Experts and activists explore politics of D.C. governance

IMG_1959Yesterday afternoon, the Graduate Student Organization hosted a panel discussion with the purpose of examining the D.C. political and social environment. Discussion topics ranged from the “Nimbyism” to public transportation in the District.

The panel consisted of prominent political blogger and author of “The Rent is Too Damn High,” Matthew Yglesias, Editor in Chief of and expert on urban planning David Alpert, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jake Sticka (COL ’13). Scott Stirrett (COL ’13), co-founder of D.C. Students Speak, facilitated the discussion.

A relevant topic examined during the panel was Nimbyism. “NIMBY” is an acronym for the phrase “not in my backyard,” which is used to describe the opposition towards new developments (such as sewage plants or drug treatment centers) that may be beneficial for society as a whole, but that are considered detrimental to the communities they are located in.

As Georgetown considers building another campus, this issue becomes an important one for the university and it’s students, because many community groups will advocate against the expansion of the university into “their backyards.” However, Yglesias commented, “universities are in many ways an asset, even if sometimes people have some kinds of annoyances with it.”

While on the subject of community groups, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions were also mentioned. ANCs were established in 1974 as a form of local government for D.C. communities. Today, they deal with policies that affect their neighborhoods, such as Zoning and Sanitation.

When asked what the role of ANCs should be within the community, Sticka commented, “it may not be best to look at what should an ANC do, I think an ANC should shape itself to whatever the needs of its respective community are.” But when this question was directed at Yglesias, he had a much different view.

“I think they should be done away with. In practice in places like Ward Seven and Ward Eight, where there is the most theoretical justification for more representation in government, those are precisely the places where the ANCs don’t get a lot of participation. So do we need wealthy Georgetown residents to have an extra opportunity to bias policy in advantage of them versus the city as a whole? I say no.”

Stirrett later brought up the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA), identifying it as something “Georgetown students complain about a lot.” The panelists recognized the DC Metro as a very successful public transportation system overall. However, they also conceded that there is plenty of room for improvement. Alpert noted that WMATA is mismanaged and wasteful, much like many other big organizations. He also mentioned that, because of this mismanagement, they are underfunded.

“They need more money but then everyone looks at them and says, ‘No they’re not perfect so they can’t get it.’ Maybe this is a little bit like the whole argument that DC shouldn’t get any voting rights because it’s got some corrupt leaders that have gone to jail. But you know, we’re not taking away Illinois’ voting rights because they’ve had some corrupt governors.”

Alpert went on to note that WMATA needs supporters who will advocate for them, promoting the positive improvements they make so they will be more likely to receive the funds that are needed to make improvements.

Issues in the District may seem far removed from the Hilltop, but as some of these matters become more widespread, even students trapped in the “Georgetown bubble” will be forced to confront them.

Photo Gavin Meng

5 Comments on “Experts and activists explore politics of D.C. governance

  1. David Alpert is an “expert” on urban planning? Since when? Where did he get his degree in urban planning? For which municipalities has he worked? What major urban projects has he helmed? His sole credential is a blog that he owns and operates (a blog that once ran a piece accusing Georgetown University students of turning the neighborhood into a “ghetto”). He’s just an amateur who uses his Google FU money to buy himself a seat at the table.

  2. Thanks for a great writeup, Catriona. I really enjoyed talking to everyone during the panel and afterward.

    Your summary of the WMATA discussion is right on overall. One small clarification: I didn’t say (or didn’t mean to say) that WMATA is “mismanaged” and “wasteful,” but rather that like any large organization, it has some mismanagement and some waste. I noted that even at Google, which is widely praised as one of the best places to work, some managers do a bad job, some employees don’t pull their weight, and they often spend money on initiatives that end up not working out. WMATA can be a better organization, but we also can’t expect perfection before residents are willing to support giving it the resources it needs to make transit better.

    Eric Blair: We publish a lot of pieces by people with different points of view on a number of issues. Each author’s viewpoint does not necessarily reflect the views of myself or other editors. We have had many articles strongly favoring more rights for students, and all of the panelists including myself expressed support at the event for students having a strong say in neighborhood affairs.

  3. Pingback: WMATA Notebook: 20121027 | FixWMATA

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