City Paper is not for tourists
Wanted: Volunteers to help D.C. Must be smart, dedicatedand extremely patient.
John Colameco just wants to help.
A longtime District resident, Colameco says he’s done his part thus far. In 1981, he opened a Dupont Circle restaurant, now called Peppers, funneling tax revenues into the District at a time when many aspiring restaurateurs were opting for Bethesda. He stuck it out through the city’s mid-’90s financial collapse. He helped found a merchants’ association, joined several neighborhood groups, and waited for things to get better.
When Anthony A. Williams was elected mayor in 1998, Colameco thought the time had come. He figured he’d look for ways to hurdle the fence into the public sector and get involved.
“My basic thing was I have some timeor at least I made someand I want to help,” says Colameco. “I’m a relatively successful small-business owner living in the District. I thought I had something to contribute.”
So in December 1999, Colameco called the D.C. Office of Boards and Commissionsthe body that doles out unpaid appointments to citizen panels from the Board of Elections and Ethics to the Commission on Arts and Humanitiesand offered to volunteer for a post. After several fruitless calls, a receptionist finally suggested that he send his résumé, a letter of interest, and a tax form proving he’s a District resident. Within days, he sent the documents.
And then Colameco waited.
By February, Colameco still hadn’t gotten any wordnot even a letter reporting that his documents had been received. So he started calling again. An office staffer suggested that he choose some specific board positions to apply for and encouraged him to send letters of recommendation. Colameco identified the boards he preferred: the Convention Center Board of Directors and the D.C. Committee to Promote Washington. Both boards, he says, represented a great chance for him to use his small-business know-how to help the District bounce back. He also forwarded letters from three D.C. councilmembers attesting to his leadership skills and business-promotion acumen.
And Colameco waited again. Or at least he tried.
But waiting is not something Colameco does particularly well. He’s a friendly teddy bear of a guy. But piss him off even a little and he easily turns surly. And he is not, by his own admission, a patient man.
“‘Tenacious’ was a middle name with me. If I want something, I go after it. I don’t let something drift,” says Colameco. “I didn’t expect my phone to ring off the hook, but I expected professional courtesy.”
Unfortunately for Colameco, niceties are hard to come by from an office that, by most accounts, struggles to keep up with its responsibilities. When Williams became mayor, the registry of city appointees was a total mess, says Marie Drissel, who ran the office during the mayor’s first year on the job. In the nearly two years since then, things have improved, but critics say not nearly enough.
Although Drissel and successor Ronald King have managed to patch up the most critical holes, they have yet to establish an appointment process that runs smoothlyor quickly. Office staffers need to fill 250 openings in local boards by the end of the year, says King. And beyond those, office staffers must also grapple with the hundreds of appointments they must make next year as board members’ terms expire.
Which leaves people like Colameco wondering if volunteering to help the District is really worth their time.
After a spring full of phone calls to the office, Colameco finally got an interview with the office’s deputy director, Jackie Randolph. The two had a pleasant chat, and then Randolph suggested that Colameco gather additional recommendations and wait for her call. But Colameco isn’t interested in waiting anymore.
“Either close the book or not,” says Colameco. “Tell me to go away. I’m OK with that….I’ve been told no enough times in my life. Maybe I’m not suited for a position. Say so. I’d like this to be ended.”
Marion Barry once called Drissel “Ms. D.C. Watchdog Bulldog Rottweiler” when he bumped into her in a hallway of the John A. Wilson Building. Amused, Drissel responded that she preferred just “Rottweiler,” according to a Washington Post account.
As a freelance political watchdog, Drissel spent her activist career reviewing the fine print of the District’s budget. In 1998, she emerged as one of Williams’ most vocal supporters, joining an insurgent mayoral campaign she said would usher in a new era of government efficiency.
But Drissel’s real work didn’t start until Williams took office and appointed her to head the Office of Boards and Commissions. Drissel says the office was in “a complete crisis” when she took over. Records on appointees were outdated and disorganized. There was only one other staffer to help Drissel keep track of the 1,600 or so commissioners on the city’s various boards. “I really didn’t know how many positions were open,” recalls Drissel. “A lot of the chairs didn’t know they were chairs.”
Drissel says she set up a “triage” system to determine which commissions were the most crippled, assigning the “highest critical points” to boards that couldn’t meet because they didn’t have enough members to constitute a quorum.
Months later, Drissel had hired additional staff members, created a handbook for potential appointees, and put the office on line. By the time she resigned, last January, she’d also overseen about 500 appointments. All were signs of some progress in a long-troubled office. “I actually just couldn’t keep up,” says Drissel, who herself is now being vetted by her old office as a candidate for the powerful National Capital Revitalization Corp.
