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Mayor Anthony A. Williams has never had a copious supply of cronies. He’s a latecomer to the D.C. scene, for starters, and he alienated a lot of his erstwhile allies during his first term.
Having no friends really hurts the mayor on at least two recurring occasions: (1) his birthday and (2) when he has to fill vacancies on critical D.C. boards and commissions.
For months and months recently, Williams left precious spots vacant on two city boards: the National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC) and the D.C. Board of Education. The panels handle economic development and education, crucial areas for the District’s renaissance. So for much of this spring, LL’s colleagues in the press corps badgered the mayor: If these groups rank Code Red on your priority list, why the holdup in appointments?
Given time to muse, LL developed a few theories on Williams’ sluggishness:
* He painstakingly checked each and every résumé himself, in a passing fit of micromanagement.
* He wanted to fill the open slots on the Barber and Cosmetology Board first.
* He was going through old appointment lists of his discredited predecessors.
That last theory appears to be the winner. Last week, Williams made a slew of appointments. Prominent among them were Marie C. Johns, a top Verizon Communications executive who was appointed to the NCRC, and Carrie L. Thornhill, a longtime civic activist who secured a spot on the school board. Both of them served as mayorally appointed trustees of the University of the District of Columbia in the late ’90s.
At that time, the governing panel of the city’s struggling public university couldn’t even manage a quorum. When it finally did so at a February 1999 meeting, then-Vice Chair Thornhill cried, “Hear! Hear!” Johns didn’t join in the celebration: She soon resigned from the position after the Washington Post reported that she had missed her first two meetings, including that one in February.
Yet LL has a hunch that the Verizon DC president will display a longer attention span for the NCRC’s development agenda than she did for cabbie continuing ed or the more traditional academic coursework offered at the East Berlin-ish higher-ed outpost in Van Ness. A quasi-public economic-development agency, the NCRC decides the who, what, where, and how of valuable real-estate parcels around the District. Currently, the board oversees development projects in Southwest and in the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Shaw, and Hillcrest.
Created by the D.C. Council in 1998, the NCRC was designed to spur economic development outside the downtown core. The organization, though, has had a rocky launch. Leadership has been unstable, with three presidents cycling through in roughly three years. In March, one of the NCRC’s signature projects, the former National Wax Museum site in Shaw, fell apart after the board and developers failed to reach an understanding on what to put thereand how fast to do it.
The board has also been shorthanded: Until recently, there were four vacancies on the nine-seat panel. President George W. Bush filled two of them last month and plans to replace current presidential appointee Greg Farmer when his term expires this summer. The Bush appointments came without consultation with Williams or any other local officials. “The president’s appointments I’ve never heard of,” says Ward 2’s Jack Evans, who chairs the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue.
Williams filled the other two vacancieswith Johns and James L. Hudson. Both of them, like the rest of Williams’ recent boards and commissions appointees, must be approved by the council.
Johns has been a card-carrying member of the Williams reform vanguard: She served as an adviser to the mayor when he first took office, she’s a founder of the D.C. Technology Council, and she occupies a spot on the mayor’s Health Services Reform Commission. Johns is also a trustee of Howard University, a member of the Federal City Council, and a past president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
So the busy exec will have to squeeze in the NCRC among her many other commitments: In her day job, Johns supervises the telephone giant’s $700 million operations in D.C. Verizon has a near monopoly on local phone service, a stranglehold that often brings its principals before the city’s consumer watchdog, the D.C. Public Service Commission.
Right now, Verizon is in a $1 million dispute over a fee for providing the city’s 911 emergency telephone service. The city argues that since Verizon has monopoly powers, the commission should set a noncompetitive rate for the service. Verizon doesn’t want the 911 fee subject to regulation. “If the District were required to begin paying the unjust and unreasonable rates…every dollar used to pay needlessly high, market power prices to Verizon for E911 service would diminish the District’s ability to devote adequate resources to the maintenance on its own public safety point answering system for dispatching emergency calls,” reads a motion filed by the city’s Office of the Corporation Counsel.
Might Johns use her spot on the NCRC as a bargaining chip for pro-Verizon policies? “Under the circumstances, I don’t think the president of Verizon is the most appropriate person,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who also points to Johns’ lack of real-estate experience. “I’m stunned by this one. I just think there arises some conflicts of interest.”
NCRC President and CEO Theodore N. Carter dismisses the concerns. “I think that’s a stretch,” he says. “To have someone of Marie Johns’ stature and the corporate stature she brings is something we’re looking for.”
Fellow NCRC hopeful Hudson is also quite a power broker: Chair of JAH Development Co., Hudson has been a minority partner on big-ticket econ-development projects including Metro Center. He served as finance counsel to the D.C. government for almost a decade, while a partner with Hudson, Leftwich & Davenport. His familiarity with the D.C. politics scene was apparent last Wednesday: After making brief remarks, Hudson welcomed inquiries from the Fourth Estate. “Any questions?” he asked. “Mr. [Mark] Plotkin, you don’t have a home-rule question?”
