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At a legislative meeting last Friday, At-Large Councilmember David Catania announced the results of his research on officer deployment at the Metropolitan Police Department. The councilmember complained that, under the leadership of Chief Charles Ramsey, the department had metastasized into a collection of specialized units, leaving few regular old beat cops to roam the city’s Patrol Service Areas (PSAs).
“We have the gang unit, and we have the one-armed-ax-murderer unit,” quipped Catania, “but we don’t have enough PSA officers to respond to calls.” After an afternoon of outrage from Catania and other councilmembers about allegedly insufficient police presence, the council mandated that Ramsey fashion a plan to place at least 60 percent of the department’s 3,500 officers on the street.
Depending on where you stand, Catania’s activism exemplifies either piercing legislative oversight or the kind of persnickety micromanagement that sends our top appointed officials in search of opportunities in other cities. That very conundrum—just how badly the council should hassle D.C. officials—has moved ahead of budget wrangling and criticizing control board cronyism as the No. 1 issue at One Judiciary Square.
One day before the council faced off against Ramsey, after all, D.C. Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman quit, citing “frustrations” with the “disrespect” shown her by the council in a recent budget hearing. In the wake of her departure, the city’s chattering class has picked up on the theme, blasting the council for micromanaging, nit-picking, and otherwise making life hard for hard-working city appointees.
That marks quite a change in tone. As recently as last week, Mayor Anthony A. Williams credited the legislature for being “aggressive.” “It has been said that this is the greatest council ever in our city,” said Williams at the re-election campaign kickoff of council ally Harold Brazil (At-Large). “And I have to agree.”
Williams—who’s been in D.C. politics for all of five years—is no Strom Thurmond, but he’s seen enough to remember why getting grilled by foes like Catania and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson beats the old status quo. Before the aggressive current batch took office, the D.C. councils of yore channeled their energies toward creating social programs whose administration they never bothered to check up on. Hence the 116 unexplained deaths of the city’s mentally retarded wards, the fiscal crises at D.C. General Hospital, the corps of court-appointed receivers now managing District safety-net functions, and, of course, the 1995 congressional imposition of an unelected financial control board to oversee the District.
Those breakdowns prompted calls for a new kind of D.C. legislator, one who would—first of all—show up for work, one who would call bureaucrats to account, and one who would turn up unannounced at the agencies to sample service delivery.
But now that we have a quorum of such types downtown, the city can’t seem to handle it. To wit:
* Parents United Executive Director Delabian Rice-Thurston, speaking on the D.C. Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin, asks Catania to apologize publicly for his tough questioning of Ackerman in the council chambers.
* Ackerman and her allies become livid about a Valentine’s Day oversight letter from Patterson containing 48 questions and 10 requests for information.
* Washington Post editorialist/op-ed columnist Colbert I. King skewers the council and others for “running Ms. Ackerman out of town” following her decision to take the superintendent job in San Francisco. (Note to this year’s council candidates: To secure Post endorsement, promise to ratchet down council’s zeal for oversight.)
At this rate, D.C. will secure congressional recognition of sissiehood before statehood. Hurt feelings, not powerful enemies, sent Ackerman out West. Take a look at the forces in her corner: Williams, who proposed a massive schools funding increase; the entire control board, which rules the city; and the Post, which co-rules the city. And consider her opponents: a few energized councilmembers and a band of loudmouthed parents. No wonder control board member Constance Newman told Ackerman she wasn’t tough enough to run an urban school system.
Ramsey, on the other hand, will likely fight back against prying councilmembers instead of looking for another employer who’ll coddle him. Already the chief has issued a strongly stated position paper to council Chairman Linda Cropp on PSA staffing. “Every Chief of Police must have the flexibility to manage and deploy police manpower,” wrote Ramsey. “This kind of micromanagement is not needed.”
The chief may be right on this one. One critic, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, launched her argument for more PSA officers with the description of a recent incident in which several passengers inside a moving vehicle in her ward fired shots at one another. Preventing that kind of disaster presumably would require a PSA officer in the back seat of every car.
The anti-meddling lobby has an influential ally in Cropp, who told her colleagues, “If I had the choice of being protected by you or the chief of police, I would choose the chief of police.” Ramsey’s objections ultimately prompted the council to dilute the original 60 percent mandate. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson even moved to delete command language in the Catania resolution by inserting the word “would” in two spots where the original said “shall.” Mendelson, you see, micromanages the micromanagers.
Ambrose, Catania, & Co., meanwhile, make their own powerful case against the chief, whose org chart looks like the handiwork of a United Nations bureaucrat. The council might ask Ramsey, for starters, about overlapping jurisdiction among the following offices: the Special Investigations Division, the Forensic Science Service Division, the Intelligence Unit, the Major Crash Investigations Division, the Financial Crimes and Fraud Division, the Environmental Crimes Division, the Gang Division, the Computer Fraud Division, the Bank/Hotel Robbery Division, and the Youth and Preventive Services Unit. Part of that last group is the department’s Boys and Girls Clubs, which are staffed by “about 17” able-bodied police officers, according to a department spokesperson.
Maybe Ramsey has a great reason why those officers are chasing down basketballs and dirty towels instead of thugs and hooligans; maybe he doesn’t. But the very painful point D.C. learned over the past 20 years—and which it seems to have forgotten in the week since Ackerman decided to leave—is that a public official like Ramsey should have to explain how those officers are serving the public. Let’s hope Ramsey doesn’t start looking for a new job just because he’s being forced to explain himself.
