Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Good Old Days according to the CPCA

The following was submitted to this forum from the Cleveland Park Citizens Association listserv, as former President Greg New opines about the "Good Old Days". Perhaps, as one respondent noted, this is why the organization needs new leadership (pardon the pun).

Dear CPCA Members,

I am still in the spirit of recalling the good old days before our executive committee (of which I am a part) brought itself into some predictable difficulties. In the present charged atmosphere it may be hard for some of our new members to realize there was ever a day when competition for office and voting were not overriding issues. Historically we have amiably accepted out-of-boundary members who were obviously interested in our programs and wanted to be on our mailing list, and who seldom thought of voting on issues.

Our most popular meetings were candidate forums, where obviously the voting took place somewhere else. Other popular issues-oriented meetings were largely informative panels, or presentations explaining potential public programs or private developments that were not at the stage where an up or down vote was called for. Presenters sought feedback, not decisions. Usually when the decisions were made, it was in another forum (e.g., in an advisory neighborhood commission meeting, or by a public agency after a public hearing. We should not assume that the association weighed in very often by testimony on either side. Only about once every year or two do matters become ripe for a CPCA vote on public issues, and on these occasions there is wide-spread notice, often a large turnout, and sometimes an extra large contingent of new members. It often happens that we seldom ever again see many of the members who turned out to vote on a hot issue, regardless of how the vote went, or which side the members happened to be on.

While voting is of utmost importance in principle, people who regularly attend citizens meetings very soon become aware of the fact that most members join citizens associations out of a general commitment to civic duty. Far from being eager to vote, the majority of the membership of an active association with good, responsive leadership appears to be quite uninterested even in keeping up with the issues. It is a rare meeting that attracts much over ten percent of the members, if that many.

It is my impression that our out-of-boundary members may be more apt to attend meetings than in-boundary folk, because they are more apt to be interested in issues. We have a reputation for putting on some pretty good programs, and that reputation brings the outsiders in. In short, it is an arguable presumption that most of out-of-boundary members see themselves as paying for information, not for the right to vote in a community where they do not reside. There is every reason to suppose that they do belong to, and vote in, an association representing their own community. If they do not, they should.

It is not customary in democratic societies to encourage people to vote twice on the same issue, once while living on one side of the street, and once again while visiting on the other side. In most cases the out-of-boundary people who speak of losing a legitimate right to vote in Cleveland Park are asserting a right to vote twice on the same issue.

Another matter on which some new members may have an unrealistic assumption of what motivates people centers on competition for leadership. That is, they assume not only that competition exists in citizens associations, but that such competition is the usual state in such associations. It is most emphatically not the usual state. Very few people want leadership positions in neighborhood groups. They have to be asked, and often pressured to run, and there is seldom a challenger.

I can recall my own "call to duty" in 1997 as an example of the problem. While my experience is far from typical, it reflects the spirit that drives leadership of neighborhood groups better that the present supercharged atmosphere does. Back in those good old days the CPCA nominating committee consisted of three past presidents. As the bylaws quaintly put it, "In the event the full body [of the nominating committee] cannot be constituted in this manner, the vacancy shall be filled by the Executive Committee." Heaven forbid that there ever be a competition among more than three past presidents all eager to extend their power. In reality it became increasingly difficult to find people to serve even on the nominating committee. In spite of a three-term limit (of one year each), two presidents had between them filled the office for 19 of the preceding 29 years, and the ranks of past presidents dwindled and aged. With little help coming from an aging executive committee, the incumbent president, then nearly on his deathbed, became the nominating committee by default. He managed to come up with a slate for all offices except the president. I had declined, the honor because I had a demanding (and rewarding) job, and preferred to wait until I retired (which I did five years later at age 76).

So there we were, election night, and no candidate for president. I then reluctantly agreed to accept the office, and served my three terms. If I could have served five years later, I could have devoted much more time to the office. We were fortunate in persuading Isabel Furlong to serve the next two years, and George Idelson to serve the last seven. His long service, of course, involved virtually abandoning the term limit.

