Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) are the lowest level elected officials in Washington, DC, the closest to the community, and are supposed to serve as the voice of local residents in zoning and other matters that affect their neighborhoods. But the ANC responsible for the district that includes historic landmark McMillan Park has presented only one side of the community position on the proposal to commercially develop the park. The story below, based on documents obtained through the courts and a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, demonstrates how the ANC in question has been in cahoots with a commercial developer’s paid outreach efforts to push the proposed project. This is the story of the ANC’s role in the mysterious “Create McMillan Park” yard sign campaign.
In December 2013, the Stronghold and Bloomingdale communities began to see “Create McMillan Park” signs appearing in yards of the neighborhoods where only the Friends of McMillan Park’s “Save McMillan Park” signs had been displayed previously. The new signs, and an organization calling itself “Neighbors for McMillan”, were later discovered to be part of a “Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) Grassroots Plan” designed by Fontaine & Company, a Baltimore-based public relations firm dispatched to “shift community dialogue and general perception to that of majority local support for the VMP plans” and to “neutralize and discredit the opposition (to the VMP plans)” according to the published goals of Fontaine’s program. Fontaine & Co. was paid about $28,000 by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) to conduct this outreach campaign on behalf of the DMPED-VMP plan to massively develop McMillan Park into medical office towers and residences. Tania Jackson’s Create Communitas was another local outreach firm employed by DMPED for this purpose and was paid about $90,000. A third firm, Chesapeake Public Strategies of Rockville, Maryland, was paid over $100,000 by DMPED for its role in the VMP outreach plan. Fees paid by DMPED to these three firms were revealed in an earlier FOIA request.
The role that Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dianne Barnes (Single Member District 5E09) played with the development team’s PR firms and the “Create McMillan Park/Neighbors for McMillan” campaign was revealed in documents requested by Kirby Vining with the Friends of McMillan Park under another FOIA request filed in November 2013. The resultant documents were finally divulged after a year and a half of court battles. According to the official description of the role of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, “the intent of the ANC legislation is to ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of residents of neighborhoods directly affected by government actions”. But in this case, as shown below, input from only one side of this issue was considered.
Commissioner Barnes Meets Fontaine & Company
On October 27, 2013, Commissioner Barnes advised a constituent interested in the VMP McMillan development proposal to contact Jamie Fontaine, principal officer of Fontaine & Co., to learn about an open house presentation of the VMP plans scheduled to be held in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. Ironically, the constituent had actually inquired with Barnes about how to register strong criticism of rather than support for the plan, arguing that housing and commercial development are inappropriate for the McMillan Park site. Clearly, Commissioner Barnes had already been in contact with Fontaine & Co. on that date. On October 29th, Mary Urban of Fontaine & Co. contacted Commissioner Barnes to inform her that Urban worked with Tania Jackson and Envision McMillan (VMP’s name for its project team) and reminded Commissioner Barnes that they had spoken together the previous day. Later, on November 1st, Ms. Urban thanked Commissioner Barnes for her pro-VMP testimony at the October 31st Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) hearing on the VMP proposed master plan and informed Commissioner Barnes that Fontaine & Co. was planning an open house to present the VMP plans to the Bloomingdale community on November 16th.
“Neighbors for McMillan” Kicks Off
On December 10th, Byron Johnson of Fontaine & Co. informed Commissioner Barnes of the first meeting of the “Neighbors for McMillan” (NFM) group scheduled for a home in Bloomingdale on the evening of December 18th. Shortly after the December 18th meeting, Johnson thanked Commissioner Barnes for attending.
“Create McMillan Park” Sign Launch
On December 26th, Jamie Fontaine provided Commissioner Barnes with information concerning several press items containing favorable mention of the VMP development proposal and provided the Fontaine-produced ‘infographic, fact sheet, and toolkit link’ located on the “Envision McMillan” web page. Fontaine suggested that “Neighbors for McMillan” members post comments on the Bloomingdale Blog article concerning the Create McMillan Park signs, and post on Facebook the Washington City Paper article mocking the “Save McMillan Park” signs. Based on this communication, apparently from Fontaine to Commissioner Barnes alone, Barnes was both a member of Neighbors for McMillan and also played a leadership role in the group, serving as local point of contact for Baltimore-based Fontaine & Co. in these outreach efforts.
Commissioner Barnes Helps Get the Signs Out
On December 19th, Jamie Fontaine and Byron Johnson coordinated with Commissioner Barnes to dole out “Create McMillan Park” signs to residents in Barnes’ area. Commissioner Barnes offered to distribute signs and asked for more flyers to circulate in the neighborhood. Barnes also indicated that she would try to get neighbors to host house parties for the Neighbors for McMillan group meetings. On December 29th, Commissioner Barnes informed Tania Jackson that she had run out of “Create McMillan Park” yard signs and needed about 20 more, and passed along a list of names and addresses mostly in the Bloomingdale area of where she planned to try to place those additional signs. Ms. Jackson promised to drop off the additional signs on December 31st, apparently in coordination with Byron Johnson who thanked Commissioner Barnes for the list of proposed sign locations. Mr. Johnson noted that Commissioner Barnes had expressed interest in hosting a Neighbors for McMillan meeting at her home during the second week in January 2014 and offered to organize the meeting and send out invitations for it. Mr. Johnson also asked Commissioner Barnes to arrange a meeting at All Nations Baptist Church in the neighborhood to try to interest local businesses in the VMP McMillan proposal.
Chesapeake Public Strategies Helps Out
Chesapeake Public Strategies coordinated some of the outreach campaign for VMP, as revealed in several testimony letters sent to the HPRB in October 2013 in support of the VMP proposed master plan. On October 30th, Barnes submitted her own testimony letter to the HPRB supporting VMP for the October 31st hearing and provided copies of that testimony to two officers of Chesapeake Public Strategies, Ellen Bogage (CEO) and Dana Davidson (another officer).
Ronnie Edwards, Chair of ANC 5A in the district immediately north of McMillan Park (and former Chair of the ANC in which McMillan was located before redistricting), submitted his own testimony supporting the VMP plan to the HPRB on October 31st. Commissioner Edwards also provided copies of his testimony to Chesapeake’s Bogage and Davidson. Two other constituents associated with the Neighbors for McMillan also provided copies of their testimony supporting the VMP plan to Bogage and Davidson. No information was revealed about why these Chesapeake officers were provided copies of testimony written for the HPRB hearing. Commissioner Edwards of ANC 5A frequently coordinated actions in his ANC with both Commissioner Barnes (ANC 5E) and Tania Jackson as well as with VMP Project Director Anne Corbett, other VMP senior officials, and DMPED Project Manager, Shiv Newaldass.
Kirby Vining was represented in the suit that produced these documents by Don Padou, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases.
The article above is based on documents 000352, 001085, 001087, 001101, 001165, 001197, 001202, 001212, 001588, 001590, 002012, 002257, 002259, 002856, 003629, 004210, 005716, 010041, 010456, 010458, and 022775 available in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder at the following location: