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Office of Zoning: We don't want emails, they might be fake

If you want to express an opinion to your councilmember, you can send an email. But if you want to tell the DC Zoning Commission what you think of a development proposal, you have to print out a letter on paper, sign it, then scan it back in, or send them a physical letter.

Photo by Phil Romans on Flickr.

This makes it hard for many residents to participate in the forum where the city's land use decisions get made. Not everyone has a scanner handy. It takes a fair amount of time and materials to mail a letter. There seems to be little reason not to let people send an email, with comments in the text, their name and address at the bottom.

I raised this issue this morning at an oversight hearing for the Office of Zoning. DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson asked Office of Zoning director Sara Bardin for the reason. This rule came about, she said, because in one case about 10 years ago, someone sent an email which falsified the name.

Therefore, she said, they decided to require a signature on all letters. Otherwise, "we can't authenticate it should somebody come back later" and say the testimony is false.

Mendelson seemed skeptical. "It might be worth looking at that some more," he said. He pointed out that if someone brings a petition signed by a number of residents, OZ doesn't necessarily authenticate them either.

Bardin never explained why it is so important to authenticate each piece of testimony. The Zoning Commission can read letters from people with and without a wiggly line at the bottom, and give each the weight members think it deserves. If they want to give more credit to letters with an ink design at the bottom, fine, but what's the harm in accepting the letters? For that matter, did this one email 10 years ago cause great harm in a zoning case? It seems unlikely.

Mendelson asked me whether allowing emailed comments would encourage people to create online petitions. He pointed out that he had received over 500 emails on an issue last year (he didn't specify, but it could have been Uber). It's easier, he said, to just click on a petition, and does that mean as much?

I replied that while getting a lot of form emails might not show as strong a depth of passion as when people write individual letters or even come to testify at a hearing, it's important information. Councilmembers could know that a lot of people cared enough about Uber, or yoga taxes, or other issues like those to send an email.

Perhaps making it hard for people to give their input might have an upside from the staff's point of view; they have to deal with fewer documents, and the commissioners have to read a shorter record. But it also deprives many residents of a voice in this process.

Hopefully Bardin will heed Mendelson's gentle suggestion and reevalute this policy. In the meantime, please support this effort by writing your comments in cuneiform on a clay tablet, firing the tablet, plating it in bronze, and shipping the resulting plaque to Zoning Commission for the District of Columbia, 441 4th Street, NW, Room 200-South, Washington, DC 20001.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I don't have it available here, but I wanted to sign this comment using my public key, so I'll just fake it

Yet another thing that would have been better if email had been developed after asymmetric encryption.

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by Michael Perkins on Mar 7, 2013 3:36 pm • linkreport

Because clearly, the Office of Zoning employs a team of handwriting experts to determine whether a signature is genuine or not. I can't imagine it's that hard to find any number of people's addresses and impersonate them in a real letter. Now I'm curious why anyone would want to do that.

by Steven Yates on Mar 7, 2013 3:46 pm • linkreport

I do think the concern of sock-puppetry is relevant to the extent that testimony is weighed by its body count rather than its argument. It's not clear to me how a signature authenticates a letter any more than an email header does its body text.

That said, this policy does prevent the torrent of form-generated advocacy emails that inundate many elected representatives. While they may be a useful tool, they are only to the extent that the aforementioned weighing by volume takes place, and they drown out cogent messages that might not have a constituency, writing on other issues.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 7, 2013 3:55 pm • linkreport

We're already sick of reading public feedback and have no interest in doing anything to encourage more public feedback.

Obviously the "authentication" isn't a concern, if it was they could just have an online form with a box you need to check that says "I hereby certify that I have provided my real and current name and address" or something like that.

by MLD on Mar 7, 2013 3:56 pm • linkreport

RE: Torrent of form-generated advocacy emails

As someone who has both run form-generated advocacy email efforts and receives many of them every day in my inbox I can safely say that people really only participate in them if they actually care about an issue.

by MLD on Mar 7, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

I am not a lawyer, so I don't know exactly, but zoning matters are defined as legal proceedings, so this might make a difference in that sense. Whatever the legal standards are for this type of communication should be applicable.

