Why Are ANCs in Ward 8 Spending So Much on Telephone Service?

Neighborhood commissioners racked up nearly $47,000 in phone charges in 2010.

By: Shane Harris

Think you spend a lot on phone service? It’s probably less than some District officials.

In fiscal year 2010, the elected members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in Ward 8 spent a combined $46,661.12 on telephone service. That was ten times the average spent by the other seven wards’ ANCs. And it was about $39,000 more than that of the next highest single-ward total, in Ward 5.

The eye-popping number is contained in the DC Auditor’s most recent annual report on spending by the District’s eight ANCs, which are composed of elected officials who act as liaisons between their neighbors and the city government. Telephone service—which includes land lines and cell phones—accounted for 53 percent of Ward 8’s ANC expenditures for fiscal 2010. It was one of the single most expensive line items, as a percentage of total spending, of any group of ANCs in the city. Ward 8 includes neighborhoods in Southeast Washington east of the Anacostia River.

ANC8A and 8B accounted for the bulk of telephone spending within the ward, about $15,000 and $18,700 respectively. But 8D and 8E also had whopping bills by citywide comparison, about $7,400 and $5,600. All commissions are funded by an annual allotment from the District. Commissioners decide how to use their funds, which they can spend on office rent, administrative costs, and grants, among other items. (8C, owing to a history of financial irregularities, didn’t receive any District money and spent nothing on phones.)

The high phone bills are mostly the result of cell phone charges, not land lines, according to the DC Auditor’s findings. By law, commissioners are allowed to use cell phones and pay for them from their annual allotment, but the law says nothing about how much they can spend, according to Lawrence Perry, the deputy auditor.

Perry said the auditor’s office is aware of how much the ANCs in Ward 8 are spending on phones, calling it “a huge number.” He said his office is “working on policies” for phone use that will be part of the next round of training for ANC treasurers. In a previous round, conducted in February 2009, only the treasurer from Ward 8E attended the training session, according to auditor records. That ANC had the lowest phone expenditures in Ward 8 for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

The former chairman of 8A, Anthony Muhammad, says all seven of the 8A commissioners have smartphones, which they use to answer constituent calls, send e-mails, and take pictures of potholes, parking violations, and overgrown trees to pass on to the relevant city agency for attention. Muhammad, who negotiated the phone contracts, says that all ANC commissioners in Ward 8’s five districts have city-paid cell phones. The commissioners began using the phones in 2007, Muhammad says, after the city allowed them to do so.

Asked whether the commissioners were using the phones only for official business, Muhammad replied, “You’d have to ask them. I don’t speak for them.”

Gottlieb Simon, the executive director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, said that the phones are being used only for official business, not for personal use. “The commissioners are using them so that their constituents can reach them wherever they happen to be,” Simon says. “I think everyone knows those are government phones.”

Darrell Gaston, the chairman of ANC8B, says the high phone costs preceded his tenure as chair, and also reflected a “double billing” of about $7,000 by Verizon, for which he says the commission has been credited. But Gaston says he recognized that the bills were still high, and so he has renegotiated contracts for 8Bs seven commissioners. In previous years, the commission was paying about $1,000 per month for phone service, Gaston says, but now it’s paying about $500 per month, a lower figure that he says will be reflected in future audits.

Gaston says the phones were important because, in his neighborhood, citizens tend to contact their ANC commissioner with questions or concerns before going to their City Council member or to a District agency.

The auditor’s figures suggest that elsewhere in the city, many commissioners don’t pay for their cell phones using their District allotment. Charles Reed, a commissioner in ANC2F, which includes the Logan Circle neighborhood, says he uses his personal cell phone for ANC business and pays for it himself. The ANCs in Ward 2 spent a total of about $2,400 on phone service in fiscal 2010, the second lowest after Ward 1.

“I think it’d be perfectly proper [to pay for phones with the District allotment] if ANC commissioners are using the phone for ANC work,” Reed says. “The question is are they being meticulous about it?”