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CPCA election delay brings "Unity." Will it also bring unity to Cleveland Park?

The "Unity Team," a group of candidates for Cleveland Park Citizens' Association offices nominated by the previous leaders, has won election over the "Reform Slate" of challengers.

The victorious Unity Team.

Numerous residents including Jeff Davis, organizer of the group Advocates for Wisconsin Avenue Renewal (AWARE), criticized the previous CPCA leadership for a lack of transparency. For example, CPCA did not communicate with members via email or run a listserv; when Gabe Fineman, one of the challengers, started one, CPCA leaders tried to get it shut down. Without email communication, most CPCA members never knew the topics of meetings, leading to very sparsely attended votes such as the one to oppose the Giant PUD, attended by only 32 members.

Davis decided to run for President of CPCA, and recruited a slate of candidates who advocate for greater openness and transparency. In May, faced with an influx of new members, especically many from AWARE, CPCA President George Idelson and his executive board postponed its election to "bring the neighborhood together." They subsequently selected September 29th for the rescheduled election, and Davis's slate ran again under the Reform Slate moniker.

At the beginning of September, John Chelen announced his candidacy for President as head of a new "Unity Team." Chelen said his group of candidates represents "different philosophies and life experiences, different points of view ... to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood." Chelen echoed many of the themes from Davis's Reform Slate, including encouraging greater participation in CPCA and use of electronic media.

Chelen's Unity Team played down any affiliation with Idelson and the "old guard," but evidence slipped out to the contrary. For example, in mid-September CPCA sent two pieces of mail to all members, one from the Reform Slate and one from the Unity Team. A few days after Reform delivered their envelopes and labels, Reform candidate Fineman asked outgoing CPCA Corresponding Secretary Jean Van der Tak about the status. According to Fineman, Van der Tak said, "1,000 pieces went out—your envelopes and ours, err, those of John Chelen."

Reform supporters also alleged that Unity candidates were using the CPCA membership rolls to campaign. Earlier in the year, Fineman asked for a copy of the membership roster, arguing that DC law requires them to provide it. CPCA leaders evenutally let him peruse a printed copy under supervision, but without the ability to take any notes. However, several sources on the Reform side claim that Unity candidates went door to door to make their case to CPCA members and get out the vote, apparently using the membership lists.

The Unity team also simply played the politics better. Chelen maintained an inclusive, open-minded tone throughout the campaign. Some Reform candidates, on the other hand, often wrote frustrated messages during arguments on the Cleveland Park list. They might have been right or had legitimate gripes, but an angry tone can turn off voters, even those already leaning the candidate's way.

Unity was against this, but less clear on what they're for.
Likewise, Unity downplayed policy positions on controversial issues, such as their position on the Giant, the commercial overlay, or speed bumps. After one candidate, Ruth Caplan, replied to a message about speed bumps, fellow slate member Ann Hamilton accidentally replied to all, "Dammit! I thought we agreed (well, were correctly instructed) not to respond!" Hamilton also one of the residents appealing the Giant decision, and an election video for the Unity Team includes a picture of really a ugly 1950s grade-separated concept street with a giant X through it, but the group avoided explaining exactly where they stand on the Giant or other development projects that don't look like concrete pillboxes.

Chelen defended his group's lack of a clear position on major issues, writing,

I don't think it's a platitude to say we'll discuss both sides of the issue. We've treated all postings with respect, even those that have been downright nasty. We're ready to discuss the complex economic and cultural effects of any proposal, and openly lay out the pros and cons of the alternatives reflecting many points of view. ... I asked people to come forward who were interested and had something substantive to offer; I didn't simply ask people what their opinion was on Giant. Yes, we have one person who has been involved in the Giant debate, and we also have six people who were never involved at all. Our team provides a system of checks and balances.
Last night, all Unity Team candidates won. In the closest race, for President, Chelen bested Davis by 45 votes out of 472 cast. Chelen will now have the opportunity to prove that he was sincere in his desire to "bring the neighborhood together" not by ensuring that everyone agrees with the positions that neighborhood leaders have taken in the past, but that CPCA becomes a truly inclusive forum for discussion. Whether he was recruited by the old guard or received their assistance, he is new to CPCA, and can chart an independent course.

