Fuss Budget: Gray?s largess ensures citizens can watch markups at home. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is known for his workaholic ways. He clocks endless hours in his chambers on the John A. Wilson Building’s fifth floor, scrubbing down legislation and planning for the future.

Earlier this month, Gray rolled out the result of his hard-working ways—a 30-page “Capacity Building Strategic Plan” that laid out “a blueprint for the overall operations of the Council from 2008 through 2010.” Among the goals outlined: establishing “standard guidelines for the correct formatting of committee reports on legislation.”

For this, and many other council projects, Gray wants more money.

The Council of the District of Columbia stands to see a more than 25 percent bump in its annual budget, moving from $16.7 million in the last approved annual budget to nearly $21 million for the budget year that starts in October. The council is one of only about a dozen line items in the mayor’s budget to get that kind of bump, which represents the largest single-year increase in the council budget in recent memory.

And compared to the city’s overall budget, Gray’s council appropriation seems downright indulgent—like the city’s amid a real-estate boom or something.

Last Thursday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty released his fiscal 2009 budget proposal, a document that holds the line at 0.7 percent spending growth in the face of a looming economic slowdown.

Gray would never stand for such a pittance, not with his ambitions. “The vision,” Gray says, “is to try to become a world-class legislative body.”

Being a world-class legislative body is tough on a mere $16 million. When you’re mayor, you got all sorts of resources to lean on. Sure, the mayor’s office operates on a budget of under $7 million this year. But that includes what’s now a seven-person communications operation dedicated to getting your message out 24-7 and a team of aides devoted to harnessing city government to do your bidding. And that doesn’t include the tens of millions budgeted for the two deputy mayors and the city administrator.

Much of Gray’s plan was already under way by the time the “capacity building” plan was released, funded by chunks of supplemental appropriations measures sent through the council last year. Take the press conference at which the plan was rolled out, complete with PowerPoint presentation—holding regular pressers before monthly council legislative sessions is a quintessential Gray innovation.

Some of his other ideas have certainly tended toward the extraneous—flat-screens with hearing schedules in the Wilson Building hallways, for instance, or tech improvements in the council chamber.

Gray, in an interview, cites the latter as helping during recent advisory neighborhood commission oversight hearings: “The people watching in the chamber or on TV could actually have a picture [of the ANC boundaries]. You could get a good idea of the geographical difference between ANCs.”

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ANC maps! Big whoop. LL would much prefer an upgrade to a clunky council Web site that hasn’t changed appreciably in at least five years. But that, too, Gray says, is coming.

In matters of style, Gray isn’t all that different from his predecessor, Linda Cropp. The premium is still on going along to get along. The council breakfast meetings are generally a snooze; Gray tends to duck into his offices with colleagues to avoid airing any disagreements in front of reporters. But the differences are undeniable. Cropp, for starters, didn’t put in the interminable work hours that Gray, a widower, has made a habit.

And several of Gray’s initiatives have certainly boosted the Council’s transparency and openness at a time when things seem headed in the opposite direction in the executive branch. Last summer, two new video-camera-equipped meeting rooms were built, meaning virtually every council confab can be recorded and archived on the Internet. Even markups. Markups!

The bells and whistles, though, are only half of the Gray Way. Last year, Gray announced the creation of a council Office of Policy Analysis, an in-house think tank tasked with preparing research reports for councilmembers. Gray draws a parallel with the federal government, calling the new policy shop “much like the Congressional Research Service.”

The fed analogues don’t stop there. In an interview, Gray talks up efforts to pump up the D.C. Auditor’s office—a council-controlled instrumentality that got a lot of attention after it was revealed that Auditor Deborah Nichols had sounded warnings that, had anyone noticed, might have stopped the tax scandal. Says Gray, “I’d like to have folks look at it as analogous to the GAO,” referring to the feds’ fiscal watchdogs, the General Accounting Office.

To what end is Gray building all this “capacity”? The obvious answer is the council needs all the help it can get to compete with a Fenty administration that’s done a ferocious job of bulldozing over any ­legislative-branch loggerheads.