NOISE IN THE ‘HOOD
“Mahdi” Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. is quite proud of his seat on an advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) in Shaw. Whether the setting is a D.C. Council hearing, a phone call with a constituent, or a community meeting, Shawites always know when “Commissioner Thorpe” is pursuing his popular mandate. So enamored is Thorpe of officialdom, in fact, that in a recent voice-mail offering to LL, the commissioner identified himself as “Congressman Thorpe.”
“I’ve created a congressional district for myself in Shaw,” jokes the elected official.
Whatever his office, Thorpe desperately wants to keep it. So desperately—says Randy Wells, who has declared that he will run for Thorpe’s ANC seat—that he has allegedly opened a bizarre offensive against his likely opponent in the 2000 race. Wells contends that Thorpe has steered inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to Wells’ house and to an adjacent commercial property Wells also owns to bust him for housing-code violations.
“I’ve had more inspectors visit me in the past month than the entire 11 years I’ve lived in this city,” says Wells. “It’s not accidental.”
It’s not just the speedier cadence of visits from DCRA officials—seven in the past month—that has Wells convinced of Thorpe’s role. Rather, it’s a certain too-pesky coincidence: On April 18, a DCRA zoning inspector made house calls to check on rental accommodations not only at Wells’ property, but also at the place of his girlfriend, Ondine Wilhelm. “She lives in a different ward,” notes Wells, who thinks that Thorpe got Wilhelm’s address from the sign-in book at a Shaw community function.
ANC commissioners, of course, don’t have any official power to dispatch inspectors to specific properties. But when an attentive activist like
Thorpe calls with allegations about a nearby housing violation, DCRA surely listens.
As further evidence for his contention that Thorpe is behind his recent run-ins with DCRA, Wells cites an incident in which the commissioner allegedly taunted him. “Leroy on two occasions has approached me and said, ‘You’re a slumlord. You’ve got tickets against you.’ How would he know that?” asks Wells, who maintains that he and Wilhelm have never received any actual citations—only warnings.
When asked about Wells’ allegations, Thorpe responded, “Randy Wells? Who’s that? I don’t know any Randy Wells.”
“Mahdi” apparently doesn’t translate as “Mr. Memory.” It’s strange to imagine Thorpe’s forgetting that Wells ran against him for the ANC seat in 1996, losing by a margin of 68 percent to 30 percent. And in an April 21 Thorpe flier, he advised constituents to “[b]eware of an individual asking you to sign a petition for Armstrong School,” which Wells has been trying to turn into a community center. “This man has been fined by DCRA for trash violations,” the flier reads.
If DCRA is indeed letting itself be used, the real culprit is a management ill that no one ever would have thought possible at DCRA: over-responsiveness. “We get dozens of complaints a day, and we respond to them,” says DCRA Inspector Joseph Lewis.
And if whatever tips they’re getting about Wells turn out to be bogus complaints, say DCRA higher-ups, they’ll figure that out soon enough. “We don’t know that you [are motivated by] animosity if you call in a complaint,” says DCRA Neighborhood Stabilization Program Director Arla Scott. “But we figure out eventually that we’re being used.”
* Officially, Patterson and Jim Graham represent Wards 3 and 1. Have they also acquired constituents among landless Ghanaian farmers and other Third World victim-of-capitalism types?
Consider this: On May 3, council Chairman Cropp and Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis submitted a ceremonial resolution honoring the police chief for his “outstanding performance” in handling protesters at the April meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The resolution bought into the conventional hype that Ramsey’s subordinates acted like peace-loving angels and the protesters were overprivileged airheads.
Patterson and Graham were having none of it. Taking advantage of the council’s somnambulant treatment of ceremonial resolutions, the duo lent an air of official skepticism toward the department’s actions. Where Cropp and Jarvis wrote that the protesters “came to the District with the intention of shutting down the meetings of the world finance ministers,” Patterson and Graham amended: They’d come “to express their views.” And whereas the pro-Ramsey councilmembers commended the cops for having met “their goals of having the finance meetings occur without disruption,” the skeptics edited: “[T]here have been claims made by District residents and visitors that certain rights to assembly, freedom of movement and speech, and the right to speedy processing following arrest may have been violated and therefore these claims should receive a public airing.”
When asked about reports that her peers had no idea that she’d hijacked the resolution, Patterson grinned, saying, “I would never say that about my colleagues.”
Ramsey told LL that a resolution is “supposed to kind of congratulate you.” But “it won’t be hanging on my wall. I won’t even bother buying a frame,” the chief added.
* Last summer, Mayor Williams nearly provoked a recall movement when he declared that his office would limit its contributions to mayoral picnics in each ward to $400. Although the administration has since helped raise more funds for the events, some folks are still suffering from the mayor’s miserliness. Stephen Thompson, who operates a catering business from Players Lounge on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, supplied Southern grub for the last year’s Ward 7 picnic and has watched his bill for $3,400 languish in the mayor’s office for nearly a year.
“These are touchy negotiations, and I’d rather not comment on them,” says Thompson. Says a mayoral spokesperson: “We want to do the right thing, but there was some confusion as to whether there was an agreement made.” Good to know Williams treats caterers the same way he treats other politicians. CP
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