I've heard from many readers about the events from the October 14th ANC 4C meeting, detailed in the article "This is what dysfunction looks like: Notes from ANC 4C October meeting." The article has been read by more than 2,000 people so far, and there are over 20 comments on the Petworth News Facebook page, and a few here on the blog article. (I always get more comments on FB than on the blog.)
The level of concern among residents is pretty high. People are concerned about belligerence, about arrogance, and about a lack of attention to the issues residents care about. There's confusion as to why there was so much anger at the meeting, and what it means for the effectiveness of the commission.
I spent this weekend thinking about Wednesday's drama at the ANC 4C meeting, and talking with residents and ANC commissioners. I wanted to understand WHY the evening was so turbulent.
I've pulled together statements from most of the commissioners based on conversations with them, and specifically two conversations with Taalib-Din Uqdah, in the hopes of shedding some light on the anger. I appreciate the time each commissioner took in speaking with me. Each wanted the same thing: for things to work.
They're not working, but if they can speak with each other as openly and as passionately as they spoke with me, perhaps there's hope.
I thought I'd take some time to go over what happened and why (as best as I can tell), and give the commissioners a chance to weigh in. Below are statements and opinions, some theirs, some mine. The goal is to help readers get a slightly more rounded perspective. If you want to know what's really happening, I recommend you attend the ANC meetings. After all, even as I try to be objective, this is still my blog and my opinion comes through, subtly or blatantly, at different times. Call that my "grain of salt" disclaimer. This is going to be rather long, as there are many points-of-view, and I want to give equal time, where possible.
I asked all nine sitting ANC 4C commissioners for their thoughts on the meeting, as I feel that the events were so out of hand, so unprofessional and unwarranted that my overview notes were not enough. I've heard back from several of the commissioners, both on the record and off. Commissioners Barry, Crowley, Hayworth, Martin, Teutsch and Uqdah all spoke with me about the meeting, what precipitated the high level of emotion, and concerns about next steps. I never heard back from Commissioners Galloway, Irwin or Jones after contacting them.
From what I have pieced together, there's a problem with miscommunication and just plain bad communication styles on ANC 4C. Ego comes into play for some of the commissioners, while a few others are guilty of pandering to residents' fears at the detriment of reasonable discussion (or for egotistical needs, not sure on that one). And still others wish to do well by the community while giving time to consider what's right -- and when you're dealing with heated topics like affordable housing, demolishing Sweet Mangos and representing a diverse community, it can be hard to know what is right. At least, they haven't done a good job of communicating to constituents about topics and why they think and vote as they do.
I think part of that is a fear to be open and vulnerable to attack (from other commissioners and from the public). The other part is the overt attempt by Commissioners Galloway and Uqdah to control and direct the conversation. Galloway controls the agenda and the meetings, where discussion is not encouraged and often disallowed. Uqdah's anger, justified or not, creates an environment of fear and bullying into acquiescence.
The commissioners have all failed to publicly control the bullying of Chair Galloway, the anger of Commissioner Uqdah and their own ineffective intra-commission communication methods. They end up being afraid to speak their minds, even during their private executive sessions (held a week or more prior to the public ANC meeting). Disrespect runs high, both ways. I'm not sure a group therapy session is the answer, but certainly learning to speak in moderation and to actively respect the opinion of others, even if they're in opposition, is a badly needed skill. Mediation is probably a good idea.
After all that described above, the short of it is Uqdah feels disrespected for his time, his experience and his skill -- and acknowledges that he uses anger to show that. Galloway -- I don't know. He hasn't responded to me, so I can't say for sure. I can only go with the behavior I've experienced in person. Same with Irwin and Jones. The others, Teutsch, Martin, Crowley and Hayworth, try to downplay the anger, but end up instead as the targets, right or wrong. The newest commissioner, Maria Barry, has history with some of the commissioners from her community work in 16th Street Heights, but that doesn't excuse getting the treatment she received at the meeting. (This has been updated, see note at bottom of the page.)
Here's what I heard from the commissioners:
Commissioner Zach Teutsch, the object of Galloway's shameful accusation and comments and one of the targets of Uqdah's angry outbursts, said he was taken aback by what happened that night. As background, Zach has been involved in ensuring DC provides affordable housing opportunities since 2005, and is very familiar with the issue. He wrote to me today regarding the meeting:
It is critically important that we ensure affordable housing units are built. With 1,000 people a month moving into the District, we need to ensure that additional housing of all kinds are available, including new apartments, as it helps direct the new residents there instead of bidding up rental prices and displacing long-term renters. It's better to have larger-scale development on major streets like Georgia Avenue and by a metro than in the middle of quieter residential blocks. I know these are tough trade-offs and difficult questions to answer. We need to work hard to retain our focus on this and not let yelling distract us from economic justice, smart urban design, and a neighborhood that works for longtime residents, new residents and future residents alike.
