D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has pinpointed what she considers the latest threat to home rule: D.C. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Natwar M. Gandhi.
“Gandhi has never respected home rule,” says Norton, who is famous for turning on her “wild woman” routine when issues involving District self-governance arise.
Norton’s rave rose to primal pitch last week, after members of the CFO’s office pulled a classic home rule no-no: They trekked to Capitol Hill in search of a legislative favor. Specifically, Gandhi’s minions were seeking to exempt the CFO’s office from collective bargaining agreements with public-employee unions.
But specifics, in this case, hardly matter to Norton. The proper procedure for amending laws in this town is to lobby the local legislative and executive branches and then rely on Norton to push the changes through Congress, which must sign off on all District legislation. The improper way, as demonstrated by Gandhi, is to circumvent the council, the mayor, and Norton by running straight up to the Hill.
“I can tell you that he understood [what he was doing] 100 percent,” says Norton, in reference to Gandhi’s Pennsylvania Avenue bypass. “The proof is that he never approached this office.”
Congress created the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in 1995, as part of a federal effort to throw a life preserver to a District government drowning in debt. The congressional act made the CFO independent from the mayor and D.C. Council, as well as exempt from the city’s personnel rules. That arrangement pleased Gandhi, who took office in 2000; in putting together his operation, the CFO was permitted to hire and fire employees “at will.”
On April 8, 2002, however, D.C. Superior Court ruled that the city’s CFO must adhere to the terms of collective-bargaining agreements established between the mayor and the various D.C. government employee unions from April 1996 to the present.
Gandhi’s not happy about playing along with municipal job protections, arguing that the court decision misinterprets the original intent Congress had in creating the exemption. “[A]n appeal will probably take years, during which time the cost of potential claims if we lose might rise,” explained Gandhi in a May 3 written statement.
So instead of appealing the decision to a higher court, Gandhi decided to appeal the decision to another higher authority over District affairs: Congress. “Dr. Gandhi has engaged in a stealth campaign to overturn a decision of the Superior Court, undermine District law, violate basic principles of home rule, and contravene the stated policy of his office to follow the will of elected policy leaders,” Norton wrote in a May 1 letter to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and council Chair Linda W. Cropp.
Gandhi’s request didn’t get fast-tracked. When Gandhi’s staffers met with Hill staffers, they sent them back to Norton. “We catch him every time and push him back,” Norton says.
Gandhi’s response to Norton’s reproach was vintage technocratic stuff: “We only asked the relevant congressional committees to consider a technical correction to clarify the original intent of existing appropriations law,” he wrote in the May 3 response to Norton’s letter. Plus, Gandhi adds, the CFO supports home rule by delivering balanced budgets and clean audits.
Gandhi also feigns ignorance about the process, according to Norton. “When I have confronted Dr. Gandhi in the past concerning attempts to violate home rule, or avoid appropriate consultation, he has claimed to be unaware of what his agents were doing,” wrote Norton to Williams and Cropp. “However, the pattern is clear, and it is up to local officials to take appropriate action.”
Norton says that this isn’t the first time the city’s chief accountant has bypassed proper channels to get what he wants. “There comes a point where his excuse isn’t credible,” Norton adds. “That point is now.”
When pressed for an inventory of Gandhi’s other home-rule transgressions, Norton replies, “I can’t recall specifics.”
In January, Mayor Williams launched reStore DC, a multifaceted economic-stimulus package to promote retail development in the city’s neighborhoods. One part of the program, an initiative designed to perk up the District’s “main streets,” offers nearly $250,000 worth of technical and financial assistance to each community selected to participate.
Williams’ economic-development team announced that the deadline for the first round of “main streets” applications—from which would be selected five lucky winners—would be March 25 at 4 p.m. On that very afternoon, Shaw neighborhood activist Alexander Padro strode into the 10th-floor suite at One Judiciary Square with three minutes to spare. Promptly at 4, the office doors locked. Padro spied the sign-in sheet and counted a total of 10 applications turned in.
Padro later learned that 14 applications were being reviewed for consideration.
In municipal politics, it turns out, deadlines are negotiable. H Street NE boosters, for one, had failed to get their packet through the door on time. So had their Capitol Hill East neighbors, who hoped to use the city’s revitalization funds to revive the eastern end of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Now, it seemed, both neighborhoods would have to wait another year for a bite at the apple.
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who represents both neighborhoods, wasn’t going to allow administrative particulars to handicap the hard-luck corridors. So she implored the mayor to ease up a bit on the deadline. “I had a conversation with the mayor,” Ambrose explains. “He thought that maybe applicants should be cut a little slack.”
According to Wilson Building sources, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price initially balked at letting tardy applicants in the door but relented after an entreaty from the mayor. Traci Otey Blunt, a spokesperson for Price, now says that there was an hour grace period for latecomers.
