Photo by Mr Thinktank on Flickr.

A Republican, Patrick Mara, just got the most votes in DC’s Ward 3 in a special election. Leaders of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee, an organization formed “to support and elect Democratic candidates for local and national office,” meanwhile, were more concerned with ramming through a resolution against the DC zoning rewrite’s parking proposals.

This resolution claims that the DC Office of Planning has no data to back up its recommendations to eliminate minimum parking requirements near transit or for new single-family homes and small residential buildings, and reduce them for schools. It implies without any basis that the zoning rewrite will actually take away parking. 

The Ward 3 Dem leaders behind this resolution are now going around claiming that this reflects the views of Democrats in Ward 3. In reality, it represents only the views of 23 out of 94 delegates in the group. Its supporters used procedural maneuvers to ensure it would pass without delegates even getting to debate the merits of the issue.

The task force

Last fall, resident John Chelen, an avowed opponent of the zoning rewrite, approached Ward 3 Democrats chairperson Shelly Tomkin. He had already formed a “task force” made up of about 7 people who opposed the zoning rewrite and some who had publicly testified against it. Chelen suggested to Tomkin that the task force put together a white paper on the subject, supposedly to inform the delegates of the pros and cons of the proposals.

Chelen testified against the rewrite process on October 5, 2012, asking the DC Council to step in and essentially require the Office of Planning to restart the 5-year project. This came before his task force had issued any paper on the merits of the zoning rewrite and before the organization’s broader membership had debated the issues or adopted any resolution. 

Tomkin approved this task force without including any members with differing points of view. When word got out about the task force from Chelen’s testimony, Ward 3 Democratic Committee delegate Ellen Bass and another resident insisted that Chelen include them to give some balance (although even after a 3rd resident joined later, they were a minority of the members). Chelen, after substantial initial delay, permitted them to join.

The group’s “white paper” purported to be a fact-based analysis of the Office of Planning’s policy recommendations on parking. But not surprisingly, the report contained only “facts” that supported the anti-rewrite position and unsupported assertions about the horribles that will result if DC adopts the proposals. Yet Tomkin distributed it to the Committee delegates as an objective statement of the “pros and cons” of the proposals without any caveat about dissenters on the task force. 

For example, there is no mention of the environmental concerns about car use and vehicle congestion.  The report cites no data to back up assertions like these:

  • In most instances, current parking requirements are substantially less than likely parking need that would be generated by use, so current requirements only partially mitigate the impact of spillover parking.
  • Elimination of minimum parking requirements on transit zones will result in spillover parking in residential neighborhoods near Metro stations
  • Elimination of minimum parking requirements ... will result in people who live near transit zones or downtown to walk blocks from their car to their home ...
  • The rewrite will reduce parking requirements for schools, hotels, and churches. [In fact, all the rewrite proposes to do is base the requirement on square footage rather than factors that change over time like number of seats, rooms and employees.]

The paper also reflected a clear anti-zoning rewrite bias. It contained arguments attacking the OP proposals which it called “Stated Justifications.”  According to Bass, she had prepared a more balanced draft, but then 2 avowed opponents of the parking proposals reworked it. She and two other members who did not agree with the paper prepared their own “Alternative Analysis,” which Bass said she had to distribute to Committee delegates herself.

The resolution

Chelen then presented a resolution condemning OP’s parking proposals at the Ward 3 Dems’ April 11 meeting. It states, among other things, that the “parking proposals adversely will affect residents, businesses and the vibrancy of the city,” that they “do not reflect community preferences,” and that they are “not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.” 

These are at best opinion statements not supported by data in the “white paper.”  For one thing, the zoning task force did not assess the community preference beyond its own membership of 10 or so people, and 3 of those people did not agree that the parking proposals would be detrimental.  As for the Comprehensive Plan, this too would prove without basis, as soon became clear.

The first order of business on April 11 was a lengthy debate on whether attending members could vote in place of absent delegates, as the Committee Bylaws clearly permit. After much discussion, Tomkin thought better of denying these members their vote, but because of the time it took to resolve this issue, and Tomkin’s decision to let an unrelated speaker give his presentation first, delegates grew impatient and some left before the late vote. 

Furthermore, procedural shenanigans by the resolution’s supporters ensured there would be no floor debate on its substance. Yes, on a very contentious issue that has divided many in Ward 3, and on a resolution that says policies “are not supported by data,” there was no actual discussion about those facts. While the resolution purported to reflect “community preferences,” community members never had a chance to talk about their preferences.

Tom Smith, an ANC commissioner and Committee delegate, did insist on asking Chelen how many parking places in Ward 3 would be eliminated if the rewrite went through. Chelen responded that he did not know and did not have any examples he could cite, but he was sure it would happen.

Afterwards, Chairperson Tomkin issued a statement in “themail,” claiming that the resolution “was approved in a vote by a broad majority taken April 11.” This careful wording obscures the reality that just 23 people voted in favor, a small proportion of the 94 Committee delegates and hardly a majority of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee. In fact, fewer than half the delegates (only about 44 people) even bothered to attend the April 11 meeting. By the time the resolution came up for a vote after 9:30 pm, there was barely a quorum present, and only about 30 delegates even voted.

The resolution does not speak for Democrats in Ward 3

The vote total is important because Chelen is pushing other organizations, such as the Cleveland Park Citizen’s Association to adopt a similar resolution. He intends to bring this resolution to the DC Council as reflecting the views of Ward 3.

But his hyperbole is overblown and inaccurate. On the Chevy Chase listserv, he stated, “The resolution passed by a supermajority vote [of the Ward 3 Dems], a telling sign of community resistance to the ill-considered and over-reaching proposals made by the Office of Planning.”

Ironically, despite the claim that the minimum parking proposals are inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the very next day after the Ward 3 Dems vote, the Zoning Commission approved the Babes Billiards PUD, a mixed-use building in what would be a transit zone near a Metro station that would not have on-site parking. The PUD order cited 23 policies within the Comprehensive Plan that support a development with no on-site parking, beginning on page 11. Being a neophyte at these political meetings, but not in life itself, I expected that a few motivated individuals could move the needle on getting things done through sheer guile and force of will. I was surprised, however, how an organization named the Ward 3 Democratic Committee could permit such a clearly non-democratic process, push through a white paper without even hearing dissenting viewpoints. Today, the “white paper” is still not available on the Ward 3 Democrats’ website, although it is available online, along with the “Alternative Analysis” from the 3 task force members who did not agree with the paper Chelen and Tomkin distributed.  Instead of alienating Democrats by letting the group be a tool of those who want to advance a specific agenda on a non-partisan issue, the Ward 3 Democratic Committee ought to focus on its actual electoral mission.

Steve Seelig is a long-time resident of Ward 3 interested in preserving its charms while expanding its reach along the transit-rich corridors to help make driving to more far-flung commercial districts a rarer occurrence.