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Auditor: ANCs becoming fiscally responsible

Scathing financial reports, training sessions produce positive effects

(Published October 18, 1999)


Staff Writer

After three years of scathing city audits and a congressional threat to their funding, the city’s advisory neighborhood commissions seem to have turned the corner.

The city auditor and a reform-minded council member are working to make the commissions more fiscally responsible and effective.

Earlier this year, nearly half of the city’s 37 ANCs were not current in their quarterly financial filings required by law. City Auditor Deborah Nichols said that number is down to just two.

"There have been tremendous improvements and I think we’re going to see even more," Nichols said.

In part, she attributed those improvements to some highly publicized audit reports her office released showing mismanagement of tens of thousands of dollars in ANC funds. She said some ANCs, as a result, made more of an effort to get their financial records straightened out before their scheduled audits.

Councilman David Catania, R-At-large, held a hearing to assess the status of all 37 ANCs before his Committee on Local and Regional Affairs earlier this year. During the hearing, he solicited ideas and comments from commissioners on how to improve the ANCs and used that information to form the basis for legislation he plans to introduce Nov. 2.

One of the biggest, and possibly most controversial, changes included in Catania’s reform package would eliminate the ill-defined "great weight" standard that D.C. government agencies are supposed to afford ANC opinions on neighborhood issues. The new section would require agencies to follow ANC recommendations unless they are "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law."

Another major change Catania plans to propose is the creation of an Office of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to provide technical, administrative and financial reporting support to the ANCs, according to a draft of the proposal obtained by The Common Denominator. The office would be funded by the ANC budget, and the director would be nominated by the mayor and approved by the council.

Catania said a support office for the commissions would help alleviate the problems some ANCs get into that are discovered only through audits.

"The problem with the current ANC system is that you have a bunch of volunteers who have other jobs and lives and there’s no agency that looks after them," Catania said. "What we do now is wait for them to get in trouble and then once they’re in trouble we ask for them to play catch-up."

Nichols said the auditing process has gotten easier since the beginning of the year, when a new rule took effect requiring ANCs to submit copies of canceled checks and receipts with their quarterly financial statements. She said this gives her staff the opportunity to settle questionable expenditures before a full-blown audit is conducted.

"That in and of itself is a mini-audit which, as well as the biannual audit, help keep the ANCs in compliance," Nichols said.

Draft copies of the reform legislation were sent to all ANCs seeking comments and suggestions. Catania said his committee is still in the process of getting that input and compiling the comments in order to draw up the final bill.

One of the proposed changes in the draft legislation would allow the city council to suspend the activities of "non-functioning" commissions, that is commissions that have not filed three consecutive quarterly financial statements. Another proposal would allow commissioners or citizens to petition to remove a commissioner who fails to attend three ANC meetings in one calendar year.

Catania stressed that the bill is in its preliminary stages and any proposed change may or may not be in the final version of the bill.

Both Catania and Nichols said they have been very pleased by the progress the ANCs have made in getting back into and staying in compliance with their financial filings.

"It’s a testimonial to how hard the commissioners have worked to get in compliance and stay current with their filings," Catania said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator