When Gary Imhoff received a request from a group of residents on Fairmont Street NW in Columbia Heights for help in getting a pay telephone removed from a public sidewalk, it seemed an insignificant thing. As an advisory neighborhood commissioner, Imhoff was expert at navigating city bureaucracies. He figured he’d quickly dispatch the problem. After all, pay phones are regarded as nuisances in residential neighborhoods because they’re often used by drug dealers, and the District has strict regulations to control their placement.
Little did Imhoff suspect that it would ultimately take nearly a year to get the pay phone removed. Or that the problem would trace back to the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, aka the control board.
Five years old and now nearing the end of its mandate, the control board, according to conventional wisdom, has done its job effectively and rescued the city’s government. Imhoff’s struggle to remove a solitary pay phone shows why that conventional wisdom is wrong.
Imhoff reviewed the permit application for the pay phone filed with the Office of Public Space (OPS) by an apartment building owner. The application seemed to be for a telephone to be located on private property. But, plain as day, the phone had been installed on a public sidewalk. All that was needed, Imhoff thought, was for an OPS inspector to verify the improper location and then write a letter ordering its removal. It seemed simple enough. But Imhoff tried calling the appropriate OPS inspector for months.
“The people on Fairmont Street actually thought I wasn’t doing anything, because the telephone was still there,” says Imhoff, who also manages an online forum sponsored by DCWatch, a watchdog group. “But I was calling that office two and three times a week. And this went on for months.”
Finally, a sympathetic receptionist told him that no one was in the office, and that, in fact, no one had been there for weeks. “She said everyone had been pulled away to work with [the Department of] Transportation on the street problems,” Imhoff continues.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams was being crucified all over town for the disruption of traffic and normal business by utility and technology companies laying fiber-optic cable under city streets. He had pledged to fix the problem quickly, limiting the number of street cuts the companies would be allowed to make and requiring immediate resurfacing of the damaged roads.
“What they had done was move all the staff from the Office of Public Space to work on those street cuts,” explains Imhoff. “So, the business of the public-space [office] wasn’t getting done.”
And that problem leads back to the control board. Congress created the board to do much more than repair the District’s chaotic finances. It was supposed to completely overhaul the city’s confused management processes as well. And the school system. And public health care.
But the detritus of the control board’s unfinished business lies everywhere—and affects ordinary District residents in myriad real ways: special education students waiting hours for a school bus to arrive at their homes; small-business owners hamstrung by late payments for services they provided to the government; hundreds of mentally retarded and developmentally disabled residents abused in city-financed group homes; thousands of low-income citizens served at D.C. General Hospital left to wonder where they will go to receive health care if the deficit-ridden hospital is forced to shut down.
“We have a government that still operates on an emergency basis,” says Imhoff. “The control board should have been able to institute management reform that makes it possible for the government to deal with emergencies at the same time it deals with everyday services.”
In 1995, when Congress created the control board, the District was on the brink of insolvency. Sharon Pratt Kelly, during her one term as mayor, from 1990 to 1994, had run through nearly $1 billion in special federal appropriations but could provide no plausible explanation for what had happened to the money. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) had ripped apart her accounting procedures, calling them “gimmicky,” angering congressional representatives who had enthusiastically supported Kelly as a welcome alternative to her controversial predecessor, Marion S. Barry Jr. Adding insult to Capitol Hill’s injury, voters had returned Barry to the mayor’s office after he had served six months in federal prison on narcotics charges and an unremarkable stint as Ward 8 D.C. councilmember. Barry’s first proposed budget, which declared that the city faced a $750 million deficit, sent alarms all the way to Wall Street.
The congressionally created, presidentially appointed control board mimicked similar bodies in Philadelphia and New York City. But the District’s panel was far more powerful. Congress had empowered it to step into any domain previously under the authority of elected officials, including the mayor, the D.C. Council, and the Board of Education.
According to the enabling legislation—Public Law 104-8—the control board was supposed to, among other things: eliminate budget deficits and cash shortages; ensure efficient delivery of services; assist the government in restructuring its organization and workforce; modernize budget accounting, personnel, procurement, information-technology, and management systems; and ensure the long-term economic vitality and operational efficiency of the District of Columbia. The law also created an independent chief financial officer and an independent inspector general, both of whom would be appointed by the mayor but approved by the control board. Only the control board could remove them from office.