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

I think the issue here may be that in zoning matters, property owners have rights denied to other citizens. They want to verify signatures to ensure that those who claim to be property owners really are.

The solution is to give everyone equal rights.

by Ben Ross on Mar 7, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

@Ben Ross -- as an 8-year DC resident (and renter), I agree with your proposed solution.

But I'm not sure about your suggestion that they verify signatures to ensure that property owners are properly represented. I suppose that if somebody is writing from, it's difficult to verify that they are who they say they are, but is the zoning commission currently comparing signatures on the letters they receive to official signature records?

If not, then there's not much of an upside, other than suppressing the number of comments.

by Jacques on Mar 7, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

Do I hear a call for DC drivers licenses / ID cards to have a chip which can authenticate you to some DC government websites? This is just but one of many examples where better authentication would be beneficial.

by GP Steve on Mar 7, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

I don't think DC has any rules that property owners get any special rights. Remember, until 1974 all zoning decisions were made by the federal government, so even being a DC resident didn't confer any privileges.

Today, the law gives extra import ("great weight") to ANCs, which the Home Rule Act created, and to the government agencies, but that's it.

by David Alpert on Mar 7, 2013 5:21 pm • linkreport

Property owners within a certain distance are afforded special notification rights.

It's not about some residents being privileged over others that is what matters, it's that zoning matters are legal proceedings and follow very specific procedures (in large part to reduce the success from challenges).

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 5:26 pm • linkreport

I find it pretty amusing that GGW doesn't see the point of this, when GGW has verified with its own past polling that a minimum 35 to 40 % of the folks responding weren't actual DC residents but rather VA, MD residents with more than a handful from places further (NY, Pa, CA, IL, etc). Non District residents get zero input lobbying District legislators on programs they don't pay for. Zoning issues are even more critical as they directly affect residents.

Props to the Zoning Office

by DCer on Mar 7, 2013 9:33 pm • linkreport

"It takes a fair amount of time and materials to mail a letter."

I kind of stopped reading the post here. A ridiculous statement will do that.

I mean come on: A piece of paper. A pen (or pencil). An envelope. And a 46-cent stamp. I'd offer that a computer hooked to a printer (with toner and paper) represents more the concept of a "fair amount" of materials.

by Jon T on Mar 7, 2013 9:53 pm • linkreport

My mom could send a (handwritten) letter in 2 minutes flat (excluding the time it takes to write it), since she still does that and has stamps, envelopes, and stationary on hand, and there's a mailbox on her corner. I can send an email in 2 minutes flat (probably including the time to type it), because I have a good computer and internet connection on hand. For either of us to do the other takes so much longer that we usually don't bother. She *has* a computer and internet, but types quite slowly and doesn't quite understand how the internets work. I *have* paper (somewhere), envelopes (somewhere), and stamps (somewhere), and, yes, there's also a mailbox on my corner, but it would take me a while to dig the supplies out of the closet (and my printer has been out of ink FOREVER - literally since the cartridges that came with it when I bought it over 5 years ago ran out/dried up - since I typically only use it as a scanner). There *has* to be some way to offer both. Requiring a driver's license/government ID number (lodged at a current address) doesn't seem a terrible idea for electronic stuff, if we *also* offer the option of writing a signed letter should your address not be current or you not have an ID. Then everyone has the *option* of participating easily, without excluding anyone.

by Ms. D on Mar 7, 2013 10:22 pm • linkreport

@DCer--I wasn't suggesting that the zoning commission should not require people to identify themselves, or even where they live.

Just that requiring a hand-signed letter, rather than an alternate solution to verify identity, such as the one suggested above by MLD, seems to be a bit backward thinking.