Drissel says that Colameco was one of the casualties of the transition. “I returned 99.9 percent of my calls within 24 to 48 hours,” says Drissel. “He’s one of the few people I let fall through the cracks.”
But you only have to flip through newspapers from the last year and a half to see that Colameco’s lost call-back wasn’t the first time the office falterednor was it the worst.
Drissel and her staffers got plenty of flak, for instance, after they recommended that the mayor reappoint Max Salas to the important Alcohol Beverage Control Board. Last November, the Washington City Paper reported that Salas had pleaded guilty to two counts of federal tax evasion in 1993 and was facing similar criminal charges for failing to file sales-tax returns at a Florida yogurt shop he owned (“Blind Spot in a Business Suit,” 11/19/99). That record made Salas ineligible to hold one of the D.C. liquor licenses he was then dispensing. Williams asked Salas to resign from his post soon after the news aired.
And residents had to wonder about the screening judgment that went into lining up Christopher Lynn to chair the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Formerly New York City’s transportation chief, Lynn allegedly had a habit of taking his anger out on underlings through improper demotions. When news of Lynn’s past hit the newspapers, he withdrew from consideration, but not in time to save face for Williams and Drissel’s office.
Drissel says she and her staffers did the best they could, even though the office lacks money and equipment for fully researching a candidate’s past. “I would beg, borrow, and steal Lexis searches,” says Drissel. “I went to my own computer at night and would do searches and then would go to the D.C. public library.”
Those flubs, however, don’t even touch on the issue that leaves would-be Good Samaritans like Colameco fuming: the appointees the office hasn’t named. According to King, about 250 of the city’s board and commission slots need to be filled in the next three-and-a-half months to fill current holes and replace board members whose terms will have expired in the meantime. King took over in mid-March, after an interim director headed the office following Drissel’s departure. In the six months since then, about 200 people have earned appointments. That pace will have to increase dramatically to fill this fall’s spaces.
“There are some names we already have that are in the pipeline,” says King. And when they’re done with those names, another third of the total positions will need to be filled during 2001.
To most people, city boards and commissions sound pretty obscure. After all, how much impact does some functionary sitting on the Gas Station Advisory Board really have on our lives?
But appointment disarray gums up important work. Last fall, months into Williams’ administration, the University of the District of Columbia board was missing so many members that it didn’t have the required quorum to meet.
The vacancies were a problem in April, when Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson issued a budget-oversight report that included concerns about the slow pace of some government appointments, like those for the Commission on Human Rights and the Public Employee Relations Board, which has a vacancy that dates back to December 1998. Although the report stated that many of the appointments were of a “high quality,” Patterson criticized the Office of Boards and Commissions for too often relying on a 180-day extension period for filling most posts “to compensate for lack of advance planning.”
Months later, the Commission on Human Rights still has two holes in its lineup. Even the 180-day grace period has lapsed for both of them. (The office forwarded a nomination for one of the posts two weeks ago, says a staffer for Patterson, but the D.C. Council can’t confirm the candidate until its summer recess ends.)
“It’s a continuing and ongoing problem to keep these boards and commissions up and running,” says Patterson. “I would think almost two years into the [Williams] administration, staffers would have their procedures better established.”
Kathleen McKirchy would think the same. An Occupational Safety and Health Board member, McKirchy says the body hasn’t met in more than a year because it lacks a chairperson to convene the meetings. An Office of Boards and Commissions staffer told her a nomination is on the way, but McKirchy hasn’t seen anyone yet. “I’ve been ranting and raving about it for some time,” says McKirchy.
In the office’s defense, mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong says staffers have worked diligently to fill the important decision-making boards. “The most critical positions are all current,” says Armstrong. “I’m not saying [the office is] perfectly up and running where we’d like it. It’s certainly not where it was when we came into office.”
Like many beleaguered city-government types, King says a new computer program will soon save the day. Until now, staffers had been plugging information into an outdated database and keeping track of expiration dates on paper or in their heads, says Drissel. Office stafferswho currently number five, including Kingare working out the kinks of a database that he says should keep better records on potential candidates and streamline the application process. “Certainly no offense or disrespect is intended if someone doesn’t get something back that’s timely,” says King.
But after nearly a year of waiting, Colameco isn’t interested anymore. “I don’t deter easily,” says Colameco. “For me to get this far and give up, that says a lot. I think I went through enough.” CP