Two years later, in 1997, Congress amended the control board legislation, passing the National Capital Revitalization Act, which made explicit what had been only implicit before—that the control board could, should it deem it necessary, seize operational jurisdiction of any city government agency. And in August 1997, the control board seized the nine major agencies of the government, leaving Barry and every other elected official supremely impotent.
While some District residents complained, many celebrated. They regarded a virtual federal takeover as the only alternative to a complete collapse of local government. Some critics thought the control board harked back to pre-home-rule days, before 1974, when a federally appointed commission administered the District’s affairs. Most swallowed what was characterized as “bitter medicine,” believing that in the end a healed, healthy city government would be returned to them and their elected officials. The control board was mandated to go out of business once it had re-engineered the city’s basic infrastructure systems and reformed service delivery, and the District had produced four consecutive balanced budgets.
On Sept. 30, 2001, the balanced-budget landmark will have been reached, and the control board’s mandate is due to expire.
Ask most elected officials, civic leaders, and control board members whether the five-member panel has effected substantial change in the District government and the response sounds as if they rehearsed it—they all recite the same litany of achievements.
“It did its job,” says Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican and chair of the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on the District. It’s no surprise that Davis, as the prime sponsor of the legislation that created the control board, is one of its chief proponents. After all, a glowing legacy for the control board, created to rescue a predominantly African-American government, translates to accolades for Davis, who is white and likely wants to retain his leadership position in a Republican Party that is trying to attract minority voters.
“The proof is in the pudding: The city is in the black. It is managing its own affairs. It’s established a tax base. There is a new shopping center coming in Northeast, which is the first of other major investments coming to the city,” Davis declares.
“The bills weren’t getting paid; taxes weren’t getting collected; services weren’t getting delivered to the extent they should have been,” says Alice Rivlin, the control board’s current chair. “The control board turned that around. By the end of a couple of years, the most dire circumstance was over. The city was back to some semblance of normal.”
“The original board did some good things,” says Williams, who was the city’s first chief financial officer. “It protected me; without it, I would have been gone in two or three months. It made a commitment to financially resuscitate the city, providing short-term, long-term borrowing, and access to the markets. There was a commitment to reform in government overall.
“Sure some people say we’re not pulling in grants funds; the financial operations are not where we should be. There is still work to be done,” continues Williams. “[But] clearly, we are light-years from where we started. I do think we’re enormously better off because they’ve been in business.”
D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp says that the control board “served as a buffer between Capitol Hill and the local government at a time when the Hill could have come down harder. It forced us to be a better council. I was doggoned if I was going to let them show us up.”
Natwar Gandhi, who previously headed the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue and was recently appointed the District’s chief financial officer, goes to the numbers to justify his genuflecting. “From 1986 through 1994, before the control board, local government expenditures grew by 6.5 percent annually,” he says. “From 1995 through 1999, [overall] expenditures declined by 1.2 percent.”
“More than anything,” Gandhi says, the control board “helped contain spending.”
“The control board was absolutely necessary,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, launching his salute during a quintessential District power lunch of bean soup and Caesar salad at Maloney & Porcelli on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which is fast becoming a hangout for politicians and downtown business leaders.
“We had a mayor that did not have the confidence of anybody outside of the city. We had a $750 million problem and nowhere near that kind of money,” Evans continues. The first control board chair, Andrew Brimmer, “gets a lot of credit for that. He helped us establish credibility and confidence.”
“I would give us a B for fiscal improvements,” says current control board Executive Director Francis Smith, “and a B-minus for general service delivery.”
Despite such vociferous cheerleading, the five-member control board—which is now down to four appointed members and one volunteer, Stephen Harlan—has done little to reform major infrastructure systems and the management of key agencies. What’s more, a look beyond the reported budget surpluses and year-end audits issued with “clean opinions” reveals that the city’s financial turnaround owes more to the extremely vibrant national economy than to the control board. In fact, anyone who looks at the seldom-reviewed fiscal plan for the District, which forecasts potential deficit spending as early as 2003, might reasonably conclude that the city’s financial viability remains precarious at best.
“Once you go beyond the public perception and break it down and ask what’s been fixed, you realize the control board has not made lasting fundamental changes in the District government,” says Dorothy Brizill, head of DCWatch and Gary Imhoff’s wife.
