Attorney general’s office throws out censure of Dupont ANC commissioner

Dupont Circle residents attend a meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B. (Mark Lieberman/The Current/June 2017)

As the Dupont Circle community debated an alcohol license application from its Safeway supermarket earlier this year, the local advisory neighborhood commission also faced an internal controversy that spilled into public view: deteriorating relations with one of its own members.

ANC 2B’s Nick DelleDonne was a forceful opponent of a liquor license at the 1701 Corcoran St. NW store, facing off against colleagues who preferred to work out a compromise with Safeway. Many of his constituents called him an energetic representative of the community’s interests. DelleDonne’s colleagues, on the other hand, said he was condescending, demanding and publicly disrespectful toward them. They voted to censure DelleDonne on Sept. 13.

Nick DelleDonne represents single-member district 2B04 on the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission. (photo courtesy of ANC 2B)

“We wanted to send a message to you that we don’t like the way you have worked with us,” commission chair Nicole McEntee told DelleDonne at last Wednesday’s meeting of ANC 2B.

But according to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office, the message wasn’t sent appropriately. On Nov. 29, assistant attorney general Josh Turner sent a letter that declared the censure vote “null and void,” and criticized a lack of due process preceding the commission’s censure vote.

At a stormy ANC 2B meeting last Wednesday, DelleDonne said the letter vindicated him.

“You can’t make vague and unsubstantiated charges in public,” DelleDonne said. “The attorney general’s office reviewed the facts and found the commission in violation of the law.”

DelleDonne characterized the commission’s vote to censure him as “a reckless breakdown of democratic norms in our own backyard.”

Despite the legal opinion, DelleDonne’s colleagues spoke with equal force in defending their action.

Scott Davies said he and his eight fellow commissioners have different views, backgrounds and priorities, but all of DelleDonne’s colleagues reached the same conclusion about him after he was sworn in to his ANC 2B seat after a special election in March.

“When someone can alienate eight different people in a very short time, that speaks a lot,” Davies said.

The letter from Turner — addressed to DelleDonne, who had appealed the censure to the Office of the Attorney General — said ANC 2B’s censure resolution “was not validly adopted” because it violated Robert’s Rules of Order.

“A commissioner facing censure has the right to due process,” Turner wrote to DelleDonne. “The resolution was adopted without any opportunity for substantive debate. You had no opportunity to defend yourself against the allegations. In these circumstances, the resolution and any penalties imposed under it are null and void.”

DelleDonne’s colleagues were unmoved by Turner’s letter and refused to rescind their action. “Our action was based on acts, not attitudes,” Davies said.

ANC 2B member Mike Silverstein said “the spark that set this off” was an exchange between DelleDonne and a female colleague that most commissioners considered at best patronizing. “It’s not our place to tell what women can or can’t do, what their place is,” Silverstein said.

When DelleDonne said he did not know what Silverstein was talking about, commission vice chair Daniel Warwick read aloud a July 11 email sent by DelleDonne to commissioner Stephanie Maltz.

Dupont Circle’s Safeway is located at 17th and Corcoran streets NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

“As we move forward in the protest of the Safeway liquor license application, I note that you are busy and even overwhelmed with raising a family, your work, the ANC and the treasurer’s duties,” DelleDonne told Maltz in the email. “You need assistance. And I can assist. I am across the street from Safeway. A lot of my constituents have voiced legitimate concerns. I have been working and will continue to reach out to them. Working together would be an opportunity to learn a lot from someone with experience. I am available.”

Supporters of DelleDonne in the audience responded to Warwick with cries of, “You think that’s censurable?”

This was not the only moment when the audience spoke up. The discussion of DelleDonne was punctuated frequently with bursts of applause and shouts from his supporters, who called out “resign now,” “inquisition” and “we want transparency.”

Opponents of alcohol sales at Safeway had argued that beer and wine would crowd out other products from a supermarket that they said was already lacking in selection. Some critics also worried about the impact on local liquor stores and objected to selling alcohol so close to Ross Elementary. However, a majority of ANC 2B members either supported alcohol sales or feared that blanket opposition to Safeway’s application would simply be ignored — preferring instead to negotiate terms that would minimize negative impacts.

Just hours before ANC 2B’s meeting, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board approved Safeway’s license — clearing the way for the supermarket to begin beer and wine sales in the near future, subject to the terms of a settlement agreement with the commission.

ANC 2B member Amy Johnson said Safeway made what she called “some pretty big concessions” based on community feedback in order to reach the settlement agreement. Terms include restricting alcohol sales to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; allowing only 281 square feet (2.6 percent of the store) to be used for alcohol sales; and requiring that Safeway accept special orders on discontinued food and household items.