That’s one explanation for spending nearly $200,000 on a central communications office for the council. The status quo is that each councilmember has communications staffers of varying efficacy. Gray says he has no problem with members keeping their in-house flacks, but there needs to be someone dedicated to laying out the council’s party line. “Something as simple as being able to produce an annual report,” he says. “Being able to give [the public] information about members, give them information about the council’s operations.”

In other words, they need someone to help John Q. Public figure out exactly how to show up to the council and vent about the executive branch. Can we call it an attempt to compete with the Fenty juggernaut?

“I don’t see it as competition,” Gray says. “I do the comparison not so much to the mayor but to what the people expect us to provide.”

There’s other ways Gray’s turning up the heat on the executive branch: In addition to the usual round of performance hearings, this year, council committees started holding a separate round of oversight hearings for the capital portions of city agency budgets, meaning agency heads get an extra chance to get battered by irate councilmembers.

How exactly does the executive feel about the Gray Way—or more to the point, funding the Gray Way?

“We’ve gotten absolutely no pushback from the executive on this,” Gray says. That’s not a huge surprise: The mayor could refuse to hand over the money, but nothing short of an unlikely veto could keep the council from sticking it in anyway.

Just how much credit does Gray deserve? LL asked him for what accomplishments he takes credit, and he immediately cited establishing the policy-analysis office. “I talked about doing that in my campaign,” he says. That’s not to say it was Gray’s idea. The notion of establishing a council policy shop had been floated at least as far back as early 1999, when a report on council reform out of the D.C. Appleseed think tank made that recommendation.

But it took Gray, and nearly a decade, to make it happen. And his council colleagues are happy to take any additional resources. It’s less the bells and whistles that have brought them around than simply adding more money for staff. Where top positions in the executive office often command six-figure salaries, legislators have a hard time paying even top staffers much more than a weekly-newspaper political columnist—even for those committee jobs that require specialized experience.

Under Gray thus far, most councilmembers have gotten a $90,000 boost in their staff budget. The result? Even as die-hard a malcontent as At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania says he’s happy.

“For years we tried to get away with government on the cheap. With the council and its staff, we’ve often gotten what we’ve paid for,” he says. “It’s a big hit [on the budget], let’s be honest, it is. But the resources are welcome.”

Catania says Gray’s ambition has served the council well, not just its chairman. “This is not empire-building,” he says. “Vince is not the ego for that.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

• The social worker who pleaded in vain for the city to intervene in the Banita Jacks case has a new job: She’s working for Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso.

Kathy Lopes had been a counselor at Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, where 16-year-old Brittany Jacks had attended. After Brittany stopped going to school for a month last spring, Lopes visited the Jacks home and repeatedly tried to get the city’s Child and Family Services Agency to intervene. After it was discovered in January that Brittany and her three sisters had been murdered, the city released tapes of Lopes all but begging a CFSA social worker to check on her.

Lopes started in the deputy mayor’s office on March 3; according to Reinoso, her job is connected with a pilot program, DC START, that aims to identify at-risk schoolkids and coordinate the delivery of city services to help them. She currently works out of the deputy mayor’s Wilson Building office suite, but Reinoso says that next month Lopes will start working in one of two DCPS schools slated to debut the program this school year. Another five schools will start the program in August.

Reinoso says Lopes came to his notice due to her involvement in the Jacks case. “We reached out to her,” he says. “She obviously understands the importance of people coordinating on these issues.”

Lopes went through an interview process along with about a dozen other social workers before she was selected. “She obviously has a lot of persistence,” Reinoso says. “You’ve got to have a lot of persistence in this line of work.”

• Something’s been missing from WTOP radio’s Politics Program With Mark

Plotkin since earlier this year. That would be Mark Plotkin.

Since early January, the hourlong Friday morning show has been helmed by WTOP reporter Mark Segraves.

Plotkin, reached at his Glover Park home, says he hasn’t been feeling like his usual vigorous self lately. “I have some health concerns,” he says, “and I took some time off until I feel better again.”

He declined to elaborate or predict when he might return to his show, except to say, “I hope to come back very soon.” Plotkin has been working with WTOP producers and contributing occasional short analysis segments.

With perhaps the most bruising presidential nomination battle in a generation shaping up the past few months, LL and others have been surprised to find Plotkin, a inveterate political junkie, sitting on the sidelines.

“This is high season,” he says. “This is really an irony of all ironies.”