DURING THE TORTUOUS annual process in which the District seeks congressional permission to spend its own local tax money, there is usually some question from Capitol Hill about the state of the city's experiment in neighborhood government. Are the elected advisory neighborhood commissions successes or failures? Are they doing anything useful? Are they doing anthing at all? In advance of this year's inquiry, a modest sampling of reports suggests that these neighborhood branches of government are playing a constructive if uneven role.
The best news amounts to what these commissions have not become in their three years of existence. They are not, as some skeptics had predicted when Congress originally approved their establishment, "just another layer of bureaucracy" in government. In fact, their authority is extremely limited; they do not formally decide much at all.
Though some of the 36 commissions work more successfully than others, hardly anyone seems to be complaining that these neighborhood groups are impeding any conduct of business with the District council or the mayor's office. On the contrary, even some of the old-line civic associations-which at first viewed the ANCs as unnecessary competitors-are now working hand-in-hand with the commissions on neighborhood issues, holding hearings and conveying recommendations to D.C. Council members.
What issues? Condominium conversions, liquor licenses, school closings, park designs, street lights, transportation for the handicapped, security and fire problems in public buildings, utility bills, bus routes, home purchases, tax assessments, library hours, activities of juveniles, recreational facilities, beautification and almost anything else residents care to raise through regular "town meetings." For example, a Capitol Hill ANC surveyed riders on Metro's late-night buses and helped win a continuation of that service; another commission proposed and won changes in a city plan to eliminate street lights on certain blocks.
The elected commissioners are not paid for their work. Under a population formula set forth in the District charter, each neighborhood group receives a modest share of money to cover expenses-roughly $1 a resident. This has been used mostly to inform residents of city government plans and activities affecting their neighborhoods-information that all too often in the past wasn't learned until too late. At a time when all local citizens still have much to discover about the business of self-government, the modest amounts and limited authority given to the neighborhood commissions constitutes a sound investment in home-town management.*