CPCA board postpones election amid campaign for change
Despite some predictions to the contrary at various points in our history, no US President has ever tried to cancel or postpone an election to avoid losing office. Mayor Rudy Giuliani briefly floated the idea after 9/11, just as his term was about to expire, but backed down during the ensuing criticism. But the Cleveland Park Citizens Association just invoked their emergency powers to delay their annual election until this fall. On its face, it looks like they took this step because many residents of that neighborhood, upset with CPCA's recent direction, joined the group and were planning to elect new leadership.
Any resident of Cleveland Park is entitled to join CPCA by paying $15 in dues. Anyone who joined by May 5th would have been eligible to vote in the election previously scheduled for June 6th. Neighborhood leaders dismayed by the CPCA's current direction, particularly its vociferous opposition to the Giant project on Wisconsin Avenue, were organizing to change CPCA. Their efforts yielded about 75 new CPCA members in recent months, very likely enough to swing the election.
According to Jeff Davis, the head of the pro-Giant project group Advocates for Wisconsin Avenue Renewal (AWARE), Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood "questioned whether the CPCA truly represents either Cleveland Park or the CPCA membership itself since such a small number of CPCA members (32 of 425) voted for their resolution against the Application." AWARE members met with CPCA leaders to urge changes to the bylaws that would enable more residents of Cleveland Park to find out about and participate in CPCA meetings and votes.
Davis and the other AWARE leaders also asked CPCA to nominate supporters of the Giant project to half of the positions, both on the Executive Committee and committee chairs. That would have given them an "equal voice" in the organization without excluding the existing CPCA leaders, who have contributed substantial time and effort to the neighborhood. According to current CPCA President George Idelson, AWARE "said such a 'joint' slate would avoid an acknowledged, organized campaign to take over the entire leadership of CPCA at our annual meeting."
In an email to the Cleveland Park neighborhood list this morning, Idelson wrote,
The Cleveland Park Citizens Association welcomes the many new members who have joined in recent weeks. This is a president's dream come true and we look forward to their active participation. ...Idelson seems to fundamentally misunderstand democracy. Democracy means that people can choose the leaders of an organization. That choice isn't limited to people who come to the organization completely unprompted. Rhetoric, whether true or false, does not invalidate that right. Elections don't always involve people quietly and calmly reaching a consensus.
[However,] this campaign [to register voters for the CPCA election] has been fueled by false charges that the Association opposes all change and development. It has distorted our position on the Giant development ... That the campaign was orchestrated was demonstrated by some 60 bundled applications received by certified mail just before the specified cut-off date, by anonymous leaflets, and by private emails urging residents to join CPCA to "stage a coup."
The campaign urged people to join by a certain date, to be eligible to vote for this competing, unnamed slate. Demonizing an association and encouraging a chaotic election is hardly normal. This is Cleveland Park, not some third world country. We are deeply dismayed over the divisiveness this campaign has caused in our community. Development issues can be contentious, but they ought not be used to tear the community apart.
We need some time for cooling off. Time to reflect on the issues. For these reasons, CPCA's Executive Committee has executed the emergency powers granted in our bylaws to postpone the election of officers until the Fall. This is clearly an emergency. In the interim, we will seek ways to mend this tear in our neighborhood fabric.
Our nation's elections were contentious at least since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ran against each other in 1796, and probably before that back to the first Congress, not to mention state legislatures and town meetings back to the founding of the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies. When the Democratic-Republicans disagreed with the Federalists about the nation's direction, the Federalists didn't say that Jefferson's "wild claims" were going to "tear the nation apart." Or maybe some did, but elections went ahead just the same, and in 1800, Jefferson beat Adams.
"Demonizing an association" for an election is very normal; almost every federal election involves at least one candidate railing against "Washington." Postponing an election is far more evocative of a "third world country" than running a voter registration drive to democratically change policy.
There's nothing wrong with a group of people organizing to get residents involved in decisions. Nor is it unusual for a contentious issue to spur many people to get involved in politics. As long as most residents agreed with most actions of CPCA, there was little reason to take the time to get involved. Idelson seems to feel that the sudden wave of voter registrations reflects a small group that doesn't represent what he sees as the longtime consensus of the neighborhood. Instead, it's he who is out of touch with a community dismayed by the priorities of its leaders.
The citizens' associations frequently come under fire for their undemocratic tendencies. While they claim to represent the community, closed boards make many decisions, including filling vacancies without elections. The Dupont Circle Citizens' Association only allowed people who were members before January 2009 to vote in their recent election. Robin Diener may not have won election as President had newer members been able to vote. But in DCCA's case, the Board nominated a mixture of newer and more long-time residents with diverse voices, all of whom won except for the office of President.
It's too bad that CPCA first took a position without pushing for broad involvement by its members, then spurned the suggestions from the large group of residents upset with its processes, and finally postponed the election. CPCA has taken membership dues from the new members but denied them their voice. This gives enormous ammunition to critics of community organizations. That's too bad, because community groups fill an important role in our local civic fabric. When a few members disenfranchise their neighbors because they don't like the rest of the community's opinions, they instead become a harmful knot in that fabric.
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