Berlin Wall (today). Photo by Noud W. on Flickr.
Mayor Gray’s “One City” slogan makes an important point beyond just a campaign slogan. DC is a single “city” (actually a unique state-city hybrid district), not 8 separate mini-cities with their own individual mayors.
We have enough problems with boundaries in this region. DC, Maryland, and Virginia often act without coordination or even at cross-purposes on issues that affect residents across borders. Individual counties and cities within Maryland or Virginia frequently do the same. DC doesn’t need to create even more divisions.
Yet some DC councilmembers time and again act like mayors of their individual wards. They want to unilaterally control policies for their wards, from liquor licenses to parking. Some even try to exclude anyone outside their ward from participating in decisions surrounding development, as with the Florida Avenue Market in 2008 or Reservation 13/Hill East today.
During Zoning Commission hearings over development at the Florida Avenue Market in 2008, then-Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. opposed granting ANC 6C “party status,” a special privilege for organizations in close proximity. The market is in Ward 5, but railroad tracks, New York Avenue, and Gallaudet University separate it from almost all Ward 5 residents, while many people live just across Florida Avenue to the south. It just happens that those people are in Ward 6.
Ward boundaries are artificial legislative districts. An individual congressperson might want to bring projects to his or her district back home, but he or she doesn’t get to veto development projects in the district or it set parking policy. When state legislatures gerrymander their districts, people object because it might dilute or strengthen one group’s vote, but rarely do protests happen because one block of residents feels passionately about being in the same congressional district as an adjacent block.
Living on the border of a town or even a state carries some challenges. Recently, Veronica Davis wrote about how a liquor license on the Prince George’s County side of Eastern Avenue strongly affects residents in DC, but they have no say over regulatory decisions involving it.
There’s no reason to go around creating more of these problems. Yet we do, which makes redistricting fights more forceful than they need to be.
Tommy Wells and Jack Evans had an argument over whether the line between Ward 2 or Ward 6 would be east or west of I-395. That’s partly because an air rights development project is slated for the road. But it shouldn’t matter, because the councilmember whose ward includes the project shouldn’t get some special power to control that project.
Since parking zones also correspond to ward boundaries, with only a few small exceptions, residents in the Palisades vehemently objected to being switched from Ward 2 to Ward 3 during the 2001 redistricting. They didn’t want to lose the right to park for free in Foggy Bottom, Shaw and other Ward 2 neighborhoods.
Mount Pleasant asked to redistrict a piece of Rock Creek Park, where nobody lives, from Ward 4 to Ward 1. Park Road passes through this area on its way from Mount Pleasant to Cleveland Park. DC would assign Ward 4 constituent service reps to handle complaints about the spot, even though the affected residents with the complaints would live in wards 1 or 3.
Following ward changes, ANC boundaries also change, and usually to line up with wards. People who felt they were part of the same neighborhood one day find they have to act like separate neighborhoods the next.
Luckily, that’s not always the case. When part of Chevy Chase joined Ward 4 in 2001, ANC 3/4G bridged the divide and kept the neighborhood together in one ANC. Yet Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) refused to let Kingman Park be part of the same ANC as adjoining parts of H Street in Ward 6.
MPD has avoided the ward-centric trap: police district boundaries do not line up with wards. That’s better for public safety, because MPD can make decisions about police resources around where there is crime rather than arbitrary legislative districts.
The worst and most recent “Eight City” thinking came last week at the community meeting on Reservation 13. Yvette Alexander started out the meeting by lecturing Ward 6 residents about how the land moved to Ward 7 in the latest redistricting, and that therefore Ward 7 “owns” the land.
Her leading challenger, Tom Brown, whom we have endorsed, demonstrated the same fallacy in a campaign speech on the Reservation 13 site (from well before this meeting). Brown talks about how Ward 7 is “getting the title” to the land, and that he will then listen to Ward 7 residents about what they want to do with that land.
Actually, Ward 7 doesn’t “own” the land. The District of Columbia does. Decisions about the land get made by the Mayor, who represents all voters, and by the council, which has 8 ward members and 5 at-large members including its chairman.
The Ward 7 member should indeed listen “first and foremost” to residents of Ward 7, but shouldn’t have the final say, or even primary say, over what happens on a particular parcel of land. The District should, and all nearby residents, and the entire council, voting together. But if the Ward 7 member is only listening to Ward 7 residents, then the Ward 4 member should only listen to Ward 4 residents, and so on.
With the 395 project, for example, in what would is it logical to say that since the project remained in Ward 6, only Councilmember Wells and residents east of 2nd Street, NW should now have any input into the project, but if the line had put it in Ward 2, those residents ought to have no say whatever and only residents west of 3rd Street NW have the right to weigh in?
The District has a small voice in a big region and no voting representation in Congress. We don’t need government processes and legislators who try to deepen divisions and boundaries between neighborhoods. We need people who will work together, prioritizing the needs of their own local residents but trying to unite rather than divide, to better create One City.