Perhaps, as Richard Layman suggested, there is a legal requirement for signed testimony. But from the zoning commission staff's answers in the original post, this sounds a lot more like a policy decision than a legal one.

by Jacques on Mar 7, 2013 11:03 pm • linkreport

As usual, the zoning office tries its hardest to make things as difficult as possible. DCRA and zoning are two of the most "user-unfriendly" places I have ever dealt with.

by JOHN HINES on Mar 8, 2013 8:42 am • linkreport

This is only the tip of the iceberg. How can we trust that people who speak in zoning hearings are actually residents? There are so many out-of-work actors that it's pretty easy to hire a few dozen and give them some talking points before a meeting.

by CityBeautiful21 on Mar 8, 2013 9:13 am • linkreport

Let's pretend that our government really is "of the people, by the people and for the people," and that the DC Council and its Zoning Commission belong to us. We pay their salaries and we own the building they work in and everything in it. THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE TO US.

Now, let's ACT upon that premise! Instead of showing up at meetings and begging them to do the right thing, we must demand it. And we must make it perfectly clear that, if they don't act in accordance with the will of the people, we'll remove them and replace them with people who will.

That, of course, requires organizing and enlisting a critical mass of citizens with the determination to carry it off.

by Shireen Parsons on Mar 8, 2013 9:37 am • linkreport

This is stupid. What difference does it make if I sign a letter and put my address on it, or sign an e-mail and put my address on it?

Perhaps they should make a submission form where you have to input your address, and check a box indiciting you actually live there. E-signatures are valid as well. I signed mortgage documents electronically, I should be able to sign a letter to zoning electronically.

by Kyle-W on Mar 8, 2013 9:39 am • linkreport

In a city that was once recognized for its advances in on-line services, it's pathetic that in 2013 these dopes can't figure out a way to take public comments on line. The White House has figured it out for a population of 315,000,000... Surely the OZ can figure it out for the population of DC.

Politicians outrank techies in age and there is the gap. Asking Phil Mendelson to address this is like asking a 22-year old if they prefer mass transit to horses and buggies? They may THINK they know, but they don't because they never tried it.

Phil and his cohorts are, for the most part, clueless. Print out a letter, sign it, scan it and mail it back? It's too bad so many city employees don't really work or this is something they could work on.

Is it rocket science to have a checkbox "By submitting this opinion I am aware that the IP address of this computer will be logged for security purposes."

With design geniuses like this: is it a wonder they can't work out the details?

by Mike on Mar 8, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

The Washington Post requires a name, street address and phone number before it will publish any letter to the editor, whether it's emailed or not. I don't see why OP can't do the same. Handwritten and mailed letters can be "spoofed" just as easily as emailed letters, if not more so.

by TJ on Mar 8, 2013 10:57 am • linkreport

As a near-lifelong resident of Maryland, I would not normally have any reason to comment on a D.C. zoning matter (and I don't own any real property in the District), but if I did, I would make it clear in the communication that I was commenting as a non-D.C. resident.

Regardless, I think the D.C. Zoning Office needs to get with the 21st century and allow communication by some form of e-mail or Web comment submission.

TJ is correct - any communication, not just e-mails, can be "spoofed."

by C. P. Zilliacus on Mar 8, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

We in Montgomery County get all kinds of input, in various ways. As far as I'm concerned, all that matters is the thoughtfulness of the content. However, to the extent a zoning decision is involved, it is based on a credible record subject to cross examination issues and potential litigation. Where that is the case, you need reliable authentication. This is where you defer to the lawyers.

by Nancy Floreen on Mar 8, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

That bronzed clay tablet should be delivered by trebuchet.

by Sam Earle on Mar 8, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

I don't have a problem with the current policy because I think it increases the quality of the comments submitted into the record.

It's been my experience that we are all much more thoughtful and civil to each other when we communicate in person or in signed letters than we are in emails and internet comments.

I don't think scanning a signed letter and submitting it electronically sets too high a barrier if it improves the quality and civility of the comments.

I guess I'm now an "old."

by jdr on Mar 8, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

Of course physical letters are not as fast as email. But it's surely a bit much to suggest it is difficult to mail a letter.

by Chris on Mar 8, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

@jdr: So, you want is to believe you are not some kind of plant? Please print, sign, scan, post and then share a link to your comment PDF here. THEN, we should consider you a real person.

by Mike on Mar 8, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by [Offensive name removed] on Mar 9, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

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