Any D.C. resident who has followed the process of a new bar or restaurant opening is likely all too familiar with the term "voluntary agreement." These are documents that amount to contracts signed between business operators and neighborhood associations or advisory neighborhood commissions designed to minimize the impact of said business on its immediate neighbors. Issues like trash pick-up, noise, and parking are typically hammered out in a VA, and the District's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board takes the successful completion of a VA into consideration when deciding whether or not to issue an alcoholic beverage license.
Lately, though, some ANC commissioners have started referring to the documents as "cooperative agreements," a term much more in line with the reality: voluntary agreements haven't been voluntary, since, well, maybe ever. They have long been a virtual requirement to open up a business in D.C. that serves alcohol, a fact noted by numerous bloggers who follow such matters.
At an ANC2F meeting Wednesday night, Chairman Charles Reed, a man who knows more about the voluntary agreement process than almost anyone, acknowledged as much while listening to a presentation from restaurateur Jeff Black.
"I'm going to start calling them 'cooperative agreements,' rather than 'voluntary,'" Reed said. "Because as everyone knows, they're hardly voluntary."
Gottlieb Simon, director of D.C.'s Office of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, agrees that the term "cooperative agreements" is probably preferable when speaking about the documents at public meetings, and has been casually suggesting the change to commissioners of late.
"It seems like it would be a more useful term," says Simon. "I don't have any sort of campaign, but certainly when it comes up in conversation," he'll mention it.
Both terms, it turns out, have a legal basis when it comes to ABC Board deliberations. Calling such agreements voluntary "doesn't have to be used," Simon says. "People could drop it off."
ANC commissioners across the city are so accustomed to the VA term, it will surely take a while before "cooperative" spreads widely. But I'd like to go ahead and throw my vote toward making the change. Even if "voluntary agreement" is an acceptable term in terms of the legalese, it's high time neighborhood groups stopped perpetuating the myth that they are in any way voluntary.