Adventures in Hyper-Local Governance

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Brooks Butler Hays had a smart take on the recent tussle between popular Bloomingdale cafe Big Bear’s problems with the local Advisor Neighborhood Commission which highlights some governance issues of much broader relevance:

One question that arises from the flames: how can such a popular business that has faithfully served the community for several years – in an area that has a dismally minuscule number of retail and restaurant options – be so angrily opposed by residents? Big Bear Cafe was even granted the Mayor’s 2009 Environment Excellence award. Granted, that sounds like a meaningless certificate a third grade teacher would give to make sure all her students felt appreciated, but still! Another logical question is: why is the ANC bestowed the authority to raise such a hissy fit? It seems the large majority of the community is in support of the business’s plans (600 signed a petition in support of the liquor license application), but the ANC has given a symbolic megaphone to a minority of elected curmudgeons in opposition. When an organizations only real power is to say no to things, it’s apparent that they are more likely to conjure the zeitgeist of prohibition-era attitudes in order to play devil’s advocate. How can residents expect property values to improve if amenities like restaurants, bars, and markets are not readily incorporated into the community? DCMud will keep its readership informed as answers to these questions reveal themselves in the coming months.

Another point to raise here is that the ANCs are one of America’s examples of electoral democracy without democratic accountability—nobody knows who these guys are or what ANCs do, so incumbents tend to just keep getting re-elected indefinitely. Then they’re empowered to say “no” to stuff, so their default position is that nobody should be allowed to do anything. And last they’re hyper-local so they don’t properly weigh the interests of the broader community of people—lots of people who live near-but-not-in ANC5A (me, for example) go to the cafe and also enjoy the farmer’s market that’s associated with it. Community input in decision-making is important, but you need to think hard about how you structure these institutions.