[from June 2005 issue]


Recently, at-large Councilmembers Carol Schwartz and David Catania introduced a bill they have styled as the “Protection of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners from Intimidation and Assault Act of 2005.” If enacted, the legal status of ANC commissioners would be elevated to the same level as not only that of DDOT’s traffic enforcement officers but also that of city council members and the mayor himself!

We asked Carol Schwartz what motivated her to get into this. She was very earnest in expressing her concerns for the safety of the volunteer ANC members, concerns that came about as a result of hearing from some commissioners who have had very bad experiences with neighbors who apparently didn’t like them or what they were up to as commissioners and so trashed their property, threatened or actually carried out, physical harm, and other anti-social behavior. And, given their responsibilities by virtue of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions Act of 1975 and also, Mrs. Schwartz stressed, that they are not paid for their efforts, yet they occupy positions of leadership to which they were elected and regularly are called upon to address tough issues, she genuinely believes affording additional legal protections is the right thing to do.

(We attempted to contact the bill’s co-sponsor, Councilmember Catania, but we received no response to our telephone and email messages directed to his office seeking an interview.)

What especially troubles us about this bill is the proposed wording of a new section titled, “Penalty for Intimidation of Advisory neighborhood Commissioners” wherein it reads, in part:

“Whoever, corruptly or by threat or force, or by any threatening letter or communication [italicization supplied by us] endeavors to intimidate or impede any Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in connection with his or her official business, or injures any . . . Commissioner or vandalizes, damages, or destroys the property of. . . .”

Now, don’t get us wrong: We are not in any way shape or form advocating that terrible things can be done against these civic volunteers whether or not they are performing “official business.” Of course not! They are our neighbors and we should treat them in a neighborly fashion. But that doesn’t mean that they ought to be immune from a neighbor’s possible verbal thrusts that may include yelling and four-letter words and even impolite gestures any more than any of us are by law given special status in this regard. Think of a neighbor’s anger about another’s rat harborage affecting his yard, or about loud music or backyard beer blasts. These are all daily occurrences in a crowded city and sometimes people blow their tops yet later cool off and continue being tolerably decent neighbors.

What we see in the language of this bill is an elevated penalty system that might well trap ordinary residents when they get into a typical dispute with one of their neighbors who might just happen to be an ANC commissioner this year and who will then use this bill’s provisions as a way to really get back at his or her angry neighbor.

We understand, of course, that the intent is that these provisions would come into play only in connection with an ANC commissioner’s “official” duties. But that will be very hard to define given that it is accepted that their “official” duties extended to every nook and cranny & quality of life aspect of their neighborhoods--and without reference to regular office hours. If we have a nasty argument with our ANC commissioner neighbor over an allegation that we are causing a rat problem when it may not be the case and we start yelling and screaming at him or her, will we be arrested and charged under this act? We can easily see some commissioners going out of their way to bring about such a result. From our experience, we have seen and heard of too many ANC members over the years running around being obnoxious busy-bodies, trying to browbeat others into doing something they are demanding be done even when they have no authority to demand anything yet mount their high horse under color of law and--yes--try to intimidate others!

So, we come back to the phrase we set in italics, “or by any threatening letter or communication.” The import of that is staggering: We see this clause alone as stifling any strong letter-writing or verbal communication by which a resident might want to give a commissioner “a piece of their mind”--the very sort of democratic American thing politicians are supposedly accustomed to receiving. Now that might be a crime? To her credit, Mrs. Schwartz acknowledged to us that this phrase did raise a red flag regarding stifling of debate and so forth and she did seem willing to strike those words. That will be a help, but does not mean that we will then support the bill.

One final point: These complaining commissioners say they are at their wits end from harassment, intimidation, assault, property destruction, etc. One has to wonder why they seemingly have not sought redress under the already long-existing civil and criminal penalties that are on the books designed to discourage and ultimately punish for such actions? We refer, of course to the criminal assault laws--people go to jail for injuring others and for destroying property; the police arrest people for these kinds of acts and prosecutors prosecute and juries convict. We already have tough laws on the books--call 911; don’t go crying to your council member to add yet another duplicative set of laws just so that you can feel important about achieving some kind of imagined elevated status in the community. And, in addition to the criminal law, there’s something known as civil assault and battery. Actions brought against defendants in these cases can often reap more than adequate restitution.

In closing, our view is that we already have enough laws, we don’t need more; just use those that are on the books and let’s stop this notion that an ANC commissioner is any more special than a volunteer civic association officer or the thousands of neighbors throughout DC who, without any “official” sanction, take on dealing with tough neighborhood issues with no reward other than the satisfaction of being good citizens.