Chelen could start by plugging the loopholes in the bylaws that allowed the Executive Board to postpone an election. Doing it once was unconscionable; to allow the possibility of a repeat performance amounts to a tacit endorsement of the practice. He should also establish a policy giving all candidates equal access to membership lists, whether those candidates have the support of existing officers or not. Either everyone should have the list, or nobody should. Likewise, the Federation of Citizens' Associations, of which CPCA is part, should develop a policy against such practices.

Citizens' associations have been in decline for years, and this experience bolsters the case for their obsolescence. That's too bad, since it's valuable to have strong resident and neighborhood voices in policy debates. However, citizens' associations often claim to speak for all residents, and antics like CPCA's election postponement make it clear that they don't. There was another debate on the Tenleytown listserv about the Tenleytown Neighbors Association, another Federation member, which has no Web presence and no evident way for residents to join.

The Federation ought to be concerned about the brand image of its member organizations. If it could ensure a basic level of democratic representation, openness about membership, communication to members, and access to information for electioneering, that could maintain some legitimacy. In the meantime, the DC government and ANCs should treat citizens' associations as no different than any other non-representative association of a handful of residents. They shouldn't get seats on ANC committees, as some do, or an automatic role in any advisory groups like the Zoning Update Task Force.

As the most publicly-derided "banana republic" citizens' association, CPCA can lead the way toward a truly inclusive model for an association, or set a clear tone in furtherance of the status quo where a few entrenched activists manipulate the puppet strings to generate the desried outcomes. I wish Chelen well in his efforts to bring about the change he promised in the campaign.

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 campaigned for Unity and my neighbors thought the Unity Slate stood for more than the Reform Slate. Reform was all about process while Unity had position papers on a wide range of issues relevant to Cleveland Park.

I also think voters did not approve of the tactics used by the Reform candidates during the Aware campaign. Davis tried to maintain civility during this campaign, but he could not escape the words and tactics of the Giant debate.

Perhaps now we can move forward with some careful and measured growth in Cleveland Park.

by CP Resident on Sep 30, 2009 1:38 pm • linkreport

Your right, the Reform slate was about process. To David's point, until anyone sees anything out of the new leadership that substantially changes the process, it is status quo (of course, I am typing this while the news is still hot off the presses).

Quite frankly, there was nothing earth shattering about the so-called position papers of the Unity slate. As was noted in the blog, they were mostly platitudes, and stake out the slates opinion on a few of the issues. The proof in the pudding is what kind of agenda the Unity CPCA board sets out and how it executes, particularly on the reform promises that they have admitted to stealing to further their cause. These would be in the areas of process, communication and transparency.

Maintaining and expanding the Yahoo Group established by the Reform slate, opening up communications at every level, including polling and voting by the membership, and keeping a membership directory that every member has access to are among the chief areas where the Reform Slate urged the process be advanced to the 21st Century. The winning slate had pledged support for these ideas. How quickly will it happen? First hundred days?

Let's check back at Christmas and see the progress.

by William on Sep 30, 2009 1:56 pm • linkreport

The Tenleytown listserv argument is a joke. It's as though people can't get have a dialogue without an organization. I get that in this party town, but blogs and just discussions can happen without dues.

And I'm curious about that fugly plan for Cleveland Park. When was it? What was it? I mean, good for them for defeating 1970s brutalism, but good for the Republican Party for freeing the slaves.

by цarьchitect on Sep 30, 2009 2:19 pm • linkreport

The CPCA listserve is one very tangible benefit for everyone in the neighborhood. The old CP listserve, run by Bill Adler, serves more like a NWDC listserve. I think that's why so many of the polls were slanted towards development in CP. If you live in Chevy Chase or AU Park, why not favor development in someone else's neighborhood. Now, with the CPCA list, we will have a forum where actual neighbors can discuss/debate these issues. It will never have as many members as the Adler listserve, but the content will be more meaningful for Cleveland Park.

by CP Resident on Sep 30, 2009 2:23 pm • linkreport


The issue isn't discussion, the issue is when a community association represents the views of the community without really knowing the views of the community. In the case of the CPCA and Giant, there was common groupthink where 32 people decided that the community association was to take a position opposed to a development that, at a minimum, had an equal amount of support.

