Greater Greater Washington

Make ANC financial reports available online

The chairman of ANC 5B stole about $30,000 from the ANC last year. DC agencies struggle to provide enough oversight of dysfunctional ANCs. The District can start to increase accountability and transparency by making ANC financial reports available online.


Photo by mynameisharsha on Flickr.

ANCs must provide the DC Auditor with quarterly financial reports. The DC Auditor is responsible for auditing the financial information, maintaining a database of the information, and ensuring that the reports are in compliance.

It would be a small step to also make this information readily available to the public. The press and interested members of the public could then monitor the ANC financial reports and identify mistakes, omissions, and inconsistencies that may have been missed.

Under the current system, the DC government is not providing the resources required for adequate oversight. The size and scope of the ANC system outweighs the resources dedicated to overseeing it. The DC Auditor has many other responsibilities and the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, charged with administrating ANCs, only has two full-time staff members.

With financial information effectively hidden from the public, it takes extremely diligent individuals significant effort and time to uncover improper or missing information. In September 2011, the Washington Times discovered that the DC auditor approved ANC financial reports that were missing basic information, proper signatures, or evidence of tax deductions. The Times also reported that the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions doesn't maintain records from the ANCs.

In the ANC 5B scandal, the DC Auditor initiated an audit after failing to receive financial reports for 3 consecutive quarters. The DC auditor currently posts a list detailing if and when ANCs submitted their financial reports.

If the database were available online, the public could have more easily and quickly found out about the DC Auditor's and the ANCs' failings, without having to rely on intrepid reporters sifting through hidden data.

Making this database available online should not place an undue burden on individual ANCs or the DC Auditor. But it will allow the press and public to better scrutinize these elected officials. Knowing that their records are easily available to the public may also encourage ANCs to follow proper financial procedure.

The ANC system is due for change. Putting these documents online would be a small step in the right direction.

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Matt Rumsey moved to D.C in 2005 to pursue a degree in History at American University. Originally from Connecticut, he has had no intention of leaving D.C. since he moved to Columbia Heights in the summer of 2008. He now lives in Ward 5. He currently works at The Sunlight Foundation. Views here are his own. 

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Also, every year the auditor puts out a paper report, bound on fancy paper, with the financial reports from all ANCs and mails it to all the ANCs (i'm not sure if it goes to all Commissioners or just chairs). It's a total waste of paper, money, and staff time. I imagine it must be a legal requirement. Getting rid of that report in favor of on-line reporting would be a big plus.

by Urbanetter on Apr 13, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

Agree 100% with this. In our ANC, 3F, we have gone a step further - we have all of our reports online and have a live link to our check register. Any member of the public can see exactly what we are doing.

by Adam on Apr 13, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

As Treasurer of ANC1D (Mount Pleasant), I say certainly, all of our financial information should be readily web-accessible. The only thing I worry about is bank data that could be used for identity theft. Yes, that's happened to us, and it was a mess getting clear of that.

by Jack on Apr 13, 2012 7:56 pm • linkreport

I like what ANC 3F is doing. William Shelton is lucky that he stole $28k rather than $30k. $30k would have upped his sentencing recommendation.

by Elise Bernard on Apr 13, 2012 8:41 pm • linkreport

this job is thankless enough. requiring this at the anc level will make a crappy job even crappier. bad idea.

typical liberal knee jerk reaction though to a few bad apples. ruin it for everybody else!

by killamagilla on Apr 13, 2012 8:58 pm • linkreport

Ok, I wouldn't do the check register, but posting financial reports is a great idea. It's not that difficult, but it does require careful redaction. I actually served on ANC 5B, but it was way before Shelton started stealing. I think that residents have a right to see where the money goes. ANC 5B was chronically late with reporting, but there were spending issues/questionable choices beyond Shelton's stealing. I raised them internally, but got shot down. I think that would not have happened if the reports were more easily available to the public. We literally spent almost $20k a year on a secretary who did close to nothing at all and was a personal friend of Shelton's. That kind of thing should NEVER happen.

by Elise Bernard on Apr 13, 2012 9:28 pm • linkreport

The ANC system is due for change.

No need to get more transparency. Just get rid of the ANCs. That would be a double win. You get rid of an unnecessary antiquated government layer and the corruption at the same time! ANCs were a great idea when DC had no city council. It is silly to keep two semi-independent government layers in such a small area. At the same time, make City Council Membership a full-time job so that CMs will have time to deal with truly local issues. Another win! Man, I'm on a roll tonight.

by Jasper on Apr 13, 2012 9:36 pm • linkreport

We literally spent almost $20k a year on a secretary who did close to nothing at all and was a personal friend of Shelton's.

I've always viewed ANCs as a form of grift/slush funds for the commissioners and their friends. I can't help but think it's used as a way for the DC government to buy off various community leaders by making them feel they have a stake in the system, and you do that by paying them off and giving them access to a stream of money they are allowed to divert towards themselves.

