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Robin-Eve Jasper, interim director of the Office of Property Management (OPM), found herself last Friday face-to-face with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. The occasion was a budget-scrubbing session—just the sort of meeting where D.C. Cabinet officials rehearse their platitudes.
Jasper did fine on that front, reading a typically anodyne opening statement about how committed she is to “customer service” and serving the needs of “her client agencies and the public.”
Gray then sprung this gotcha on Jasper: “Do you consider the council of the District of Columbia one of your customers?”
Whoa—where’d that come from?
A council space crunch, that’s where. Back in October, Gray announced that he’d formed an “Office of Policy Analysis” for the council, whose job would be to “provide comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research and analysis on defined legislative/policy issues,” according to a press release. To date, the office’s sole work has been a particularly self-serving ex post facto report on school governance.
Gray’s budgeted four people to staff the office, and he needs a place to put them. He eyed a spot down on the ground floor of the John A. Wilson Building currently used by the city IT department, and the council secretary’s office set up a meeting with OPM over the summer to see about fixing up that space for the in-house wonks, who are currently spread out in various Wilson Building offices.
Not much happened after that meeting, so OPM and the secretary’s office met again in October. Again, no progress. No drawings, no timeline, no nothing.
So Gray came into the Feb. 8 session with a bit of an agenda. He detailed for Jasper all the hoops he’d jumped through to get his pet project a Wilson Building home. “For some reason, we’ve not been able to get any response from OPM. We’ve sent you e-mails…to which we’ve gotten no response.…What is the reason we can’t get a response from OPM?”
Jasper’s answer, in part: “I can get back to you on that…”
Not, obviously, what Gray wanted to hear: “I don’t want you to get back to me. I’m fearful of that. I want commitments today.”
Later, Gray summoned Gerick Smith, OPM’s deputy director for construction, to the microphone to ask about what happened after the October meeting. His explanation for the holdup? “I did not get direction from my previous person to go forward.”
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His “previous person” would be Lars Etzkorn, the OPM head dismissed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in December after botching the announced relocation of police headquarters from its current Judiciary Square location to a former Washington Post printing plant on Virginia Avenue SE. In the wake of that debacle (the city’s still on the hook to pay rent on a 20-year lease at the Virginia Avenue property), Etzkorn took a beating in a September council hearing that ought to be shown to bureaucrats to demonstrate exactly how not to handle a legislative oversight hearing.
So Smith’s laying the whole thing off on Etzkorn seemed like a perfectly rational move. But Gray didn’t lift his boot off OPM’s neck: “Oh, come on, Mr. Smith! I do not want the bureaucratic shuffle today! Do not put it on your predecessor when we don’t even know where your predecessor is. The ball is in the court of the two of you all at this point. I want answers, all right?”
(LL also doesn’t know where Etzkorn is. After losing the OPM job, he was appointed by Fenty to a spot as an administrative law judge on the Contract Appeals Board—no, LL doesn’t know what it does, either. According to the mayor’s office, Etzkorn has declined the nomination.)
Gray later followed up on what happened after the October meeting: “Were you required to do anything in the aftermath?” he asked Smith.
“No, I was not,” he replied.
“So it was just a putting-in-time exercise?”
Said Smith, “I guess you could say that.”
Later in the hearing, Gray gave the OPM honchos this spanking: “Let me be brutally candid.…You’ve gotten off to a bad start with me. It’s obvious that the council has been toyed with, that we haven’t been respected.”
Jasper and Smith might be excused for allowing a project as small as Gray’s to slide a bit: OPM’s currently got several big projects under way, including a new Department of Transportation headquarters in Anacostia, a new Department of Employment Services building on Benning Road NE, and rebuilding Eastern Market.
And Gray’s not the only legislator pissed at OPM. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, as judiciary committee chair, has been on the agency’s ass for months now, not only because of the Virginia Avenue mess but also because of the repeatedly delayed forensic laboratory and evidence warehouse, also slated for construction in Southwest.
