands, creates a template for judging his performance. Since he took office nearly a year ago, Williams has vowed to radically overhaul District government, and some in attendance said the goal now is for the mayor to set priorities he can deliver on and give residents a feeling of being a part of the governing process.
And for residents, who turned out in far greater numbers than expected, the summit proved an unusually effective forum for airing hopes and frustrations. For a city that has lacked a voice in a very fundamental way--the elected officials having been superseded by a control board--the very idea of a summit proved appealing to many.
"If the mayor of your city gives you the opportunity to voice your opinion and he's going to listen, then it's an obligation to come out and share that with him," said Kathleen Holly, 59, of Congress Heights.
The summit's specific goal was to give residents a more direct role in government, in effect to help set an agenda that in turn will be addressed by city agencies. It was designed, mayoral aides said, to allow residents to become part of the short-term and long-term process for rebuilding neighborhoods and addressing issues that continue to plague communities.
The summit, including planning meetings since late summer, cost about $500,000, $80,000 of it from the District budget, city officials said. Most of the money came through donations from private companies and foundations.
A laptop computer sat at each table, recording comments. Each summit participant also had a keypad, which looked like a TV remote control, for casting votes. Antennae suspended from the ceiling of the convention center picked up the radio frequencies on the keypads, and the voice of the people could be instantly tallied, with the results flashed up on two large screens at the front of the room.
The keypads permitted an instantaneous demographic survey of the crowd: Summiteers were 61 percent women and 39 percent men; 61 percent African American, 22 percent non-Hispanic white, 5 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 8 percent other. They came from across the city. Participants represented diverse ages and incomes. Nearly one in five works for the city. Only 30 percent have children.
Williams said that after he reviews some of the concerns that residents expressed, "we will harness our resources and address these issues immediately. . . . We want to ask you how we should prioritize the issues."
Williams has been criticized for not reaching out to a cross section of District residents and not consulting community leaders. Yesterday, he said the summit was critical for moving the District forward because it brought together blacks and whites, young and old and residents from every ward.
Several D.C. Council members attended the summit, including Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), Harold Brazil (D-At Large), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large). Graham said the event was good politics.
Williams said he plans to incorporate the ideas and suggestions from residents in the fiscal year 2000 budget, specifically allocating money to fix neighborhoods. "This is the mayor developing his budget strategy for next year," Graham noted.
Graham said he had come to the summit with some skepticism, but after a morning sitting at a table working on priorities with eight residents, he said he was won over. "I think it's meaningful, and I had been very dubious," he said.
Some who attended the summit said they were pleased that Williams has decided to hear from residents directly. But others questioned whether the mayor will be able to take the summit to the next step and deliver on his promises.
"Many people are adopting a wait-and-see attitude," said Shirley Smith, a Ward 5 resident with the United Planning Organization, a D.C. social service program. "We have to concentrate on what we can do for ourselves to rebuild our communities, not what government is going to do for us."
Moderator Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group America Speaks, said the summit was the largest citizen involvement event her group has managed. At one point, Lukensmeyer asked participants if they were comfortable answering questions about race. The vast majority said yes.
The crowd, as the electronic census showed, was diverse. Marjorie Hopper noticed. The retired schoolteacher from Columbia Heights said this was a change in the city: "This is more inclusive. It's diverse, and a large number of all races are here."
"If you're pushing the people's agenda, this is one way to bring diverse groups together to strategize and set priorities," said Leroy Swain, a teacher at Eastern High School.
For some, it was a family affair. Steve Nash, a nursing home administrator and fifth-generation resident of the District, decided to attend the summit with his two young sons. He said he plans to raise his family and live in the District for the rest of his life.
"I think this is a good idea," Nash said. Like others, he was both optimistic and cautious. "It's good to have an open dialogue, " he said, "but I want to make sure there is follow-up, not just a show."
Others came with specific demands. Julius Hawkins Sr., a retired bricklayer from Northeast Washington, wanted the mayor to clean streets, fill potholes and police his neighborhood. "They need to listen more to the community," Hawkins said. "That's the whole administration's problem. That's why we're here. We hope to have a better relationship between the government and the community."
At times, the process itself seemed to invigorate those involved. "This is very encouraging," said Brian Lederer, a lawyer who lives in Ward 3. "The city has been depressed for so long, but now the energy of the neighborhood is being released again. I feel confident that the mayor is committed to hearing from the community and letting the community help set the priorities."
Lederer said that the city needs to change directions and that neighborhoods are the "lifeblood of the community."
"The last few years, things happened without a voice from the community," Lederer said. "Here is a way of getting the community's priorities connected to the mayor's."
The summit even drew former mayor Marion Barry. He said the large turnout showed that residents "want their communities improved, and they are anxious to be involved."
Edgar Cahn, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law and a resident of the Chevy Chase neighborhood, said the proof of whether the summit is worthwhile will be in what action follows, if any.
"I think this is a mayor who has a commitment to something," he said. "The question is what he does with it. He's got a burden of proof to show that he produces something."
Staff writers David Montgomery, Vanessa Williams and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.