I suspect that ANCs will fade away as the expectation of DC government becomes less grift-oriented.

by Tyro on Apr 14, 2012 1:11 am • linkreport

Re "I've always viewed ANCs as a form of grift/slush funds for the commissioners and their friends" --

We ANC commissioners are paid nothing for what can be a good deal of our time. As for "slush funds", half of all ANCs give out nothing for grants. Ours doesn't.

But then this illustrates again why ANC financial reports ought to be readily available to the public.

by Jack on Apr 14, 2012 9:47 am • linkreport

Like Killamagila commented above, the non-compensated work performed by ANC commissioners is already a thankless job which most people don't realize is done on a volunteer basis ... and for the most part is performed out of a sense community service. Yes, there are a few bad apples out there that get in there for other-than-worthy reasons, but let's not make a volunteer job that's already hard even harder just to address those few bad apples.

My thought in this area, to address the problems, has always been that the funding given to the ANCs by the Council should be reduced to what is today called/classified as 'petty cash' purposes, with the bulk of the funding instead centralized into a separate bureau responsible for vetting and paying expenses. I.e., Let oversight and check cutting for legitimate purposes be handled by people with the expertise to ensure District dollars are being spent in accordance with District laws. Don't push this complicated task on to volunteer ANC commissioners.

That way, BEFORE any dollars are paid to anyone we can be sure they are going to a legitimate and allowed purpose under the ANC rules.

ANCs could still approve payment of funds for legitimate purposes as provided for within ANC rules and as limited by their budgeted allocations of District monies, but there would be professionals around to ensure the expenses are legitimate and to pay them accordingly.

Part of the upside is that the Auditor would need only one audit (of this separate bureau) and the commissioners would be freed up of administrative duties and left to do that which they do best ... i.e., help their neighbors. I bet there'd also be a cumulative savings in having this function centralized from economies of scale. I.e., Instead of each ANC having to hire staff to do this, the centralized accounting/disbursements bureau would likely incur far less in administrative costs than the current cumulative administrative costs of all the ANCs put together ... not speak of the possible savings in terms of office space, records storage space, bank fees, etc.

Just a thought ... from a former ANC Commissioner/Chair/Treasurer

by Lance on Apr 14, 2012 10:02 am • linkreport

*"ANCs could still approve payment of funds for legitimate purposes as provided for within ANC rules and as limited by their budgeted allocations of District monies,"

by this, I meant that in addition to the petty cash monies actually distributed to the ANCs, I'd expect the remaining funding they get today to be 'credited' to them in an account maintained by this centralized bureau. I.e., they'd still be getting the same amount of District monies to spend, but wouldn't have to deal with the administrative paying and accounting for the bulk of this funding ... THAT would be handled by this professional centralized bureau.

by Lance on Apr 14, 2012 10:07 am • linkreport

The financial reports of ANC 6A are available at www.ANC6A.org. All of our documents including Commission minutes, committee reports and minutes, Commission letters, and agendas are available online.

We hold no closed meetings.

An ANC Commissioner acts as a ombudsman for his/her constituents. Street lights burned out; plates missing from the bottom of utility poles; broken curbs; alleys in need of cleaning; rat problems; mis-timed traffic lights; repainting of crosswalks; vacant property registration; flooding streets; calling for traffic enforcement when needed; assisting schools by pushing for external lighting, fences, security cameras; making sure parking and traffic signs are correctly installed; and representing neighborhood interests in ABRA, zoning, and historic preservation cases are all parts of the job.

For almost all of us, this is done from a love of our community. If it's done for a title, it's hardly worth the work.

David Holmes
ANC 6A03

by David Holmes on Apr 14, 2012 10:27 am • linkreport

ANC 3F's online check register is a Google doc. It doesn't provide any information that could be used in identity theft. It is the same information provided in the quarterly reports, just sooner for greater transparency. You can view the spreadsheet from either the website or the short URL, bit.ly/ANC3Fchecks. It is not difficult to make an entry on the spreadsheet when a check is written. Posting the quarterly reports is also rather simple. These aren't onerous tasks; however, putting the report itself together can be difficult.

The ANC allocations are often used by ANCs for administrative support to compile the reports or take minutes. Both are legitimate expenses. ANC 3F currently has the talent among commissioners to handle those tasks without staff.

The quarterly reports are not audited by the D.C. Auditor. They are reviewed and used as a means for continued funding. The ANCs are audited once every 3 years unless circumstances demand something sooner. Audits are much more rigorous than reviews.

The idea that ANC commissioners are using the allocated funds for political purposes to amass some kind of power is ludicrous. It is an essentially powerless position without pay. "Great weight" that ANC resolutions are given essentially mean that a written explanation for why they are wrong is required. You have to be dedicated to your neighborhood to be a commissioner.

