DC planning zones, one potential alternative to wards for city services.

Redistricting has generated a lot of ire, as it does every ten years. The DC Council should redistrict more impartially, but redistricting also shouldn’t matter as much as it does. There are many ways that the ward boundaries matter far more than they should.

Capitol Hill residents, for example, were afraid moving Eastern High School into Ward 7 would impair their ability to improve education. Why should that be? The school boundaries wouldn’t change. DCPS shouldn’t be giving the ward councilmember outsize influence over any policies of that particular school.

Yet the ward member does have some of that power. If they didn’t, Tommy Wells wouldn’t have cared about keeping Eastern High School and Eliot-Hine Junior High in Ward 6. Last night, Yvette Alexander (ward 7) rallied her ward for the opposite, to move Eastern and Eliot-Hine to Ward 7.

DC agencies ought to instead operate independent of which ward a facility lies in. Were that the case, Wells and Alexander wouldn’t care what ward the school is in. But that’s not how things operate. Most of the arguing over redistricting has involved territory where few or no people live — Reservation 13, Eastern and Eliot-Hine, the National Building Museum, or the Convention Center.

At a meeting last week, a DDOT official told me that they weren’t pursuing a certain policy in Ward 2 because of the views of the Ward 2 Councilmember (Jack Evans). I actually agree with Evans on this particular topic. But That shouldn’t be the way policy gets made.

Evans is just elected to be a member of a legislature, not emperor of his own little domain; this applies to Wells, Bowser, Thomas, and all the rest. The Ward 2/Ward 6 line would matter a lot less if agencies didn’t choose to let Evans dictate their policy for territory in Ward 2, or Wells in Ward 6.

Many agencies also route all service requests through a ward-specific hierarchy. For example, at the redistricting hearing, Mount Pleasant ANC commissioner Jack McKay noted that a piece of Park Road is in Ward 4 as it crosses Rock Creek from Ward 1 to Ward 3. Complaints about trees or lighting have to go through the Ward 4 liaisons even though the Ward 1 liaisons are the ones in contact with the Mount Pleasant ANC. (The redistricting committee, by the way, decided not to fix this problem despite a recommendation by the Office of Planning.)

Some of the greatest anger over redistricting revolves around ANCs. Most ANCs fit entirely within one ward. That means that if one segment of a neighborhood gets redistricted into a different ward, involved residents feel they will lose a large part of their voice over changes in the other part of their own neighborhood.

For example, one reason many Shaw residents are upset about the Convention Center not moving is because they consider that part of their neighborhood and don’t want to lose influence over what happens there which can affect the rest of the neighborhood. Residents around 14th and U want to reunite their neighborhood in one ANC.

Why can’t they? There are already a few ANCs which span ward boundaries, like ANC 3/4G (Chevy Chase), which kept the part of the neighborhood that moved into Ward 4; ANC 3C, which includes the piece of Woodley Park that’s in Ward 1; or ANC 6D, which contained the Southwest Federal Center that’s proposed to move to Ward 6.

After my article yesterday on the “Jackmander” ran, I spoke to Jack Evans, who explained his reasons for many of the line changes in terms of ANCs. The southwest changes unify 6D. With the exception of the Convention Center and one block to the west, all of ANC 2C (Shaw) would move to Ward 6 under the proposed lines, while none of 2F (Logan Circle) would.

Phil Mendelson has justified moving more people than necessary from 6 to 7 around Hill East on the grounds that it can constitute its own ANC, instead of just having one or two single-member districts as part of a larger east of the river ANC as is currently the case with Kingman Park.

But why should any of this matter? Regardless of where the Ward 2/6 boundary is, there could still be a Shaw ANC, a Logan Circle ANC, and whatever else is appropriate. There can be a Capitol Hill/Hill East ANC entirely in one ward or spanning wards.

Lance made an excellent point:

If we strengthened our ANCs by letting them represent neighborhoods (as the name implies and the Home Rule Charter that created them says), and didn’t try to get them to conform to the ward boundaries, the importance of ward boundaries would diminish in importance because the ability of ward councilmembers to get neighborhoods to follow councilmember policy would be diluted.

One starting point, which Lance has also proposed, is to stop naming ANCs by ward. Name them by neighborhood, and instead of creating ward-specific task forces to draw ANCs within the ward, they should be drawn citywide, perhaps with a recommendation from the Office of Planning.

Is any of this realistic? All of these changes can be made quite simply. First, the executive branch could declare that it loves having input from Council, but instead of organizing all decisions around wards, it will develop some more natural zones perhaps based on the Comprehensive Plan’s planning areas or neighborhood clusters. The Council could then further subdivide those into ANCs.

The Prince George’s County Council is moving away from giving individual district members extra power over development projects in their district. The RAC report on the WMATA Board recommended board members not act as individuals, making transit decisions for their own jurisdictions, but rather to just act as a group. Taking similar steps for the DC Council would allow redistricting to go a lot less acrimoniously and lead to better public policy as well.

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.