“Tell me what the control board has done?” challenges one congressional staffer who works on District affairs and who requested anonymity. “They didn’t do anything to change the revenue structure, nothing to reduce costs. They increased annual salaries. They missed any opportunity to make major structural improvements in a dysfunctional government.”
“We are kind of where we were in 1995 in terms of having a [financial] system in place,” says Evans, in a more critical moment. “They have done a lot of cosmetic things that got them a lot of credit.”
In truth, everywhere the control board has stepped in its attempts to resolve the District’s fiscal and management woes, it has left either chaos or no imprint at all. Its inability to reform the city’s schools must rank as the control board’s most shameful shortcoming.
In an unprecedented move, the control board seized authority over D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) in 1996, rendering the old elected school board largely irrelevant. Four years, millions of dollars, and three superintendents later, test scores still trail far behind national averages, and children are still stuck in decrepit facilities, often taught by poorly prepared teachers. The school system still cannot provide rudimentary services to its special education students, including proper assessments, placements, and transportation—a situation that has led to ongoing lawsuits and court orders.
“Why do I have to sue the government to get my daughter properly placed?” parent Beverly Stewart asked a panel of school and government managers during a recent town hall meeting called by Williams and attended by new Superintendent Paul Vance. “And why do I have to go in my pocket to buy her books for class?” Officials respond that they are working on the problems—which is the same answer parents have heard for the last four years.
“Their most unmitigated failure has been the school system,” asserts Jim Gibson, former head of D.C. Agenda, a coalition of civic and business leaders, who is by turns a supporter and a critic. “I think they thought they had that one cold. The control board was looking for a silver bullet on the school system all along. And one silver bullet after another didn’t work.”
The situation in the police department has been troubled as well. It took the control board’s hand-picked police chief, Charles Ramsey, who was appointed in 1998, two years to develop an effective police deployment plan. With the latest revelation in October about its fleet-maintenance operations, it appears that Ramsey can’t even get department cars repaired without difficulty, and at exorbitant prices.
The Washington Times reported last month that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had contracted with a private firm, Serco, to handle its fleet maintenance. The contract, at $3.5 million, was expected to save the city some money. Instead, maintenance costs were nearly $1 million more during fiscal 2000 than when services were performed by in-house personnel.
The police department contract stands as testimony to the control board’s abdication of two of its key responsibilities—reducing the cost of government, chiefly through privatization of services, and improving the District’s procurement system. Because privatization and managed competition are critical to the city’s overall efforts to reduce expenditures, and the Serco contract was new, the control board should have monitored the process and the results more closely. Instead, the overspending was disclosed by the media—not the control board or any other government official.
In July, both the city auditor, Deborah Nichols, who reports to the council, and Inspector General Charles Maddox outlined serious violations in District contracting and procurement operations. Between April 1998 and March 1999—in the middle of the control board’s watch—Maddox found, a comprehensive procurement and management information system had not been implemented, contracts deemed not legally sufficient had been executed nevertheless, advance payments had been made improperly to contractors, and, in one case, a business providing citywide trash collection services had charged the DCPS substantially more than it was charging on other contracts. Consequently, the school system, directly under the authority of the control board, had paid a half-million dollars more for its trash services than it would have under the citywide contract.
And, in a July 2000 report that received little press attention, Nichols alleged flagrant violations of city law by then-Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Douglas Patton.
According to the auditor, Patton, in 1999,wanted to secure an inventory of the city’s real property assets. Urged by congressional representatives to use the federal General Services Administration’s (GSA) list of approved contractors, Patton issued a purchase notification for $20,000. On March 24, 1999, the GSA awarded a $17,383 contract to Tecumseh Professional Associates on behalf of the District government, according to the auditor. All of this was fine and proper. But then, the consultants outlined a scope of work and methodology that required substantial modifications and expansion of the original plan. The auditor says the new plan favored Tecumseh as the company to ultimately complete the work.
Patton got into deeper trouble when he allowed costs to exceed $25,000. Any city contract over that amount required written authorization from the mayor, according to the auditor. Patton never got that authorization. By the time Nichols reviewed it, the deal had mushroomed to $520,000, and Patton still had not secured written approval from Williams. The auditor says that Patton further violated District laws when he allowed an employee with the Downtown Business Improvement District, a private coalition of businesses, to serve as the official monitor for the Tecumseh contract.
