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Updated Technology and Law Essential to Assure Public Access to ANCs as Virtual Meetings Continue — Coalition Tells D.C. Council

Fritz Mulhauser | January 28, 2022 | Last modified: February 8, 2022

D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) need “significant investment in infrastructure, personnel and training” to modernize their operations according to testimony January 20 by Coalition board member and D.C. attorney Bob Becker.

The video of the hearing before the D.C. Council Committee on Government Operations and Facilities is here; Coalition testimony begins at 0:12:35. The full written statement is here.

Committee chair Robert White (D-At Large) announced a roundtable February 8 at noon to hear views on the future of the office and the capabilities needed in a new director. White published views on the ANCs and the office that supports them in a December Washington Examiner piece. (Update: similar Coalition testimony at the roundtable is here.)

Becker recounted for the Council that “glaring deficiencies abound” in transparency of ANCs such as inaccessible or rudimentary websites, unpublished meeting agendas, and no online access to minutes or electronic recordings of past meetings.

Though the Council has added funds to support ANCs tech needs, the central office has done little to put those resources to use, the Coalition reported. A tech staffer quit and has not been replaced, and the office told the Council just before the hearing that “not a penny has been spent.” It also refused offers of external assistance to assess needs and get going on pushing out resources. ANCs that did adopt novel technical tools to reach their constituents even faced “resistance” from the ANC Office, Becker told the Council. And new tech plans just announced may be incomplete, especially in view of the limited consultation by staff with ANCs on how plans match needs.

According to the Coalition, “This long-standing refusal to engage productively on commission transparency has very significant consequences” including two in particular:

  • uncertain safeguarding of records outsourced to multiple website vendors, and
  • mishandling of official emails sent on private accounts.

This unfortunate history, Becker explained, means the vacant directorship for the Council’s Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions “presents the Council with the opportunity to appoint a new executive director to lead needed effort, one who can apply technology creatively to facilitate citizen engagement, and who understands the role transparency plays in building community trust.”

The Coalition called for specific tech steps by the Council, in consultation with the Office of Open Government:

  • Establish a common platform to host all ANC websites.
  • Establish a common electronic records management system to store all documents,
    emails and other data ANCs create or obtain from within or outside the D.C. government.
  • Acquire audio-visual equipment ANCs need to live-stream meetings.
  • Set policies for managing records complying with the law – the FOI Act, and the Open Meetings Act — and provide ANCs staff support to implement those policies.
  • Train ANC commissioners and support staff to use the new technology.

Becker stressed it’s “long past time” for the Council to include ANC meetings under general D.C. Open Meetings Act rules, ending the exemption won by ANC members’ lobbying a decade ago.

Instead, said Becker, it’s time to extend the common city-wide requirements as to meeting notices, closing any segment, and preserving and allowing public access to meeting records. From Coalition experience with many public bodies, these “are not burdensome, and there is no rational justification for excluding ANCs from a statute to which every other elected and appointed public body must comply.”

Coverage by the Open Meetings Act also would allow citizens with concerns to use the complaint process in the Office of Open Government. Said Becker, “there is no rational justification for preventing the OOG from assisting residents when ANCs violate transparency laws.”

Commissioners’ testimony underscored Coalition points:

  • ANC 3/4G chair Randy Speck noted his recently-elected members were “astonished” at the lack of tech support and the “inefficiency” of the ad hoc tools available, resulting in an “urgent need for tools to engage” the 15,000 residents in their Chevy Chase DC neighborhood on topics such as land-use planning, school matters, and traffic engineering.
  • ANC 3D leader Chuck Elkins noted the urgent need for help with the technical requirements of added audio and video equipment and powerful WiFi connectivity to enable new “hybrid” meeting format in which some attend in person, others online (virtually). Others agreed.
  • ANC 2A member Trupti Patel answered Council member Brooke Pinto’s (D-Ward 2) question about cross-commission collaboration by explaining the “digital divide,” how unequal access means some commissions lack technology to even attend each other’s meetings and no common method (such as a listserv) connects all.  ANC 5C Commissioner Jeremiah Montague, Jr., noted even printing is under-resourced, for ANCs’ communications with constituents without technology.

Council member White asked a panel of testifying commissioners about applying FOIA and OMA and all agreed. White especially noted “we have to fix” the email problems. The Coalition testimony noted the costs of incorrect handling of email. One ANC 5E commissioner’s use of private email cost the District $140,000 in legal fees after an eight-year losing battle over a FOIA request.

The ANC Office interim director Schannette Grant did not attend. Testimony of staffer Dawn Dickerson suggested the scale of deferred work that had accumulated as they explained since October 2021 they developed new relationships with the mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, added to the website a password-protected area for commissioners and posted training materials, surveyed commissioners on hybrid meeting needs, modernized their own office technology, improved an ineffective online portal for commissions’ contacts with government agencies, and chose contractors for new communications tools.

Those include GovDelivery (the District’s electronic outreach tool from the Granicus firm for sending email and also the text messages all-important for reaching those with phones but not computers) and a citizen engagement platform called CitizenLab. ANC Office staff member Gail Fast reported implementation begins in February.

Council member White pressed for a “vision” for further improvement of the current limited website for the office since “it seems inevitable there’s going to have to be a new site.” Staff acknowledged the limitations but it’s handled by the D.C. government (executive branch) and repair is unlikely within current resources, saying “funding or legislation may be required.”

White also asked the Office to take note of the Coalition testimony and “engage” on questions of applying the Open Meetings Act “and the appropriate path forward.” On FOIA compliance, staff member Kathy Williams explained that had been the responsibility of the former director, who allowed commissions to handle record-keeping and FOIA request responses themselves without seeking help. That usually worked well enough “if they have what’s requested. If they say they don’t have [a record], we can’t do anything. The only thing we can do is ask the commissioner [to look for the requested item] … There’s no enforcement.”  White echoed staff frustration, noting “commissioners acting inappropriately can’t be a barrier to FOIA.”

The D.C. Open Government Coalition looks forward to working with the committee to confirm a new executive director for the OANC and to formulate further plans to modernize the Office and ANC operations.

If you have ideas for making ANCs full participants in open government, write us at info@dcogc.org.  

Background on ANCs (source: D.C. Council)

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are part of the legislative branch of local government in Washington, DC. They consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their neighborhoods, including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District’s annual budget.

In each of these areas, the intent of the ANC legislation is to ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of the residents of the neighborhoods that are directly affected by government action. The ANCs are the body of government with the closest official ties to the people in a neighborhood.

The ANCs present their positions and recommendations on issues to various District government agencies, the Executive Branch, and the Council. They also present testimony to independent agencies, boards, and commissions, usually under the rules of procedure specific to those entities. By law, the ANCs may also present their positions to Federal agencies.

Commissioners serve two-year terms (all seats are up each even-numbered election year) and receive no salary. Each Commissioner represents approximately 2,000 residents in his or her Single Member District (SMD) area.  (Each Council member of the eight elected by ward represents 82,000-90,000 residents.) The number of commissions (now 40) and SMD commissioners (now 299) could change with redistricting currently underway.