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When it comes to couture, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz usually has no equal in the John A. Wilson Building. Schwartz turns even the most mundane oversight hearing into a runway show with her chunky necklaces and thick leather belts, which feature a variety of buckles, semi-precious stones, even a brassy plate that could have been borrowed from Wonder Woman.
Last week, though, D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck gave the council’s leading fashionista some competition, walking D.C.’s corridors of power carrying a thick green military belt. The U.S. Navy-issued accessory featured a pouch and was weighed down with a cell phone, spiral notebook, BlackBerry e-mail device, Arch Wireless text messager, Nextel phone with two-way radio capabilities, and a third mobile phone labeled “switch redirect”all clipped to its canvas material.
Bargain-shopper Schwartz won’t sport one anytime soon. It’s not for sale at Filene’s Basement. However, Mayor Anthony A. Williams will reportedly model the belt for the cover of the May issue of Governing magazine.
With the U.S. bombing Iraq and D.C. hovering at Code Orange, Peck briefed D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, as well as council chiefs of staff, on the Williams administration’s plan for government communications in the event of, well, an event. If such a day occurs, according to Peck, D.C. government will hum along as usual.
The D.C. Council had been back in the Wilson Building just two days when hijackers crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The executive office had yet to move and remained at One Judiciary Square. D.C. government offices were plunged into chaos. Phone lines jammed. Deputy mayors and senior officials had no way of communicating.
Meanwhile, the mayor seemed MIA.
Now D.C. government has upgraded its emergency-communications capabilities to Sally Quinn specs. Peck’s emergency Batbelt includes almost everything except an inflatable kayak for a riverine evacuation. The Nextel phone allows D.C. gov higher-ups to two-way-communicate. The Arch Wireless device sends direct messages between users. BlackBerry sends e-mail. The “switch redirect” service allows agency heads to redirect phone service from their offices to the District command centers, such as the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs.
“On the day anything happens, you will reach in your pocket,” Peck told LL as she reached into her purse Tuesday morning. Emergency procedures, phone numbers, and other instructions have been reduced to credit-card-size manuals, which Peck keeps in her wallet. Another batch of cards is in the belt pouch.
In the 19 months since 9/11, the D.C. government has significantly beefed up its emergency-preparedness capabilities. The District received $156 million in federal funding for such efforts, $46 million of which went into technology.
Investment in hi-tech gizmosand the hiring of former Mayor Sharon Pratt to consult for the D.C. Department of Health on bioterrorismnotwithstanding, D.C.’s emergency-prep team continues to underwhelm regular old residents. At a summit Monday night at Wilson Senior High School, D.C. Emergency Management Agency Director Peter LaPorte insisted that the District is ready for whatever havoc terrorists might wreak. Flanked by representatives from police, fire, health, and other city agencies, LaPorte wheeled through the hot-button issues:
Gas masks: The District advises against them. (No guarantee they’ll protect you.)
Emergency siren systems: LaPorte’s studied them in Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. They’re likely on the way.
Mass exodus to the Beltway: Depends on the situation.
“Are you contemplating any of us getting in cars and driving out of the city?” asked Van Ness resident Catherine Ribnick.
Another resident piled on: “I still don’t get a sense of comfort that we have a clear line of communication.”
Residents eager for such comfort got little. “The only thing I can tell you is stop, look, and listen,” suggested Fire Battalion Chief James Short, when one audience member asked how the city would inform residents of a chemical or biological attack.
If contingency plans for average residents are still a bit shaky, they’re firm for the city’s governing elite. LaPorte explained that D.C. has plans to move governing operations if the Wilson Building becomes a hot zonefirst to the Reeves Center, then to the Metropolitan Police Department’s command center, then to the Public Safety Communications Center on McMillan Drive, and finally to somewhere out in Hyattsville.
What happens with continuity of government? The home-rule charter specifies that the council chairCroppwill assume any vacancy in the mayor’s office. The line of succession for the chairmanship starts with the at-large councilmembers. If both the mayor’s and the chairman’s offices are vacant, the council will hold a special session to select leadership.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, however, have introduced legislation to alter these rules. They want a seniority-driven system that would save the city from going leaderless if the council could not convene.
LL came to a startling conclusion: With the Evans-Patterson change, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil would be third in line to become mayor.
I Tax You
D.C. Council chamber, March 19: You were the bow-tied chief executive berated by a pack of jealous, sneering legislators. I found your FY 2004 budget proposal attractive, with its bold revenue enhancements. I love baseball. Wanna make some neighborhood action? %11111 (exp. 4/11)
you: hostile and aggressive hot stuff from XP’s on 2/21 that’s been driving me crazy (in the best possible way!). Me: short and witty dope guy who saved Betty from the snow. Love the smile, love the attitude. Can we have special plans for your B-day Monday? %43490 (exp. 3/13)
For the most part, LL leaves matters of the heart to Savage Love and the Washington City Paper’s Matches section. Yet poring over the mayor’s fiscal-year 2004 budget proposal, LL discovered that love in D.C. may soon come at an unprecedented price, which includes sales tax.