Moreover, most of the payments to Tecumseh were handled through a series of purchase orders or “purchase notifications,” rather than a single contract—which made the paper trail harder to follow. It was, as one government official characterized it, “an off-the-book transaction.”
“Same problems, different people,” says Nichols, when asked to compare current contracting and procurement issues with those that were evident during the mayoral administrations of Barry and Kelly.
“The auditor never talked to me. The system is so broken, we had to get things done. If I had gone through the District government, I’d still be waiting for it,” says Patton.
“The project was given to GSA to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he continues, adding that by using a GSA contractor he was not required to stay within the $25,000 limit. Further, Patton says when he first arrived he was told that “the deputy mayor had up to a $1 million limit.”
“Some people ought to look at results and not just means,” adds Patton. “Nobody can think out of the box. People don’t want change; that’s what it is.”
The control board’s record on neighborhood economic development hasn’t been much better. With the control board’s approval, the city spent $500,000 in fiscal year 1999 to prepare a strategic economic-development plan. Some supporters point to the frenzy of downtown construction as an indication that progress is being made. But residents of Columbia Heights, for example, who had expected to see city-approved developers break ground next year on new retail outlets, may have to wait three more years. While community groups and local developers clashed on the details of the development plans, the control board sat on the sidelines.
And don’t even mention the frustrations in Ward 8, where local residents had hoped the site of the former Camp Simms would become home to a badly needed supermarket and other shops. For five years, Dominion Development Corp., which had been awarded the exclusive marketing rights to lease space in the proposed shopping center, failed to locate tenants and sufficient financing. The Williams administration was poised to put the project out for competitive bid once again. But in October, the D.C. Council blocked that effort, forcing the mayor to give the developer an additional 35 days. The control board could override the council’s legislation. But it has shown no inclination to do so.
Even in the area where the control board boasts its greatest success—the financial management system—there is disarray. The city’s state-of-the-art computerized system—System of Accounting and Reporting, or SOAR— installed last year, was poorly implemented and key employees were insufficiently trained in how to use it, according to reports from independent auditors presented earlier this year during a series of hearings before the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue. The result is that finance employees in many instances cannot input or retrieve valuable information. Furthermore, Gandhi recently announced he was ditching a 7-year-old, $20 million payroll and personnel computer system known as CAPPS because of design flaws and employees’ inability to use its complex features.
At the end of each fiscal year, the control board’s outside auditors deliver something called a “management letter,” an extensive evaluation of the work that the city has yet to complete—and that the control board is supposed to supervise.
Place the last three of these management letters side by side and you’ll get a shock. In 1997, the management letter was a small-notebook-sized document. In 1998, it was the size of a high school textbook. And the fiscal 1999 report is comparable to the New York City telephone directory.
The management letters offer a glimpse of the weaknesses in the city’s financial and management systems. The evaluations are conducted through random sampling of various files in selected agencies, which provides auditors with a picture of how things are being handled: for example, whether required contracting documents are being retained; whether finance officials are reconciling bank statements adequately; whether people who do business with the District are being paid on time. The contents of these letters reveal that many of the problems plaguing the District keep recurring.
Consider the D.C. Health and Hospitals Public Benefits Corp. (PBC), which operates D.C. General Hospital and a network of neighborhood clinics. Congressional reports from 1993, 1994, and 1995 all outlined financial problems at D.C. General, so when the control board took over, the financial and health care crisis at the city’s only public hospital should not have been foreign to members. In 1997, independent auditors with KPMG Peat Marwick LLP noted that the PBC was not billing in a timely manner and lacked formal plans for capital improvement and business continuity. There also were Medicaid and union contracting issues.
These same concerns were reported in the management letters for fiscal years 1998 and 1999. In his first budget as mayor, Williams raised the problems with the PBC, suggesting that money be used to provide health insurance to the indigent and uninsured rather than as an additional subsidy for D.C. General. The council blocked his effort. The control board failed to come to his aid.
