Anita Bonds

At-Large Council member Anita Bonds (D) introduced a bill that would reform the way ANC system operates within the city in an effort to support residents better. (AFRO File Photo)

A bill co-authored by At-large D.C. Council members Anita Bonds (D) and David Grosso (I) to reform the advisory neighborhood commission system is generating controversy.

Bonds and Grosso introduced the “The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions Omnibus Amendment Act of 2016” on April 5, which would change the way the District’s advisory neighborhood commissioners (ANCs) operate. Bonds, who served as a Ward 5C commission chair said the commission needs to be revamped be more accountable to residents.

“This bill will allow our communities to have the tools, resources, support and information they need to more effectively bring a local voice to the government,” she said.

The ANC system was created in 1974 through a referendum in the District of Columbia Home Rule Act. Commissioners are located in all eight of the city’s wards and are elected by residents residing in 296 single-member districts that consist of approximately 2,000 residents.

Commissioners are elected on a non-partisan basis and represent their constituents on matters dealing with parking, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, public safety, public works, and neighborhood amenities. In the District, a disgruntled resident is supposed to take their complaints to a commissioner before going to their ward council member.

For decades, various civic and public interest leaders have called for reforms of ANCs because of scandals regarding the misuse of funds and supplies. The most noted example of this was the April 2012 conviction of Ward 5 Commissioner William Shelton for embezzling $28,526 of commission funds for personal use. There have been scraps over the years among commissioners over public funds and the powers of commission officers because those duties and obligations were never clearly defined by District law.

Bonds’ bill is designed to do that. The ANC reform bill would, among other things, create hubs in each ward for commissioners to share office space and equipment, simplify financial reporting, provide commissioners with a stipend, and increase commissioners’ influence with the council and city agencies.

Ronnie Fields, a commissioner for district 5A05 in Ward 5, supports the bill. “There has been a need for a change in the way ANCs operate and when Bonds ran for re-election to her seat in 2014, she promised to introduce legislation that would do that,” Fields said to the AFRO. “I, along with others, looked at the draft legislation, attended community meetings on the bill, and I think it would be good for the commissions.”

However, Kathy Henderson, the outspoken commissioner representing district 5D05 in Ward 5 who has repeatedly clashed with commission colleagues over the proper use of resources and conducting meetings, condemned the Bonds-Grosso legislation.

“This bill is outrageous,” Henderson said. “How dare she write some garbage indicating that commissioners need to attend training to get a parking pass and commissioners can’t act alone? This will allow some renegade commissioners to act without public input. I will weigh in on this ridiculous legislation.”

Commissioner Mary Cuthbert, who represents district 8C03 and is the chairman of the commission 8C in Ward 8, has reservations about the bill, as well.  “It’s horrible,” she said. “You need approval of all commissioners to have a guest speaker? That doesn’t make sense to me. We invite guest speakers to inform our community. Sometimes commissioners don’t come to meetings but that shouldn’t prevent the community from being educated.”

One of the most popular items of Bonds’ bill is the stipend of $500 per year. Commissioners are presently uncompensated and even some of the position-related expenses are out of their own pockets.

“Five hundred dollars a year isn’t enough,” Henderson said. “The city has money now. They can pay us more.”

Gary Butler, who represents district 7B03 in Ward 7, agrees with Henderson. “I think if commissioners are compensated at perhaps $5,000 or $10,000 a year, you would get a better pool of candidates for the positions,” Butler said.

The legislation has been referred by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to the Committee on Housing and Community Development that is chaired by Bonds. No hearing date had been set by AFRO press time.