To balance his $3.8 billion local budget, Mayor Williams proposes to tax everything from “pet grooming services” to “coin operated videos and games” to “test preparation services” to “the sale of or charges for the service of social referrals to individuals.” The standard D.C. sales tax of 5.75 percent would apply to these services, a levy that the mayor expects would generate $4 million for the city treasury next year.
“Services for ‘social referral’ shall include, but not be limited to, dating, matrimonial,
or personal referral services,” reads the
Graying local reporters seem unconcerned about the tax on dating. Instead, the old schoolers press Williams on his proposed 6 percent increase in the parking tax, which would yield $22 million in additional revenues. They also hammer away at his scheme to bump those earning more than $100,000 a year to a 9.9 percent income-tax rate, which would yield another $22 million.
But LL finds the expanded sales-tax proposal even more desperate, shortsighted, and detrimental to the so-called quality-of-life issues that Williams touts ad nauseam. The proposal would create a disincentive to look for love, which would make the mayor’s ambitious plan to attract 100,000 residents even more difficult. Virginia is for lovers, after all. What would that make D.C.?
Couple the tax on love with a new tax on health-club memberships and LL fears for the D.C. dating scene. A social slump would have a ripple effect on worker productivity, the hospitality industry, and overall civic happiness. It would bring about a depressionand LL’s not just referring to economics.
In upcoming weeks, LL looks forward to a fierce lobbying effort down at the Wilson Building from It’s Just Lunch, Dogs by Day & Night, and the Alice Deal Junior High School gaming club.
GUIDED BY CHOICES
D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz often finds herself at odds with city officials. She spars with Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi over the D.C.
public-schools budget. She tussles with Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous during education oversight hearings.
Now Cafritz finds herself at odds with another high-ranking pol: herself.
LL’s referring to the Cafritz flip-flops on vouchers and the value of Catholic schools. The story dates to last Saturday, when Cafritz shocked everyone with a Washington Post op-ed in support of the Bush administration’s $75 million experimental school-voucher plan. “We should join the U.S. Department of Education in forging a system that includes vouchers, charter schools and public schoolsone that would afford children in the District the best possible education,” Cafritz wrote.
The school-board president included a nod to local Catholic schools, which stand to gain from any voucher program. Cafritz, in her op-ed, even proposed working with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to “attract to the
District academically sound networks of Catholic schools…”
Finding the contradictory takes among Cafritz’s past proclamations didn’t require much research on LL’s part. The school board passed a resolution that opposed vouchers last year. In December, Cafritz spewed a vaguely worded attack on Catholic schools before an audience at the Cato Institute. “When you have a city that does not value education collectively…and who will send a kid to an inferior Catholic school and convince a black mother that that was the answer…Catholic schools offer order, but you cannot tell me that St. Augustine’s at 15th and V offers anything better than a normal public school.”
And as for Cafritz’s 2002 stance on vouchers? In her Cato talk, the school-board president cited a Zogby International poll saying that 86 percent of the city’s African-Americans rejected vouchers as a solution to public-school problems, along with 76 percent of D.C. voters. “I think that we have to listen to the people we serve,” Cafritz told the crowd.
The people Cafritz serves these days apparently sit on the Post’s editorial board, which has enthusiastically supported vouchers in D.C. So after D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and others criticized Cafritz Monday in the Metro section, LL wasn’t surprised to read a Tuesday editorial-page defense: “Mrs. Cafritz has taken a bold stance in behalf of D.C. children, who deserve the same choices and level playing field as students in stronger public and private school systems elsewhere. She does not deserve the cheap shots.”
“I’m for vouchers, because we’re going to get vouchers,” Cafritz told LL Tuesday night.
LL agrees that D.C. students deserve the best education possible. They also deserve a school-board president who doesn’t backtrack, waffle, and give up on the school system she was elected to improve.
•Each time D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey appears before the D.C. Council, he seems to present a new set of numbers about the District’s 911 call center. And each time, number-crunching At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson sits across from Ramsey on the dais and takes careful notes.
Mendelson has had quite a lot of data to examine. Over the past couple of months, Ramsey & Co. have given at least four different answers on how many 911 operators were taking calls the morning of the Jan. 15 fatal fire in Dupont Circle: The number deflated over time from 13 to 5.
Now Mendelson’s resorted to charts to track Ramsey’s answers on the total number of active-duty 911 call-takers: Last July, Ramsey informed the council that there were 105. In a hearing last month, Ramsey lowered that number to 83. On Monday, the number dropped to 61.
That kind of behavior is enough to short-circuit the detail-oriented councilmember.
After every round of testimony, Mendelson sends off a letter to Ramsey and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Nedelkoff Kellems asking for clarification. His pen pals aren’t so quick to respond: Mendelson received answers to his last round of questioning just before a March 31 hearing on the police-department budget.
“With 61 call-takers, we have made no progress and have possibly gone backwards,” says Mendelson. “It’s just unbelievable.”CP
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