I look forward to having substantive, thoughtful conversations about how we can maintain economic, race and other kinds of diversity in the long-term in our neighborhood, and how we can make sure that development benefits existing residents. I hope that the ANC work on this can become more respectful and sophisticated. I know a great many people in the community would like to learn more about these issues and also make sure their values and priorities are included in the conversation. We need active community engagement around all these issues, not just parking concerns.
Regarding the article itself, Commissioner John-Paul Hayworth said to me:
"The article is spot on. I'm hoping it's a wake up call to all of us on the commission and the public. We need to change the way we as a commission work together and with our residents. There are too many important questions facing the neighborhood for us to let personalities get in the way."
Commissioner Joe Martin, a former ANC 4C chair and recently reelected to the commission this term, said:
The rapidly changing neighborhoods clearly are creating anxiety among many residents. That anxiety manifested itself this past week in the divisive eruptions at the ANC 4C meeting. We all have a responsibility to come up with positive ways to work on our changing environment. As a commissioner, I see my role as being one to work respectfully with the full spectrum of residents, government agency figures and business people in dealing with the changes. It is counterproductive to view any one group of residents, merchants or developers as unworthy of respect. We saw a few commissioners play one group against another. That gets us nowhere fast. We owe it to our neighbors to do a better job with our unpaid, neighborhood commissioner positions, to set and maintain a tone for a calm, thoughtful consideration of the issues at hand.
Commissioner Maria Barry said to me on a phone call that she was appalled at the night's events, especially getting cursed at and mistreated. Last week's executive ANC meeting had so much anger and aggressiveness that she didn't want to contribute for fear of being verbally attacked. She was shocked at what happened at the public meeting, and afterwards, she almost didn't want to go back.That reaction has subsided, but, as she wrote on the Petworth News Facebook page, she wants ground rules to ensure civility.
This was my first meeting as a commissioner -- ANC 4C02. I am appalled. I have zero tolerance for this uncivil and unruly discourse. I am willing and look forward to serving but the Commission has to abide by some ground rules. I urge residents of 4C to start coming back to our meetings. I was cursed out by a commissioner (as was another commissioner) and was intimidated and bullied. I do not take that lightly. And neither should our community. Enough is enough.
I spoke to Commissioner Taalib-Din Uqdah twice -- in person immediately after the Wednesday night meeting, and again today on the phone. He was consistent with his perspective. He felt the article was a mischaracterization of his actions (though gave me credit for writing an objective observer's point of view). He thought what I and others saw as anger, he saw as conviction. He told me he's received three supportive emails, thanking him for his position opposing the development at 3701 New Hampshire Avenue. He believes he has the best interests of the community at heart, and that his actions and beliefs are in fact the best for the community.
As I've said many times previously, Taalib-Din and I get along very well. However, I find that I write about his anger pretty often. He admittedly uses that anger to bully others into getting his way. He thinks that anger works for him.
According to Uqdah, it helped him and the Institute for Justice successfully fight the DC Cosmetology Board 10 years ago, and ensure his hair-braiding company, Cornrows & Co. wouldn't be required to get an unnecessary cosmetology license --a license for work they didn't perform. He felt it was about the money and business his company was taking away from other DC salons that caused the issue against his company. Eventually, the DC Council agreed and passed a law stating that braiding establishments were exempt. John Stossel even wrote about it on Townhall.com.
But the problem is, the thing that Taalib-Din doesn't understand, is that anger and bullying doesn't get things done. Not really. It intimidates others, and it makes you feel self-righteous. But it also means you treat others disrespectfully, demeaning their intellect, their interests and passions, assuming that you know best. If others don't agree, then you'll bulldoze your way over them, through them.
When it's the DC Council, hey, have at 'em. When it's your peers on the ANC, it doesn't work. It doesn't build consensus, doesn't build trust and doesn't get things done. It makes you tell a new commissioner to "fuck off."
Taalib-Din is frustrated with his fellow commissioners. He doesn't respect them. In his words, he's frustrated at their inability to understand the issues because they don't do the work necessary to understand them. He says he does, "I have the experience and knowledge to help the community."
In reference to Wednesday, he said, "The opportunity wasn't given at the meeting to say why they voted as they did." This sentiment is ironic, as Galloway didn't allow discussion and Uqdah's anger at all points throughout the night stopped any discourse dead in its tracks.
Taalib-Din is frustrated that the commission is letting DGS, DCPS and the Mayor's office walk all over 4C, doing things without notice to the commission. "And everyone is ok with that," he said. "Even though we have the authority to call a meeting and hash it all out. Hold them accountable. We pushed them to open Roosevelt by January 2016 -- that's what you should be reporting," he said to me. "But instead, [the other commissioners] want to slow things down until they understand it. But they can't. They're not willing to talk until after the fact. I don't know what they're thinking. If they spoke up and explained, then I would understand."