On April 26, Williams announced the city’s first designees: 14th and U Streets NW, 8th Street SE’s Barracks Row, 14th Street Heights, and North Capitol Street in Bloomingdale. Oh, and H Street made it, too. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Ambrose, who also represents Barracks Row.
The winning bids included no communities east of the Anacostia. Despite constant pleas at community meetings and town halls for economic development in Wards 7 and 8, only one group got its act together to apply: a coalition led by Albert “Butch” Hopkins’ controversial Anacostia Economic Development Corp.
Padro found out that Shaw’s proposal ranked sixth. “The mayor decided to change the rules at the eleventh hour,” says Padro. “And Shaw got screwed.”
* During this year’s budget season, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has distinguished himself as a tax-and-spend liberal. While colleagues such as Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans schemed to keep tax cuts in place, Graham stressed that his Ward 1 constituents desired improved city services, not lower tax rates.
Yet on May 2, Graham pleaded with Evans for some tax relief: He wanted to include housing cooperatives in an act originally sponsored by Evans that capped property-tax increases at 25 percent per year. The bill’s language excluded properties owned by cooperative-housing corporations. The constituent-oriented councilmember had one particular Ward 1 interest in mind: Graham is a shareholder in the Ontario, a stately Adams Morgan co-op that he also calls home. According to the city’s real-property database, the Ontario’s assessment went from about $12.7 million to about $20.1 million this year, a roughly 58 percent increase. Shareholders, such as Graham, would feel the impact of the property-tax bill soon.
When Graham broached the topic at a council breakfast with Mayor Williams later that Thursday morning, Evans shouted back a Graham mantra: “My people want services, not tax cuts!”
“Services, not tax cuts! Services, not tax cuts!” mocked the chorus of council supply-siders, including Evans and At-Large Councilmembers David Catania and Carol Schwartz.
Graham had the last laugh, though: That morning, Evans, Catania, et al. conceded on the personal-income-tax reduction for fiscal year 2003. And the council and the mayor unanimously agreed to support Graham’s
“I’ve been an advocate of co-ops,” says
Graham. “My colleagues live in houses or condos. They’re advocates for houses and condos.”
* When Palisades Civic Association President Erik Gaull made public his intention to seek the Ward 3 council seat two weeks ago, the phone at his day job started ringing. One inquisitive call came from Ward 3 incumbent Kathy Patterson: “She was calling to let me know that if I was still on the mayor’s payroll, I was subject to the Hatch Act,” Gaull reports.
Elevated to local prominence by Dunbar Senior High School teacher Tom Briggs, who recently got fired from his job for violating the federal law two years ago, the Hatch Act forbids federal and D.C. government employees from running for office while employed at public expense. Gaull informed Patterson that his resignation as director of operational improvements for the city administrator went into effect at the close of business that day.
Only a serious contender for office would quit his job. But crafting a campaign message to oppose Patterson won’t be easy: The two-term legislator oversees the powerful Committee on the Judiciary, has a masterful knowledge of municipal operations, and commands a staff responsive to constituent needs. “There are a number of reasons [to run]—I don’t want to turn this into a campaign pitch,” Gaull told LL last week.
So how about naming just one?
“I think I can work better with the mayor than she can,” Gaull finally mustered after some thought. “I have spent 20 years providing service in government at the ground level. I think I share the mayor’s vision for things.”
“I welcome a challenge,” counters Patterson. “I have a strong record to run on.”
* In the post-War Room era of campaigns, political consultants often start out with better name recognition than their candidates. In his quest to unseat Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange, Harry Thomas Jr. has enrolled a political consultant who knows how to generate local headlines: Mark Jones.
“Mark Jones has been a longtime friend of mine,” admits Thomas.
Thomas’ compadre and political adviser has been at the center of the mayor’s fundraising controversy: While serving as Williams’ deputy chief of staff, Jones controlled the activities and financial accounts of several nonprofit corporations, according to a March report issued by D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox. The nonprofits helped fund political events for the mayor. Jones’ intimate involvement with one of the entities, the Church Association for Community Services, has been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for further investigation, according to Maddox.
Thomas says that Jones has offered him valuable advice about issues and strategy. He has provided his services pro bono to the Thomas campaign, so far. “I’m tapping his expertise,” Thomas explains. “He’s a very bright and resourceful young man. He has an in-depth government background.”
Jones did not return phone calls from LL for comment.
* Shaw ANC Chair “Mahdi” Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. made a religious trek to Mecca a few months ago. Although it’s unclear what effect the hajj had on Thorpe’s thinking about commercial zoning, it revolutionized his ANC dress code. Thorpe wore a headdress, sandals, and a traditional Muslim white robe underneath his signature black leather vest at the commission’s latest monthly meeting, held May 1 at Tony Cheng’s Mongolian restaurant in Chinatown.
Thorpe had told colleagues that he hoped to return from Mecca “a better person.” When LL approached the commissioner after the meeting to ask about his trip, Thorpe called for security to escort LL out of the restaurant. CP
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