Thursday, June 18, 2009

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

As the Cleveland Park community awaits an announcement for the rescheduled elections, pro- and con- posts continue to appear on the neighborhood listserv. Former ANC Chair Nancy MacWood (and current Commissioner) offered this defense of CPCA President George Idelson:

I have read many of the postings about CPCA and George Idelson over the past few weeks. I have worked with CPCA on a variety of issues over the past 8 years as an ANC commissioner and have known George since he became president of CPCA. This is a personal note because I think it is time to share my experience with the community association and with George, specifically. My intention is not to defend George --- he is a tough guy, but to provide some context for considering the future of CPCA and George's role in getting it to where it is today.

I want to start by saying that George is a friend of mine, I respect him. Do we agree on all matters? No. But I admire the process he uses for arriving at decisions. George asks people he thinks might be knowledgeable on an issue to challenge his developing views. He will come back to you with more questions as he hears from other people and considers what you have said. He will often schedule a meeting around a topic that he thinks is unresolved but of critical interest to the community or to the city. That might be in his living room or during a CPCA meeting. More than likely, there will be a debate format and if its an official CPCA meeting there will more than likely be panelists representing different points of view.

George also has a penchant for urging city officials to connect with the community by attending meetings and staying for questions and answers; no free rides for them to just get out their message. He has joined the Woodley Park Community Association and Palisades Community Association on presenting issues of interest or concern beyond Cleveland Park. He is a collaborative guy by nature and he never thinks that he is the sage of Cleveland Park. George knows he is representing an educated, well informed, and committed community that is increasingly diverse and he recognizes that there are new pressures on the community and the city to change in a variety of ways. George has enough experience to know that there is positive synergy from communities like ours and times like these, but also big challenges to prevent the community from splintering. How you build community is debatable but I think George has demonstrated that his tactic is to get out balanced information, let residents ask questions and, at a minimum, help residents to develop an understanding of the other guy's opinion.

So why so much criticism and focus on CPCA right now? It seems to be two issues: opposition to the Giant PUD and the postponement of the CPCA election. The irony, and probably what is most painful to George, is that on the Giant issue he spent years trying to avoid any opposition at all to the PUD. He attended probably 20 meetings since 2005 with Stop & Shop representatives encouraging them to improve the store immediately while developing plans for expansion and renovation. He repeatedly advised S&S that they had an opportunity to do something of great benefit to the community and that could serve as a model for other DC communities that grapple with development if it was done sensitively. He also told them that he thought the overlay was critical to the success of the project. It wasn't until the PUD application was filed that he learned, as did everyone, that the overlay wasn't mentioned and that the Office of Planning interpreted that silence to mean an approved PUD would end the implementation of the overlay restriction on restaurants and bars.

The overlay is an issue that has been championed by CPCA for many years. George inherited the organizational commitment to the overlay. What's so great about the overlay? It is only significant if you value a variety of retail and services in the immediate commercial area, and secondarily want to try to control traffic and parking problems. There seems to be growing evidence, or at least more vocal advocates, for the view that residents want more restaurants and less access to other types of shops. Its not inevitable that our commercial areas transform into more entertainment districts, but it may be a preference. Nonetheless, CPCA ,under George's leadership, has spent countless hours trying to update the overlay so that eating establishments that primarily serve the neighborhood could locate here. It took years to convince the Zoning Commission and many meetings with the Office of Planning to make needed changes. CPCA finally accomplished that and then set out to make sure the Zoning Administrator was implementing the rules in a sensible way. George tracked down non-resident owners of CP commercial buildings to ask about filling vacant sites and he questioned real estate brokers about how aggressively and creatively they were marketing our area. So the silence on the overlay and later the active effort to remove the overlay from the Giant PUD pushed CPCA into a decision on an unresolved issue for the community, but one that CPCA had strived to preserve and modernize while the debate continued.

CPCA could have gone the route of "yes, but." The executive committee has said that they voted to be "no, but" because that position allowed them more time to testify and the ability to question witnesses. The Zoning Commission doesn't sanction gray areas. In my view, CPCA and George decided that they could not abandon the overlay and that they could argue persuasively to the Zoning Commission that it was important to maintain the overlay to ensure local retail options and to avoid the parking supply/demand and traffic congestion problems existing in neighborhoods where many restaurants have located. I believe George felt confident in recommending this position because S&S had consistently said that they had no objection to the overlay and only wanted a few more restaurants, which CPCA endorsed. There was never an issue of trading the overlay for an improved grocery store.