Suffice it to say that Taalib-Din believes deeply and truly that he is right in his beliefs, and that the others are not. I don't think he respects them at all. The other commissioners think he's too quick to anger, has a chip on his shoulder and doesn't allow for discussion. Taalib-Din Uqdah is a passionate, intelligent man who cares deeply -- but sometimes I think he might care more about how things affect him than how he affects others.
I wanted to reach out to say thank you for your write-up about the ANC meeting and highlighting the fact that the ANC 4C is practically broken and non-effective. I also wanted to address a comment you made in your write-up and provide some background regarding the Committee vote that sent Commissioner Uqdah into a fit of anger.
First, I respectfully disagree with your comment that I and other Commissioners Martin, Hayworth, and Teutsch should do more to stop the bullying. Behind the scenes I personally, along with other Commissioners have been trying to address the problems that were on display the other night. However, in our public meetings there isn't much that can be done if you are not the Chair. In addition, I have had plenty of experience to date with Commissioner Uqdah and reasoning doesn't play out well when he is in that state of uncontrolled anger. I want to make sure that you are aware that I am utterly appalled by what happened at our meeting. I have never been so embarrassed personally or professionally. Frankly, what occurred took me by surprise and I was disgusted when I left. I plan to request as an agenda item for our next EP meeting a discussion of what happened and expectations of standards/code of conduct and professionalism that Commissioners need to abide by in future.
As for the vote regarding the Committee on special exceptions/variances, I think it is important to provide you some background, because Commissioner Uqdah during his outburst gave the false impression that a majority of Commissioner are against any type of Committee -- which is not the case.
We had received a copy of the proposed new rules only a few hours before our public meeting. Despite Commissioner Uqdah accusation that we didn't read the rules, most of us did in fact did read the rules and had an email discussion about them. I had respectfully asked if we could table the item until the November meeting because as the rules are written I had a lot of questions and concerns that the Committee would actually be more of a burden than a benefit. To be clear, as proposed the new Committee would be responsible for all special exceptions and variance issues- this would include conducting an investigation, developing a report of findings, and reporting to the ANC Commission the official findings and recommendations. However, there was very little detail about how this could really work, whether or not the Commission would be bound by the Committee's recommendations, and a whole host of other aspects. For example, we can have as many as 4 special exceptions/variance BZA issue in one month, can this Committee feasibly be able conduct an investigation, draft a report, and present to the Commission on multiple matters? Considering how ineffective we have been as a Commission I have serious doubts. But moreover, I felt we were presented new rules for a problem that doesn't exist.
There is an assumption that we are ineffective with BZA matters, I would disagree. I believe the process we have in place is working, I know that I have done well in advising my residents in these matters and have gotten positive outcomes at the BZA hearings. Now this doesn't mean we can't look to improve or do better.
On that note, I think a Committee is a good idea, but I differ about how it can best serve the community. For example, I think it would be more effective to have a Committee of Commissioners and residents who retrospectively review the cases that have come before the ANC and how they fared at the BZA hearing to better understand what we could improve to leverage our great weight influence would be extremely useful, etc. Since there were differing views about the Committee I thought it best to take more time to talk the rules through so that whatever we put in place actually works. I along with other Commissioners requested that we take more time to discuss and postpone the vote. Despite our request, Commissioner Uqdah refused to table the item. It should have been no surprise to him that the motion to form the Committee did not pass. His intemperate outburst lambasting us in front of the community was no more than a brutish tactic to coerce his point of view. In addition, he sent a scathing email the following day addressed "Kathleen and Commissioners" with no less that 15 insults to my and others capabilities, intelligence, and commitment because we did not support the rules as written.
On a final note, I believe the Commission as a whole has failed and we are all responsible for what happened at the last meeting. Understandably we are a diverse group of individuals who have different personalities and styles and it takes a certain amount of tolerance, respect, and understanding to make it work. But we can no longer continue to ignore bad behavior and/or abusing the role to make personal speeches while the community has to sit in silence.
I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and I hope the information I provided is welcomed.
Thanks again for your thorough account of our meeting and bringing attention to its dysfunction.
As the Petworth News blogger and a fellow constituent, I encourage 4C residents to come to the meetings and participate. And also to remember that none of these commissioners are evil. They're all smart, they're all passionate. Some are immature, some are angry. I'm not sure how to fix this -- so I'll just keep writing. Feel free to share your thoughts below.
Update 10/19: Commissioner Uqdah contacted me to say he did not drop the f-bomb at Commissioner Barry, but did at Commissioner Hayworth after Hayworth yelled back at him at the end of the meeting. There were a lot of heated words at that moment, and two commissioners later told me Uqdah swore twice, once at Ms. Barry. But I've changed the comment above as the purpose of this article isn't to accuse, but to explain. Uqdah and Hayworth did have phone call the day after the meeting and both felt they were able to understand each other's issues after that call. I give them both credit for that. There needs to be more open communication.