Not all of Williams’ appointees showed such ease with local customs. Take, for example, new Board of Education nominee Robin B. Martin.
“I was contacted by the mayor’s office, and they asked if I would consider being nominated for the position,” the CEO of the Deer River Group explained to LL this week. “I’m not sure how the mayor’s office got my name.”
Hmm. Not from the PTA, LL expects, because Martin told the Post that safety concerns had prompted him to keep his three children out of public schools. Nor did Williams pluck Martin from his A-list of Democratic Party activists: According to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics voter roll, the Kalorama resident is a registered Republican.
Thornhill, by contrast, took no one by surprise. “When in doubt, appoint Carrie Thornhill,” comments Ambrose. She served on the D.C. Committee on Public Education, works as vice president for youth investment and community outreach at the nonprofit D.C. Agenda, and has participated in other think-tanky endeavors aimed at finding do-gooder answers for what ails D.C. government.
At the announcement, Williams made sure to remind the crowd that he considers public education a top priority. “Almost four years ago, we all fought very hard for a school board that would bring a new era of professionalism and commitment to the education of our children,” the mayor said.
Then a few things happened: Peggy Cooper Cafritz became the board’s president, wiping out any hope of that professionalism thing. And soon after his school-board referendum triumph, Williams went AWOL from school issues, taking care of that commitment thing. In February, school-board member Charles Lawrence quit after he couldn’t get a phone call back from the mayor concerning his reappointment. Fellow Williams appointee Roger Wilkins resigned the week before, citing similar concerns.
Then Williams woke up one morning and reached a startling conclusion: that kids in D.C. public schools were getting a “crappy” education. He came out of the closet about his support for an experimental school-voucher program. Though Williams denies that it was a factor in the selections, both of his new school-board nominees have strikingly pro-voucher views. “I believe in lots of choices for the children of the District of Columbia,” said Thornhill at the announcement.
Martin offered the kind of a statement Clarence Thomas made when pressed on Roe v. Wade: “I’m developing one,” he responded, when asked whether he had a position on vouchers. “Intellectually, I like the idea.”
Though he’s a novice when it comes to school-system bureaucracy, Martin says he has high hopes for making an impact. “I guess just from a personal standpoint, I don’t shy away from challenge,” he boldly says.
LL looks forward to Martin’s first budget discussion with Cafritz.
* First, SafeStreetsDC.com’s John Aravosis circulated an electronic petition opposing a pay raise for police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. D.C. councilmembers applauded his efforts.
Then, last week, Aravosis got more militant: “Forget the pay raise, he should be fired,” Aravosis wrote in a mass e-mail. In this crusade, though, the public-safety activist won’t get too many amens from his adoring council groupies.
Despite their get-tough talk, not one councilmember has called for Ramsey’s resignation. In hearing after hearing, councilmembers have ranted about the chief’s blatant abuse of due process, toadying for the feds, and inattentiveness to community policing. On the basis of those sins, some councilmembers say they will refuse to sign off on a raise that would take the chief’s salary from $150,000 to $175,000 and bring him an improved benefits package unless the chief’s contract is tied to performance.
In so doing, they deliver a stern vote of no confidence in Ramsey, weakening him in the eyes of his subordinates and the citizens they’re hired to protect.
So why don’t those councilmembers just tell Ramsey to take a hike?
“It’s performance of the department I’m emphasizing,” argues Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson, who told the mayor again in a meeting last week that she will not support the chief’s pay package. “This isn’t about one individual person. I’d like to see the mayor demand better performance from the department.”
Of course, separation-of-power purists on the council didn’t have a problem meddling with Inspector General Charles C. Maddox, whom they legislated out of a job last month. Maddox could be fired only by the mayorso the council made him ineligible for his job.
“People are looking to the council to run the city,” argues Ward 2’s Evans, who supports Ramsey’s raise. “It is frustrating for me to again find ourselves in the situation of an absentee mayor.”
So if the mayor won’t step up, shouldn’t
“The buck doesn’t stop here. The buck stops at the mayor’s office,” says Patterson. “I do not rule out the mayor demanding better performance from the police chief.”
* Even before Norm Neverson announced his resignation from the D.C. Democratic State Committee earlier this month, A. Scott Bolden had made D.C. Democrats aware of his intention to seek the party’s chair. Bolden got on the phone to shore up the votes right after Neverson’s announcement.
LL hopes Bolden wrote down those commitments: Now Bolden’s being challenged for the position by Ward 1 Democrat Keenan Keller. The Mount Pleasant advisory neighborhood commissioner and ex-officio state-committee member works during the day as Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.
Keller argues that the state committee needs to return to a party that engages in ideasnot petty infighting. “The members of the state committee need to individually do a gut check,” says Keller. “The committee has failed for them to be an outlet for their activism.” The party will vote on a new chair June 5.
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