Then there is the his own account George was presented with a large bundle of new memberships that coincided with the perceived deadline for eligibility to vote in an election of officers. Rumors of "coups" and other nefarious undertakings circulated and the CPCA executive committee reacted with apparently one main goal: to ensure that as many residents as wanted could vote. To be sure one person's coup may be another person's lesson in democracy. Democracy can be ugly but one of its enduring tenants is the right to vote in a fair election. Is it fair to let a group energized by the Giant development control the CPCA elections while the rest of the community sleeps? Is it fair to the organized group that had a winning strategy to delay the election so that other groups could organize prior to the election? Knowing George, as I do, there was not a clear choice. Disclosure -- he asked me to attend a meeting with some members of the executive board to help sort out the options available under the bylaws and precedent. It was a difficult meeting and I suspect subsequent meetings were more difficult. In the end I think George decided to risk his personal reputation in order to allow as many as residents as were interested to vote on the future of CPCA and determine who would lead it into the future. I doubt very strongly that George will offer his services again and that is not a comment on anything that has been said --- I think George feels that he has given his all to the community, made informed judgments, and trusted and respected the CP residents. He has relished his opportunity to steward CPCA and I am sure nothing has changed regarding his love for this community and its residents.

Whatever your views on the Giant development or the CPCA election postponement, I hope that this much too long email will help to put the last few months of turmoil into some perspective. CPCA has been a credit to our community. The postponement of the election may indeed be a gift to the community that allows time for each of us to think about what is important to us about Cleveland Park, what changes we would like to see, what concerns or desires of our neighbors we may not have considered or been aware of, and how we manage to continue to have the most wonderful community in the city.

Here is one of what will probably be a number of responses:

The following four comments were particularly interesting:

1) "...intention is not to defend George...but to provide some context for considering the future of CPCA and George's role..."
2) "large bundle of new memberships that coincided with the perceived deadline for eligibility to vote in an election of officers."
3) "rumors of 'coups' and other nefarious undertakings."
4) "Democracy can be ugly but one of its enduring tenants is the right to vote in a fair election."

On point 1, isn't Mr. Idleson much better placed than anyone else to explain his own rationale, his own community building philosophy, and so forth?

On point 2, bylaws exist for a variety of reasons. Bylaws make it clear to members how an organization operates and prevent organization leaders (who are elected to act on the behalf of members) from changing the rules at random and for their own convenience. Don't the CPCA bylaws clearly state a deadline for individual members' eligibility to vote in an election? If so, how is this a 'perceived' deadline? The bylaws either speak to a deadline or they don't.

As to point 3, the scheduling of the CPCA election was not a secret. As I understand it, it is held in June of every year. It seems to me that those who wanted to vote in this election were not staging a coup--in fact, as I understand such things, coups generally are violent affairs that dispense with the finer points of elections. To call an orderly effort to express the opinion of a large, organized group of CPCA members a coup is to misrepresent an effort to have voices heard.

How can it be defensible to cancel an election that from all appearances was going to be well attended in order to "ensure as many residents as wanted could vote"? I suggest that if Mr. Idleson et. al. were truly interested in voter turnout, and were truly interested in ensuring as many residents as wanted to could vote, he/they would have expended some amount of energy well in advance of the election in ensuring this in fact occurred. As far as I can tell, Mr. Idleson has never expended effort to ensure as many residents as possible could vote, and certainly has never cancelled an election to ensure as many members as possible could vote, so why on Earth start in May, 2009?

As to point 4, I need help understanding how getting out the vote, a time honored method of community activism, makes an election unfair. How is growing membership in an organization that should welcome more members unfair? How is advocating a message of change and growth unfair? How is operating within the published bylaws of one's own community organization unfair? And as to the assertion "Is it fair to let a group...control the CPCA elections while the rest of the community sleeps?", I ask were those characterized as sleeping going to be disenfranchised? Were they going to be prevented from voting? Since when is not paying attention the same as disenfranchisement? The new members of CPCA were not going to "control" the election. They simply were going to arrive at the appointed place at the appointed time and vote. Does the possibility that the candidates the new members supported were going to win either prevent others from voting or make the election unfair?

To close, I do not believe the move by the CPCA executive committee, which has at no time in the past postponed elections in order to increase voter turnout and has never taken extraordinary efforts to increase the number of voting members at an election, is a gift to the community, or that it reflects well on this wonderful community of ours.

There have been few, if any personal attacks of Mr. Idelson or his character. However, there have been many questions raised about the actions of the CPCA under his leadership. They are two very different elements of this discussion, and playing on any sort of sympathy for someone who has chosen to lead an organization for 5+ terms confuses the core issues that residents may have and does nothing constructive to move the community past the current divide.

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