Even after the independent auditors in 1999 said that they could not issue an opinion on the PBC’s finances because the organization was in such massive disarray, the control board failed to intervene. It was Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and head of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District, who ultimately demanded a solution to the problem. Congress prohibited the District from helping the PBC to cover its deficit spending. Now, the Williams administration is scrambling to come up with a plan to radically downsize D.C. General to save it from extinction.
“D.C. General needed help,” says D.C. Agenda’s Gibson. “I would have wanted it to be the control board and not the Congress [that provided it].”
“A lot of solutions are political and unpalatable, even to [control board] authority members,” says Smith, by way of explanation. “There are no political consequences for Congress to say, ‘Close the PBC tomorrow.’ But there are a lot of political consequences for the mayor, the council, and the authority.”
That explanation may sound plausible—until you realize that one of the main political functions of the control board was to take the heat when elected officials couldn’t, or wouldn’t, for lack of experience or political will.
If health care was too hot for the control board, then a war with the city’s workers’ unions was definitely out of the question, even though every other city or county that has come under a control board has had to grapple with collective-bargaining agreements. Union salaries and benefits often put huge burdens on municipal governments, and work restrictions often make it difficult to reshape employee responsibilities to better serve citizens. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, for example, set up in 1991 by the state when Philadelphia was running a deficit of more than $100 million, found within its first few months of operation that in order for the city to repair its finances and improve services, union contracts would have to be renegotiated. Then-Mayor Ed Rendell, aided by that control board, mounted a major public relations campaign to educate citizens on the issues and later went to battle with the unions.
By contrast, the District’s control board never tackled the union problems, unless you consider pay increases to police officers in 1996 an example of taking on the unions. In fact, those pay hikes were funded in part by robbing the fire department’s budget, leaving that department to forgo significant enhancements to personnel and equipment. Some fire officials claim that the lack of these improvements later contributed to the death of one firefighter.
Nor has the control board helped Williams in his union negotiating strategies. City officials had promised District workers a bonus when the good times returned. Williams in his first budget attempted to tie those bonuses to labor negotiations. The council resisted his effort, fighting him on the bonuses. Ultimately, Williams prevailed on the bonuses, but without any support from the control board.
Another method of reining in the size and costs of government was supposed to be managed competition and privatization. But nothing much has occurred on that front. In fact, although there were some cuts in the city’s workforce under Barry, the control board has allowed the Williams administration to increase an already bloated bureaucracy. Between fiscal years 1998 and 2000, the number of full-time District government employees increased by more than 3,000—from 30,000 to about 33,000, according to documents provided by the mayor’s office.
Moreover, Williams has created additional departments, such as the Department of Transportation, and government sources say there are plans to split the Department of Human Services into three separate agencies, increasing overhead and administrative costs.
During a retreat in September 1999, the control board’s own staff members offered a bleak picture of the city’s fiscal health. According to minutes from that meeting, staffers pointed out that “expenditures are growing at the rate of 3 percent annually and revenues are flat.”
Williams “has been a big spender,” asserts a congressional staffer who requested anonymity, noting that the mayor and his chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, “haven’t seen a program they didn’t like. The city is awash with money. But no one is making the structural changes and improvements. If the economy goes south, we are back to Square One.”
“By no means are we big spenders,” Williams retorts. “We’re reserving our surplus. For spending on children and foster care, I had to find $52 million in savings in the budget.”
Still, Brizill asserts that “the District is one paycheck away from being in the same fix it was in a few years ago.”
The control board also has done nothing about dead people on the city’s payroll. In fiscal 1998, auditors found that payments had been made to more than 200 people with “Social Security numbers for people no longer living, including many who had died several years earlier.” In 1999, auditors found when they performed “independent certification of the Social Security numbers per the District’s payroll records” that 17 Social Security numbers were invalid and 240 belonged to persons reported as deceased. These numbers may not seem large when compared with the total city workforce. However, the auditors noted that “an invalid or deceased Social Security number increases the risks that a payroll payment may be made to a fraudulent or ineligible person.”
While checks get issued to dead people, local business people who are very much alive are made to wait months to receive payment from the District government for services rendered. In all three management letters reviewed by the Washington City Paper, auditors found that vendors were not being paid on time and that they were not being paid interest on their overdue invoices.
“There are a lot of reasons vendors don’t get paid on time,” argues Smith. “Maybe there wasn’t a contract in place, the invoice was submitted and there was some difficulty with it, [or] maybe there was trouble getting the documents into the accounting system.”