The point here, I believe, is that if there are to be functioning community organizations, there needs to be an open and clear means to membership, and an open means to gauging the true sentiment of the community when making representations to the Mayor, the Council, the Zoning Commission, the HPRB, etc.

by William on Sep 30, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

The "Cleveland Park" list serve is no longer the forum for discussion of serious issues. It's widely known in the neighborhood that Bill Adler refuses to post messages when he disagrees with their content, which tends to slant the discussion on "his" list serve. (He lists himself as the co-owner.) And the polls tend to be poorly written, with limited choices which skew the results. His list serve is still a good place for locating a lost pet or finding Greek olive oil, though, but neighborhood issues discussions have largely moved already to the CPCA site.

by Silent Majority on Sep 30, 2009 2:58 pm • linkreport

I'm a propoerty owner in CP and I I just went to the CPCA website to join. There is a $15-20 fee to do so. However there is no explanation of how the dues will be used. the meeting are in the public librabry (free) and there is no mention of an annual dinner/picnicfor which supplies will be purchased or any other reaon money is needed. This is the only explanation given regarding the fee: "Our dues are low – for a reason. We want to broadly represent this community. We remain DC’s best bargain in democracy. Whether or not you come to meetings, your membership greatly strengthens the Association’s voice before city officials on important civic issues."

Every other association I belong gives reasons for asking for a fee, i.e. mailing costs, annual picnic supplies, etc. The CPCA doesn't even attempt to tell us where the money will go!

by Bianchi on Sep 30, 2009 4:38 pm • linkreport


As was described earlier this spring, the CPCA uses its dies to pay for snail mails to communicate with its membership. Hopefully under the new regime, that will change significantly.

by William on Sep 30, 2009 4:46 pm • linkreport

that information is not on the website. it simply asks for money with no explanation for how it will be used. Additionally, if the use of "snail mail" is to be discontinued and the snail mail is/was the only reason for the fee then the fee should also be discontinued and all this should be explained on the website. So far from my point of view it looks like a bad deal and a neighbor hood association that just wants money from me for no good reason. It rather pisses me off. The communication from the CPCA is already very poor!

by Bianchi on Sep 30, 2009 4:55 pm • linkreport

again @ William - I looked again. The CPCA does not list a treasurer or, from what I saw, any report as to what happens with the fees. Where's it go? Where's the report? Why isn't there a treasurer and treasurer's report? Why should anyone in CP trust this organization? I sincerely want to know. I believe in civic organizations. like i said i belong to others. However those others tell me where my fee for joining is going and/or I can see where the fee is being used. That is not the case for this CPCA. I was ready to join the CPCA but I was immediately turned off by the request for a fee with no explanation for why it's requested or even a promise of a financial report in the future. Even a simple report would do! What the hell?

by Bianchi on Sep 30, 2009 5:16 pm • linkreport

The new officers, including the Treasurer, were elected just last night! I would recommend that you give them a week or two to get organized.

by CP Resident on Sep 30, 2009 5:47 pm • linkreport


You are preaching to the choir with me.

by William on Sep 30, 2009 8:30 pm • linkreport


CP resident is right. The old officers were too busy enforcing martial law during the state of emergency to do providing a Treasurer's report.

by Mike on Oct 1, 2009 8:50 am • linkreport

The outgoing treasurer presented the treasurer's report at the CPCA meeting on September 29, during the regular business portion of the meeting. It's understandable if some people didn't want to stick around for the entire meeting, but then please check the facts before making inaccurate statements.

by Silent Majority on Oct 1, 2009 9:43 am • linkreport

@Silent Majority, there is no information on the website about how the fee will be used, or what it's been used for in the past except for 50 years ago.

@William, oh, sorry.

by Bianchi on Oct 1, 2009 11:18 am • linkreport

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