Mayor Muriel Bowser started her political career when she was elected to one of the District’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Some DC Council members started out that way, too.
You don’t need to have that kind of political trajectory in mind to serve your neighborhood on an ANC, just a willingness to be active and engaged in the community – and for the community. The commissions are deserving of candidates who are hungry to learn how our city works and the ways ANCs can maneuver to improve services.
And, by the way, you can file to run for a two-year term right now. The deadline for submitting completed nominating petitions to the DC Board of Elections is August 5th. We spell out the hows and whys here.
But in case you need to hear from people who’ve been there, we asked three former ANC 3F commissioners why they ran, what they faced, and what they got out of the experience. Adam Tope, Mary Beth Ray and Pat Jakopchek served on ANC 3F in the past decade.
What prompted you to run for the ANC?Adam Tope: I had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get involved in the neighborhood. I thought joining the ANC was a good way to learn about neighborhood issues and also influence the development of the neighborhood in a way I wanted.
Mary Beth Ray: I ran for the ANC because I felt it was an opportunity to serve the community, strengthen our neighborhood assets, and meet neighbors. Sidewalks, trails, and a more vibrant and beautiful streetscape were all on my “to do” list, and I felt called to try to make a difference. Also, Marlene Berlin took me on a walk and told me to run!
Pat Jakopchek: Like many DC residents, I’ve had a lifelong affinity for government and politics. I work as a campaign and communications consultant, so my professional life centers around supporting other people’s advocacy efforts. The ANC was a very appealing way for me to “see what’s on the other side of the curtain” and get a better understanding of what my clients face every day while also having the opportunity to serve our local community and improve my own neighborhood.
What did you have to learn that was crucial to your effectiveness as commissioner?
Adam: It was overwhelming at first. Lots of constituents with varying views. Lots of issues I did not even know about when joining the ANC. The overlay of regulations and DC government workings I did not know. The most important item to learn was how DC government worked and who to contact to get things done. The mayor’s Ward 3 liaison was particularly helpful at introducing me to people. Once I built a network of people in the DC government, I could be very effective.
Mary Beth: I had to learn the names of dozens of DC agencies and officials, and how the city budget process works. Fortunately, Marlene proved to be an excellent teacher. Leading is much easier than collaborating, and yet to build a meaningful coalition required recruiting volunteers, and establishing structure and process to ensure that all voices were heard. Patience is not my forte and yet sometimes that was the only way to win over recalcitrant colleagues and community members.
Pat: The skills required to be an effective commissioner aren’t too different from other organizing-centric roles. If you’re someone who listens, knows how to build coalitions of support and focuses on problem-solving, even if it’s simply creating incremental solutions, you’ll do well.
How did you communicate with your constituents?
Adam: Primarily through email lists that I developed, neighborhood email groups and our ANC website.
Mary Beth: I communicated with constituents primarily by email, but also in person, by phone and through the ANC website. Adam Tope was our fearless leader and chairman until he moved to NYC, and Adam initiated the livestream broadcasts of the ANC meetings, as well as the website. This really allowed our commission to connect with people who wouldn’t normally come out to an evening meeting. And of course the Forest Hills Connection was an excellent way to put out updates, and seek community input through surveys and comments.
Pat: Every way I could. Email, of course, was an integral tool for letting people know what was going on at the ANC. I’m also very proud of the redesigned website I helped shepherd during my time on ANC 3F and believe ours is one of the most useful and informative ANC websites available to any community across the city. Independent media like FHC, GGW and The Northwest Current were also essential to pushing information out to wider audiences. I also really leaned on my constituents to share relevant information with their own neighbors. People are so busy and what’s going on at the ANC is never front-page news. So, I’d try to tap the networks of people I’d connect with — leveraging things like the informal neighborhood email chains that exist for many blocks to get relevant information in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
What was your biggest challenge?
Adam: The biggest challenge is learning that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. I’ve been called names, called out in op-eds in the newspaper, etc. Sometimes you need to weigh opposing sides on issues and decide for the best interest of the neighborhood.
Mary Beth: The biggest challenge for me was the length of time every city decision takes… and lots of meetings that went until midnight. One of the first projects I tackled was the Broad Branch Road renovation back in 2013. It’s still in limbo. Once we got the Van Ness Vision Committee up and running, recruiting volunteers who were committed was another challenge. People are busy, or they feel they can’t make a difference. I learned that getting organized allowed us to get the attention of city agencies and the City Council, and then we could really make things happen. But the wheels of government turn slowly, particularly when the feds get involved, as they were with Broad Branch (National Park Service).
Pat: The biggest challenge I faced was right in the name: “Advisory.” Outside of zoning decisions and liquor licenses, where the body has party status, the ANC does not hold formal power of its own. Its recommendations are given “great weight”, but city agencies are not bound by them and can disregard community concerns and preferences as they see fit. There are some commonsense reasons to limit the powers of these somewhat obscure commissions, but the structure really forces one to be creative about enforcing long-term community benefits and also in tapping relationships with the City Council and executive branch agencies to solve the problems facing our constituents.
What was your biggest accomplishment?
Adam: Helping rejuvenate the neighborhood was my biggest accomplishment. Under my leadership we helped attract businesses to the neighborhood like Bread Furst and other new restaurants, helped work on the redevelopment of the Park Van Ness site, and negotiation of the UDC campus plan.
Mary Beth: My biggest accomplishment was starting the Van Ness Vision Committee, which we then incorporated into Van Ness Main Street. That became essentially a full-time job, but it put me in touch with some terrific people who became fast friends. I also started the Soapstone Valley Committee, to save trees, work on environmental issues and protect our beautiful park and stream.
Pat: I’m very proud of my work to improve pedestrian and traffic safety along Connecticut Avenue. During my time on the ANC, I helped get a crosswalk and walk signal installed at one of the most dangerous intersections in my SMD, chaired the Streets & Sidewalks subcommittee that focused on similar issues across the ANC, and testified to help stop an incredibly ill-conceived drive-through, which would have exacerbated traffic problems and endangered pedestrians along the Van Ness commercial strip. I also sponsored ANC 3F’s resolution requesting the first comprehensive study of Connecticut Avenue in over 15 years — working with my colleagues in ANCs 3C and 3/4G to do the same and provide a united voice for the communities that stretch along the thoroughfare from Calvert Avenue to Military Road. That study is underway and winding its way through an ANC and stakeholder input process, and I’m hopeful it will lead to further enhancements in pedestrian safety, walkability, and economic vitality for all of us.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to run for this office?
Adam: Being a productive member of the ANC is a large time commitment. Meetings are sometimes during the day and often during the evenings and you are often connecting with the community on weekends. Make sure your work/life can handle the extra burden. That being said, I found all of the time I put into the ANC to be extremely rewarding.
Mary Beth: A parking permit comes with the job – when we’re out of quarantine, you’ll love it! And you will feel a deep sense of community when you walk down Connecticut Avenue, or through your neighborhood. You will see a sidewalk you helped get built, a small business you helped with a permit or grant, daffodils you helped plant, or even a stop sign you lobbied for. You’ll run into new friends and neighbors everywhere, and some may even call you “Commissioner!” But the bottom line is that you can make a difference, go for it!
Pat: If you’re interested in learning as much as you can about what’s going on in your community, improving the basic quality of life issues that affect each of us every single day, and meeting other people committed to doing the same, there’s no better opportunity to do so than on the ANC.