But, then again, it’s also never a good move to piss off the folks who approve your budget. Jasper did not respond to a request for comment.
The Incredible Shrinking Booze Board
LL, as a student of urban political machination, understands that a politician’s base of power can be built in unexpected places. New York master builder Robert Moses, for instance, seized on the relatively obscure Triborough Bridge Authority to cement his near-untouchable influence. In Los Angeles, those who control the water supply wield enormous clout (cf. Chinatown, 1974).
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has a similar approach to building his influence in District government. His pet organ? The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Before Graham came to the council, serving on the ABC Board was a relatively low-key affair. Sure, you had to pass judgment on hundreds of liquor licenses each year, but there wasn’t much heat, save from the occasional NIMBYish neighborhood association. These days, if you’re on the ABC Board, rest assured that your number’s going to be on Graham’s speed dial. If God forbid some act of violence occurs at an ABC-licensed establishment, get ready for nonstop Grahamstanding till that permit gets pulled (“The Death of the Party,” 3/9/07).
It’s a shrewd move by Graham, considering the inordinate amount of economic activity in this town connected with liquor sales. Bars and restaurants, sure, but also all sorts of non-nightlife folks have to deal with the city’s liquor-control apparatus at some point—and, yes, keeping the booze board on a tight leash sure can get you in good with the activist demographic.
Graham’s so obsessed with booze that oversight of the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, the city’s main alcohol enforcement agency, moved with him last year from the consumer affairs committee to the public works and environment committee. How is booze connected to public works or the environment? LL’s got it: Perhaps the results of all that tippling might strain the District’s sewer system?
The ABC Board, though, is a step further removed from Graham’s control, seeing as its members are mayoral appointees who serve four-year terms.
Right now, the board is down to only four members, and two are scheduled to leave in the coming months. Ward 2 attorney Albert Lauber’s term is up in May, as is Ward 4’s Judy A. Moy. Lauber tells LL that he recently informed Fenty that he’s not seeking reappointment and plans to resign a month early to allow plenty of time to find a replacement.
That might be a problem, seeing as Fenty already put up two names for the board last fall—Ward 8’s Herman O. Jones and Lincoln Park advisory neighborhood commissioner Nick Alberti—but Graham has effectively scuttled those noms. The reasoning? Graham’s trying to reduce the size of the board from seven members to five via legislation he introduced in December.
The cynical reading of this move is that it would make it easier for Graham to keep his fingerprints all over the board. Its current chair, Peter B. Feather, is a Ward 1 resident and is widely regarded as a Graham ally. The other recent appointee is Mital Gandhi, a Ward 3 resident.
And the noncynical explanation for shrinking the booze board? Says Graham, “I’ve spent a lot of time considering the ideal size of boards,” he says, citing his expertise from his days teaching law in the field of federal regulation. “If you look at federal boards, they’ve pretty much all gone to five.”
Problem: Those NIMBYish neighborhood associations might not share his regulatory expertise. At a hearing on Graham’s shrinkage bill last month, several activists showed up to oppose the bill, including Laurie Collins, a former board member and the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Association president. “We need more representation not less representation,” she says.
Graham cites horror stories about board cases that have dragged on for years (though it escapes LL how shrinking the board would solve that problem). “This is all about getting the board to function,” he says. “This is not about politics.”
As for holding up the Jones and Alberti nominations, Graham says they’re still active pending the outcome of the downsizing battle. Graham says he didn’t want to fill any slots that would be eliminated in the course of a possible shrinkage.
Time is running short: Within three months, the board could be under its three-member quorum, and getting nominees through the D.C. Council generally takes at least 30 days.
Graham says not to worry. “There’s been no problem as of yet, and there won’t be a problem,” he says. “We’re not going to let it happen.” To that end, Graham says he’s brokered a deal with the mayor to be announced later this week.
“It’s been resolved at a very high level,” he says.
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