William Shelton, former chair of 5B and admitted felon, convinced the other 11 commissioners that the finances were being handled. None of them checked. None of them looked at a bank statement or quarterly report. Not even the treasurer. While the 11 commissioners didn't steal, they are all responsible for how funds are being spent.

In order to ensure that ANC 3F funds are being spent as approved, I send scans of the bank statements each month to all of the 3F commissioners. They would be able to see right away if something were amiss. It is important that we can all see the independent evidence of how the funds are being handled.

Shelton's situation shows that there isn't a lot to steal in the first place, and you can't get away with stealing for long. He was able to string along the system for about 8 months, before it all fell apart.

There is no way to ensure that someone out to steal will not get elected, but the process, in the worst case took less than a year to come to a head. Compare that to the decades long thefts in other District agencies. With the reporting in ANC 3F, theft would be detectable with the first bank statement.

by Bob Summersgill on Apr 14, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

Indeed, it's primarily the responsibility of the other commissioners to prevent misappropriation of ANC funds by any officer. Secondarily, the quarterly reviews by the auditor catch improper expenditures.

The identity theft incident here was not much of a theft; some guy in Georgia simply prepared checks using our account number. Because we have on-line banking, I caught it very quickly. Fixing it still required that we close that account and open a new one, and obtain all new checks. That incident leaves me a bit cautious about making financial details public.

Certainly our financial reports can and should be made readily available to the public, not to prevent theft, but to allow the public to know precisely how their tax dollars are being spent.

by Jack on Apr 14, 2012 7:03 pm • linkreport

@ Bob Summergill: ANC 3F currently has the talent among commissioners to handle those tasks without staff.

That is quiet a euphemism. It's not called "talent". It's called being competent. Your phrases implies other ANCs does not have that "talent"=competence.

Wow, a formal admission that *by an ANC member* that other ANCs are incompetent. I'd never think I'd see that. We're making progress here. Baby-steps, but progress.

by Jasper on Apr 14, 2012 8:45 pm • linkreport

The appropriate term is skill. And not every ANC has members with the skill set needed for being an effective treasurer. Especially on a small ANC, such as ours (6), there's no assurance that any of them will have the skill and mindset needed for the job. We've had a couple of failures, and you cannot just point anyone at the job and tell them to go do it, with nothing but a brief training session with the auditor to learn how it's done.

Nobody runs for ANC on a platform of "I have what it takes to be a good ANC treasurer". It's something of an accident to have a commissioner who is actually skillful at it. They may be perfectly competent at being ANC commissioners, but wretched at being ANC treasurers. This lesson we've learned the hard way.

by Jack on Apr 14, 2012 11:23 pm • linkreport

Not that this isn't a good suggestion but it really misses the point. One thing that frequently frustrates me about GGW posts is the failure to approach "problems" systemically. This is another example.

cf. http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20120413/science-for-designers-the-transformation-of-wholes

Anyway, wrt this particular entry, some time ago I wrote about providing "shared services" to ANCs, including administration of financial expenditures. That would go a long way towards eliminating petty corruption, which is the real point, not more reports. The issue isn't really "transparency" as much as it is better administration with more checks.

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/09/neat-solution-to-some-of-petty.html

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/09/networked-solutions-for-some-problems.html

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2010/11/even-more-on-ancs-advisory-neighborhood.html

Note that Lance makes the same point about providing support for financial administration to ANCs in his comments above.

by Richard Layman on Apr 15, 2012 7:14 am • linkreport

"That would go a long way towards eliminating petty corruption, which is the real point, not more reports." I don't think it's correct to conclude that, because of one flagrant incident, "petty corruption" is a big problem with ANCs. As I noted previously, an officer can divert ANC funds to himself only if the rest of the commission is paying no attention. Furthermore, the auditor has to be lax in reviewing the quarterly reports. Theft is very hard to do if the other commissioners are watching, and the auditor is doing his/her job.

Speaking of the auditor . . . that office seems to be considerably less effective than in the past. No doubt, of course, they've got much bigger fish to fry than our little ANCs. The total annual allocation for all the ANCs in the city amounts to 0.005% of the DC budget.

by Jack on Apr 15, 2012 9:43 am • linkreport

"The appropriate term is skill. And not every ANC has members with the skill set needed for being an effective treasurer. Especially on a small ANC, such as ours (6), there's no assurance that any of them will have the skill and mindset needed for the job."

I completely agree. That we have a Secretary who both takes good minutes and can post them to a website he built, is great, but not what makes him a great Commissioner. If we needed those skills, we are given an allocation to pay for staff, and there is nothing wrong with that.

by Bob Summersgill on Apr 15, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

That we have a Secretary who both takes good minutes and can post them to a website he built, is great, but not what makes him a great Commissioner.

