The victorious Unity Team.

The “Unity Team,” a group of candidates for Cleveland Park Citizens’ Association offices nominated by the previous leaders, has won election over the “Reform Slate” of challengers.

Numerous residents including Jeff Davis, organizer of the group Advocates for Wisconsin Avenue Renewal (AWARE), criticized the previous CPCA leadership for a lack of transparency. For example, CPCA did not communicate with members via email or run a listserv; when Gabe Fineman, one of the challengers, started one, CPCA leaders tried to get it shut down. Without email communication, most CPCA members never knew the topics of meetings, leading to very sparsely attended votes such as the one to oppose the Giant PUD, attended by only 32 members.

Davis decided to run for President of CPCA, and recruited a slate of candidates who advocate for greater openness and transparency. In May, faced with an influx of new members, especically many from AWARE, CPCA President George Idelson and his executive board postponed its election to “bring the neighborhood together.” They subsequently selected September 29th for the rescheduled election, and Davis’s slate ran again under the Reform Slate moniker.

At the beginning of September, John Chelen announced his candidacy for President as head of a new “Unity Team.” Chelen said his group of candidates represents “different philosophies and life experiences, different points of view ... to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood.” Chelen echoed many of the themes from Davis’s Reform Slate, including encouraging greater participation in CPCA and use of electronic media.

Chelen’s Unity Team played down any affiliation with Idelson and the “old guard,” but evidence slipped out to the contrary. For example, in mid-September CPCA sent two pieces of mail to all members, one from the Reform Slate and one from the Unity Team. A few days after Reform delivered their envelopes and labels, Reform candidate Fineman asked outgoing CPCA Corresponding Secretary Jean Van der Tak about the status. According to Fineman, Van der Tak said, “1,000 pieces went out — your envelopes and ours, err, those of John Chelen.”

Reform supporters also alleged that Unity candidates were using the CPCA membership rolls to campaign. Earlier in the year, Fineman asked for a copy of the membership roster, arguing that DC law requires them to provide it. CPCA leaders evenutally let him peruse a printed copy under supervision, but without the ability to take any notes. However, several sources on the Reform side claim that Unity candidates went door to door to make their case to CPCA members and get out the vote, apparently using the membership lists.

The Unity team also simply played the politics better. Chelen maintained an inclusive, open-minded tone throughout the campaign. Some Reform candidates, on the other hand, often wrote frustrated messages during arguments on the Cleveland Park list. They might have been right or had legitimate gripes, but an angry tone can turn off voters, even those already leaning the candidate’s way.

Unity was against this, but less clear on what they’re for.

Likewise, Unity downplayed policy positions on controversial issues, such as their position on the Giant, the commercial overlay, or speed bumps. After one candidate, Ruth Caplan, replied to a message about speed bumps, fellow slate member Ann Hamilton accidentally replied to all, “Dammit! I thought we agreed (well, were correctly instructed) not to respond!” Hamilton also one of the residents appealing the Giant decision, and an election video for the Unity Team includes a picture of really a ugly 1950s grade-separated concept street with a giant X through it, but the group avoided explaining exactly where they stand on the Giant or other development projects that don’t look like concrete pillboxes.

Chelen defended his group’s lack of a clear position on major issues, writing,

I don’t think it’s a platitude to say we’ll discuss both sides of the issue. We’ve treated all postings with respect, even those that have been downright nasty. We’re ready to discuss the complex economic and cultural effects of any proposal, and openly lay out the pros and cons of the alternatives reflecting many points of view. ... I asked people to come forward who were interested and had something substantive to offer; I didn’t simply ask people what their opinion was on Giant. Yes, we have one person who has been involved in the Giant debate, and we also have six people who were never involved at all. Our team provides a system of checks and balances.

Last night, all Unity Team candidates won. In the closest race, for President, Chelen bested Davis by 45 votes out of 472 cast. Chelen will now have the opportunity to prove that he was sincere in his desire to “bring the neighborhood together” not by ensuring that everyone agrees with the positions that neighborhood leaders have taken in the past, but that CPCA becomes a truly inclusive forum for discussion. Whether he was recruited by the old guard or received their assistance, he is new to CPCA, and can chart an independent course.

Chelen could start by plugging the loopholes in the bylaws that allowed the Executive Board to postpone an election. Doing it once was unconscionable; to allow the possibility of a repeat performance amounts to a tacit endorsement of the practice. He should also establish a policy giving all candidates equal access to membership lists, whether those candidates have the support of existing officers or not. Either everyone should have the list, or nobody should. Likewise, the Federation of Citizens’ Associations, of which CPCA is part, should develop a policy against such practices.

Citizens’ associations have been in decline for years, and this experience bolsters the case for their obsolescence. That’s too bad, since it’s valuable to have strong resident and neighborhood voices in policy debates. However, citizens’ associations often claim to speak for all residents, and antics like CPCA’s election postponement make it clear that they don’t. There was another debate on the Tenleytown listserv about the Tenleytown Neighbors Association, another Federation member, which has no Web presence and no evident way for residents to join.

The Federation ought to be concerned about the brand image of its member organizations. If it could ensure a basic level of democratic representation, openness about membership, communication to members, and access to information for electioneering, that could maintain some legitimacy. In the meantime, the DC government and ANCs should treat citizens’ associations as no different than any other non-representative association of a handful of residents. They shouldn’t get seats on ANC committees, as some do, or an automatic role in any advisory groups like the Zoning Update Task Force.

As the most publicly-derided “banana republic” citizens’ association, CPCA can lead the way toward a truly inclusive model for an association, or set a clear tone in furtherance of the status quo where a few entrenched activists manipulate the puppet strings to generate the desried outcomes. I wish Chelen well in his efforts to bring about the change he promised in the campaign.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.