But Joseph Johnson, a board member with the Corrections Corporation of America, one of the vendors that has been repeatedly paid late, suggests that this is just the shoddy way the city handles its business.
“We have to make calls [to get our money]. That’s part of what we know we have to do. It’s a routine,” Johnson says, adding that his company has yet to receive any interest on its overdue payments, as required under the District’s Quick Payment Law. “We’d love to get the interest.”
Richard “Dickie” Carter, whose Urban Services company collects trash from all city agencies, says that his firm also has never received any interest on its overdue payments from the government. He notes that Urban Services must pay 8 percent interest on a line of credit to cover expenses when the District is late and the city has been as many as three months late at times paying Urban Services. The company can rack up interest payments of $4,000 per month covering expenses for all its contracts with the District, Carter says, because the city doesn’t follow its own laws.
Late vendor payments were supposed to have been resolved after the control board’s first year, when it was discovered that the District owed money to dozens of nonprofit organizations and small businesses. Some of the companies were forced out of business; in other instances, nonprofits had to suspend delivery of services, some of which went to the elderly, children, and citizens with handicaps.
If the city’s road to ruin was paved by the neglect and mismanagement of elected officials, the control board’s failure to act aggressively to correct the problems has only exacerbated the situation.
One story related by Smith, the control board’s executive director, underscores the board’s cognitive handicaps: “One time, we were told the problem with trash pickup was the routes, which the unions had control over,” Smith says. “So we said, ‘OK, we’ll talk to the unions.’ But in talking with the unions, we realized we didn’t have a problem with the routes. The real problem was that we didn’t have enough trucks. We wasted a lot of time spinning our wheels.”
“Procurement, personnel, financial management still need a lot of help. They got a lot of attention, but they aren’t fixed yet,” says control board Chair Rivlin.
Rivlin defends the board’s efforts concerning the PBC and D.C. General, contending that she and her fellow board members knew there were problems but that “it took a crisis to get everybody to focus. There was not the political will to face up to the fact that the PBC was not functioning.”
But Rivlin can’t provide answers for why the same problems have surfaced each year in the management letters. She suggests that management letters from other cities that have had control boards might have been just as thick with outstanding issues. But that raises a question: Why can’t the D.C. control board, with a staff of 20 people and a $3.1 million annual budget, work on the major weaknesses in the management and financial systems it was brought in to strengthen?
When asked who is responsible for tracking the concerns raised by auditors and ensuring that they are addressed, Smith points to the chief financial officer and the inspector general. Yet the control board supervises both.
Maddox, the inspector general, declined three requests to be interviewed for this article, insisting instead that written questions be submitted to him. Gandhi, the chief financial officer, says that his priority is completing the year-end audit on time and not repeating the mistake of his predecessor, Valerie Holt, whose 1999 audit was issued 90 days late amid much controversy. Gandhi also says that he must secure a “clean opinion,” which certifies that the city is in the black and that its budget numbers are accurate. After that, he says, he’ll work on the problems cited in the management letters—which can only mean that the management letter for fiscal year 2000 will be even larger than those that preceded it.
“This is a deeply broken government, and it has taken me the couple of years that I’ve been here to realize how broken it is,” says Rivlin, who exudes nonchalance.
Indeed, Rivlin’s laid-back, hands-off style couldn’t be more different from that of Brimmer, whose autocratic, iron-fisted style alienated a long line of people, including Barry, nearly every councilmember, and many small-business and nonprofit proprietors.
The shift from Brimmer to Rivlin calls to mind the playing of the old Washington Redskins, before the team was purchased by Daniel Snyder. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for the team to do famously well in the first half only to come back in the second and look like an entirely different squad, leaving fans and even the owners wondering if someone had kidnapped the players in the locker room and replaced them with a bunch of impostors.
Whereas control board meetings under Brimmer were tense, frantic affairs, with everyone in the room snapped to attention, Rivlin’s board meetings are something else entirely.
“[Vice Chair Constance] Newman is busy typing on her laptop, looking at District officials over the rims of her glasses,” one control board staffer says, describing a typical meeting. “Alice [Rivlin] has her shoes off, crunching her toes into the carpet. [Robert] Watkins is asleep; and Eugene Kinlow is muttering, ‘I don’t know why we don’t just close down and turn everything back to the city.’” Not that the public would have much chance to observe such a scene: The board meets each Wednesday behind closed doors with the mayor and Cropp; only rarely does it meet in public.