Anyone with basic literacy and listening skills should be able to take good minutes. Once again, it's not about talent or skills, it's about being competent, and it's entire possible that in ANC-sized districts, it's easy for incompetent people to get elected.

by Tyro on Apr 15, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

Jack -- as you know there are numerous incidents of corruption and problems with ANCs in terms of finances. I can think of incidents in W2, W5, W6, and probably W7 and W8, over the past 20+ years that I've paid attention.

That doesn't mean that every ANC is bad/corrupt etc. That's almost 40 organizations and 10 2-year terms for 400 potential problems. Comparatively speaking, it's not that many, but one incident is one too many.

The point that Bob Summersgill made up in the thread about how, relatively speaking, Shelton's conversion was discovered pretty quickly (e.g., compare it to Harry Thomas...) I think supports your general point as well.

Still these occasional _but recurring_ problems are an indicator that there likely is a better way to do things. That's why I suggest using the concept of "shared services"/networked services for certain ANC functions, to reduce administrative burden, but at the same time, improve internal controls.

Not focusing more deeply on how to improve ANCs is an all too common phenomenon in the city, a glib, surface orientation focused on seeming solutions (like putting reports online) that don't have much substantive effect, especially in a longer term sense.

by Richard Layman on Apr 15, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

"Still these occasional _but recurring_ problems are an indicator that there likely is a better way to do things. That's why I suggest using the concept of "shared services"/networked services for certain ANC functions, to reduce administrative burden, but at the same time, improve internal controls."

No doubt about it, there's a better way to do things, and perhaps most importantly, ANC accounting. Turning this job over to amateurs -- pick a commissioner, make him "volunteer" for the job, somebody's got to do it -- is a prescription for trouble. Been there, done that.

I believe I've also suggested that the OANC provide a "roaming" accountant to visit all the ANCs and give them technical assistance. Individual ANCs can't afford to hire accountants, and the job is too small for a professional to want to bother with. We've talked about the Ward 1 ANCs getting together to "share" employees, but that raises questions of how fairly to share the costs. No doubt this could be done, but I think this calls for some higher guidance.

Fact remains, this is peripheral to determining the actual effectiveness of ANCs. No doubt we want the accounting to be accurate, and mal/misfeasance discovered promptly. But that doesn't say much about whether an ANC is effectively serving its community or not.

by Jack on Apr 15, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

You can pretty much tell now where the ANC shenanigans are happening based on current online information. Some commissions have very informative websites, while others have nothing - no minutes, no agendas, no bios for commissioners, no contact info, etc. In fact, 2 full-time staffers at the central ANC office should be enough to provide oversight and require that basic, consistent details are posted for the public.

by Carl on Apr 15, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

I was in the city auditor's office when the ANCs started. Since the beginning, a few members have been thieves. Many have been caught, but the system has remained the same over 30 years.

Giving cash to the ANCs unlike every other city agency is a mistake. ANCs should, as suggested by Lance and Richard Layman, get budget authority that they can spend, but it should go through the ANC office to insure proper procedure was followed. That way an ANCs spending would be easily accountable and the auditor would not have to play constant catch up.

by Carl Bergman on Apr 15, 2012 9:31 pm • linkreport

"Some commissions have very informative websites, while others have nothing - no minutes, no agendas, no bios for commissioners, no contact info, etc."

Indeed, there's little excuse today for failing to have an ANC web site. Furthermore, the minimal contents of an ANC web site ought to be specified by the ANC regs.

At last count, just 7 ANCs remain without web sites.

by Jack on Apr 15, 2012 11:06 pm • linkreport

"Giving cash to the ANCs unlike every other city agency is a mistake."

Agreed to that. That pot of cash is a temptation for commissioners to send government money to their favorite local groups. IMHO ANCs are simply not competent to handle grant funds, and should simply have their legitimate expenses covered, rather than being handed a pot of money to play with.

by Jack on Apr 15, 2012 11:13 pm • linkreport

It can't be said that anyone among them are corrupt, but ANC 4B ran amok with money for years and had several unaudited periods, including one when nearly $7K was spent for "postage" in a single quarter. There is at least one letter from the auditor requesting documentation to substantiate checks that were written, which hasn't been answered. They turn on the constituents when questioned about their financial accounting and over the years.

by dcnative on Apr 16, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

At ANC 2B, we also post all our financial documents online. We even went through old files and pulled as many as we could, going back to 2001:

http://www.dupontcircleanc.net/wordpress/documents/financial-documents/

We just approved a quarterly report, so our FY 2012 Q1 and Q2 reports will be going up there shortly, as well. I think all ANCs should do this.

by Will Stephens on Apr 16, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

Teddy Roosevelt would have loved this idea!

by RCR on Apr 17, 2012 6:06 pm • linkreport

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