A third aspect of reality involves the process of decision making that reluctant leaders chiefly motivated by an ill-defined sense of duty are able to solicit from a membership most of which tends to be unenthusiastic about any specific issue that comes up for decision. The lack of strong feeling creates another reality, often noted in democratic society, that the negative side on any issue is usually much stronger than the positive side. In a stable community like Cleveland Park, generally satisfied with the current level of development, a lot of us are weakly supportive of some additional development, but easily alarmed by the prospect of too much new development. Thus our enthusiasm for any development is apt to be muted. The opponents prove to have more fire in their bellies that the proponents in almost every case.

The leadership of neighborhood associations learns to respond to this reality by defensive policy making. One minor incident illustrates the point. A developer was asked to make a presentation to CPCA regarding plans to rehabilitate and slightly enlarge a small apartment house. The tone of our response was set by half a dozen to a dozen new members from the apartment house in question, who "packed" the meeting in opposition to plans that disrupted their haven. The result was obvious. Not even proponents of affordable housing would consider a few more apartments worth going to bat for. More people would worry about setting a precedent for some bigger development in their back yard than would commit themselves to support such a small development. The matter never had to come to a vote. The developers eventually found a way to rehabilitate their building that sidestepped an appeal to the community. The policy of the association has been set by default by a handful of people who never had to cast a vote, and who were never seen again.

Leaders soon learn that lynching parties almost invariably come from opponents, not proponents. About the only thing that will bring out support for a controversial new development is a good conspiracy theory. It is unrealistic to expect a solid phalanx of public spirited members to come gallivanting to the rescue of an impartial decision making process. But if you have dragons to slay and damsels to rescue, that is another matter. Once proponents of a development see themselves as opposed by dragons, there is no villainy that they might not learn to suspect. And, of course, they must protect the community from such obviously threatening dragons by staging a good lynching party.

Upon hearing rumors of a proposed lynching party the normally laid back CPCA leaders from yesteryear started entertaining their own visions (if we may call them that), vivid images of a hoard of greedy developers laying waste to their cherished community. After decades of deft response to community concerns, they soon lost their feel of the public pulse.

An impartial outsider could see exaggerated fears on both sides. A humorist could see the makings of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Fortunately we can hope that in the looming battle the community will be more amused than scarred, and the damage will be limited to the dignity and imaginations of the performers on one side or the other.

In any case, the battle on the issue has already been essentially won in the proper public forum. It was won by proponents of a modest development that they hope will facilitate a magnificent new Giant. The opponents of the PUD failed to paint the five-story building with four stories of apartments and the loss of the overlay limiting restaurants as threatening to the larger community. More importantly, most people (especially among the those who still do not like the accessory developments just named) are impatiently waiting for a new and improved Giant. Many are worried that further opposition threatens what they are eager to get. DC public officials have shown their usual willingness to downplay apparently exaggerated threats of development gone wild. Appeals of their decision are unlikely to achieve much. We are likely to get the new Giant and most of the accessory developments (unless it becomes the victim of the current credit crisis). And we would get it whether we have a lynching at the September 29 CPCA meeting or not.

The strength shown by the proponents after they turned negative demonstrates the power of the negative side in a democracy. Ironically, their triumph on behalf of a mildly supportive position on a development issue may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Let us suppose that we have the lynching, what can we expect then? I suspect the new leadership will in turn learn to practice defensive policy making. When the next big development in Wisconsin Avenue offers a new ten-story apartment house where we now have a five story structure, they will likely temper their enthusiasm for development in the face of a much larger firestorm of opposition. Otherwise they might be visited by a few old friendly neighbors politely asking, "Could we borrow your rope for a party we are having?
. . . And by the way, you are invited."

Greg New
One of two living past presidents of CPCA


IMGoph said...

you can tell this was written in ward 3. if you tried to compare things to a lynching in a less lily-white part of town (namely, the rest of the city), you'd be in some DAMN hot water!

DC Poster said...

Which is why I posted it, as an example of the mindset which currently controls the neighborhood organization.

Reform is needed and the residents and members of the organization need to see how their community is currently being represented.