Gibson says that he approves of Rivlin’s approach but compares it to a parent allowing a child to learn through trial and error. Some might call it indulgent.
“I wish [Rivlin] had worn her professional hat more often,” he adds, recalling her distinguished tenures as a member of the Federal Reserve Board and head of the federal Office of Management and Budget.
Rivlin, who had forecast the District’s fiscal and management problems nearly five years before the control board was instituted, was expected to be as tough and tenacious in the job as Brimmer. But she came in stroking egos. Within six months of assuming the chairmanship, she had reversed most of Brimmer’s controversial decisions and returned operational control of the government to Mayor Williams.
“I wanted to get out of the formal business of running the city and get back to the original task of being an oversight board,” Rivlin explains. “I don’t think I have been hands-off. I spend an enormous amount of time on the job.”
But has the time been well spent? A GAO auditor found that the $300 million Congress forked over to the control board for management reform in 1998 has yielded just $1.5 million in savings over the last two years.
“There are a lot of cats and dogs,” says Davis. ‘We’re not moving optimally. But we are moving forward. Structurally, we still have some problems.”
“I had hoped that [management] systems would have been more solid,” says Cropp. The control board “has not been able to move or even change the systems, which are not at the level I think we need to be.”
Rivlin says that the control board has made important accomplishments, citing the city’s continued fiscal health as one indication of the board’s success. Surprisingly, she also points to the school system as yet another achievement, despite its myriad unresolved problems. She cites in particular the “reform-minded leadership” of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and her replacement, Vance, as well as the creation by referendum this June of the new hybrid school board that takes office in January, which will be partially elected and partially appointed.
“We are on the right path,” Rivlin says. “It has not been a very smooth passage….But we don’t like to be dictators. It’s not good for the city to have a bunch of unelected people telling it what to do.”
While Rivlin and her colleagues have been developing amnesia about their legally mandated oversight roles, her own staff has consistently urged her to be more aggressive. The minutes from the board’s September 1999 retreat show that staff suggested that the board hold public hearings on government expenditures and revenues, and advocated introducing performance-based pay for city workers. Staffers also wanted board members to concentrate on fixing the structural relationship between the District and the federal government, reducing the size of the District’s workforce, and ensuring the permanence of financial controls once the board ceases to exist.
Does it really matter that the control board has turned out to be a near-dud? It is, after all, going out of business next year, and it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t enthusiastically awaiting the moment. But the city still desperately needs the board to be active and engaged in its sunset months.
“I think the most important thing they can do is support us in economic development—tax abatements, tax incentives, and other elements,” says Williams. “I don’t think we’ll go in the drink even if there were a recession. But we’ll be struggling along.”
Fundamental issues surrounding the District’s hamstrung relationship with the federal government are critical but have not been publicly discussed. There is an inherent structural imbalance in the city’s budget, born of congressionally mandated tax and development restrictions, which prevents the District from aggressively expanding its revenue base. The control board had been expected to advance that conversation. But Rivlin refuses to talk about ideas such as a commuter tax or a federal “payment in lieu of taxes” to compensate the city for all of the tax-exempt federal lands in the District. “I don’t consider it my job right now,” she asserts.
Nor has Rivlin addressed what to do about the powerful positions of the chief financial officer and inspector general once the control board has been disbanded. Some have suggested that each position should remain independent, with the mayor making appointments that must be approved by the D.C. Council; the two officials could only be removed with a two-thirds vote of the council. The recent Senate version of the District appropriations bill included a similar proposal.
The control board has effectively tossed the mess of incomplete financial and management reforms back into the city’s lap—right where it lay five years ago, before the board was created. But what many District residents don’t know is that, if the District plunges back into the fiscal abyss when the current booming economy inevitably turns sour, the enabling legislation for the control board allows Congress to automatically impose yet another board.
And if that happens, you can bet it won’t be congressional representatives, Brimmer, Rivlin, or any member of their crew who takes the blame. The District’s elected officials will once again be portrayed as the culprits responsible for permitting the city to sink back into ruin. When, truth be told, it never escaped. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.