Citizen Summit II is a rerun of claptrap, braggadocio, and free eats.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams wants D.C. residents to think big thoughts today, but Charlotte Vines mainly wants to talk sewers. Dressed in khakis and a blue oxford shirt unbuttoned at the collar, D.C.’s chief executive parades across the Washington Convention Center stage this morning like a high-tech college lecturer. He asks those attending last Saturday’s Neighborhood Action Citizen Summit II to share with him their frustrations, concerns, and dreams for the city.
The citizens are seated in clusters of 10 at a few hundred tables, each featuring a volunteer facilitator, iBook laptop, and 10 gray electronic keypads. Though city officials are estimating today’s attendance at 3,000, the number seems quite inflated given that almost one-fifth of the tables are completely empty and many others throughout the hall have seats to spare.
Table 141 facilitator Charlie Markert attempts to keep the morning’s discussion lofty, but no matter the topic”What values must we stand for as a city?” “What messages do you want the mayor to hear regarding major work still to be done?” “What concerns do you have about the citywide strategic plan?”the talk at the table almost always reverts back to streets, sewers, and trash.
Vines, the director of the Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. Family Life Community Center, complains about water and sewer problems near her building, at 6th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE. “The city has been called time and time again,” Vines says, again and again.
“Ooh, yeahso that’s the water I see,” adds Ward 5 neighbor Maryce Hall, who then launches into her own diatribe about abandoned cars and trash pickup.
So much for visionary thinking. But that’s not really the point of the Citizen Summit II, anyway.
As Williams prowls the stage with professional moderator Carolyn Lukensmeyer, he uses the platform to trumpet his successes to those who have bothered to show upalmost all potential voters in next year’s mayoral election. In each Citizen Summit II participant packet, the mayor has enclosed a 12-page glossy brochure titled “Accomplishments Since First Citizen Summit: You Said, We Did.” Numerous times during the event, the mayor recites those triumphs aloud. At one point, Williams brags that the city has resurfaced more than 900 blocks of streets and alleys and has reduced pothole complaints by 73 percent.
“But they don’t surface them good!” Vines belts out, as her neighbors clap. “That’s nothing to be proud of.”
Chanda McMahon bites into the turkey-and-Swiss sandwich she found in the pre-packaged lunches distributed just after noon to participants. Then she puts it down. “We’re just trying to reinvent the wheel,” she says to no one in particular, then excuses herself from Table 141. She never returns.
Perhaps McMahon anticipated better eats, such as those available at the previous Thursday’s Spirit of Neighborhood Action banquet. If she dined that evening at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park, McMahon surely sank her teeth into freshly sliced double-roasted turkey breast topped with a delightful chardonnay reduction, penne in alfredo sauce with sun-dried tomatoes, and assorted cheeses and cruditésand washed it down with as much Sam Adams, Amstel Light, or house red or white wine as she cared to drink.
Thursday night’s kickoff for the Saturday summit honored 17 groups that embody what Williams termed “the spirit of neighborhood action.” To judge from the line for refreshments around 7 p.m., the awards ceremony had a hefty bar tab. Indeed, the mayor’s office estimates that this year’s Neighborhood Action events cost approximately $835,000. The Annie E. Casey Foundation chipped in $100,000, PEPCO $10,000, and the American Legacy Foundationan anti-smoking advocacy groupponied up $50,000 to cover Thursday’s banquet. The rest came from taxpayers.
McMahon may not be the only one with city-funded snacking on her mind. By 10:45 on Saturday morning, the three citizens seated at Table 142 have all polished off their free coffee and danishes, put on their coats, and headed for the door.
Right before the summit shifts to a neighborhood-centric seating plan for the afternoon session, Table 134 cheers. The predominantly female table waves to Gregory Irish, director of the Department of Employment Services. Irish, dressed in Saturday casual chic, flashes a smile back to his adoring employees.
By 2 p.m., it appears that D.C. workers possess more endurance for municipal catharsis than the average citizen. They dominate the tables. Take Table 151, for example, where North Portal Estates, Colonial Village, and Shepherd Park neighbors congregate. One Shepherd Park resident sitting next to his wife proudly sports his green and yellow Department of Parks and Recreation hat. Then North Portal Estates neighborand city administratorJohn Koskinen sits down at the round table. About 10 minutes later, another khaki- and oxford-sporting citizen joins the discussion.
“All right, Albert, where do you live?” Koskinen says to Department of Parks and Recreation Director Neil Albert, after introducing him to his neighbors. “Ahyou live on Locust?”
With all the glad-handing and mugging for the cameras, the summit has the air of an expensive coming-out party for the D.C. municipal leadership. After all, many original members of the mayor’s cabinet and staff have packed their bags since the first citizen summit, in November 1999. Elected officials are also out in force: Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz all roam the floor. Mayoral foes, including Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous and At-Large Councilmember David Catania, apparently had better plans.
As the table’s moderator and another resident fumble with the computer, Koskinen directs the discussion to the “strategic neighborhood action plan” for Ward 4, Cluster 16. Lukensmeyer announces a vote to monitor sentiment in the room and instructs participants to punch in a number from 1 to 5. A 1 signifies utmost satisfaction with the strategic plan; a 5 indicates no satisfaction at all.
Koskinen grabs his keypad, and with the dexterity of a three-card-monte dealer, quickly punches in his selected number. His covert move immediately causes speculation: If Koskinen were an administration booster, he would eagerlyand publiclypress 1.
Table 151 stares at the city administrator’s quick hands, and it takes Koskinen a moment to notice. “If the word gets out that the city administrator is not confident, that’s not good,” he quickly offers.
Albert avoids the vote altogether.
Despite the opportunity presented by the two members of the mayor’s cabinet among them, the voters seated at Table 151 prove surprisingly reluctant to criticize the city government or its services. “The purpose of this is to be very selfish,” Koskinen pleads, urging them to offer suggestions or concerns. Georgia Avenue retail? Crime? (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
Albert finally brings up tree-trimming. Another neighbor suggests repaving some Cluster 16 streets, including parts of 14th Street NW and Eastern Avenue.
“You might want to add alleys to that,” Albert chimes in. CP