City Paper is not for tourists
Ever since he announced his budget plan for fiscal year 2001, on March 13, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has done little to inspire confidence within the 13-member D.C. Council. The council, for starters, furrowed its collective brow when the mayor claimed that his magical government reforms would save the city $62 million in one year.
In his press conference launching the budget, Williams merely deepened the skepticism. “The $62 million that we have in here is a conservative estimate….I’m the mayor—I ought to be able to achieve some savings,” said Williams.
In the week since, the mayor and his aides have achieved some ridicule, instead. First, they handed out a memo purporting to describe the administration’s philosophy on budgetary savings: “We will build a fence on the cliff to save the cost of an ambulance in the valley,” read the memo, coining a metaphor that’s a touch strained for D.C.’s low-lying topography. Unless, that is, the metaphor was a reference to how hard it is for ambulances—and other vehicles—to traverse the city’s cable-torn streets.
Next, Williams aides showed up unprepared for their annual grilling before the full council. On virtually every key budget topic raised by councilmembers—the management savings, spending of tobacco settlement funds, and revenue projections—mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer and his sidekicks proffered flimsy answers or nothing at all.
At-Large Councilmember David Catania twice stumped the panel on the budget’s undersized revenue projections. Like many of his colleagues, Catania attributes the revenue-tinkering to a secret pact between the mayor and control board Chair Alice Rivlin to thwart the council’s plans for further tax cuts. When asked about the shortfall, the panel sat in dumbfounded silence, its members looking at one another with their palms to the sky.
Ever impatient, Catania broke the lull: “I’m on the clock, gentlemen.”
So, too, are the workers of the Williams administration—whether they know it or not. After reviewing the administration’s performance last week, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson called upon the mayor to withdraw and resubmit his budget plan. In separate letters to council Chairman Linda Cropp, the two councilmembers dwelt on the improbability of the mayor’s savings projections.
On March 21, Cropp, in full wishy-washy mode, advanced a less radical alternative to the Evans-Patterson proposal. In a letter to the mayor, she asked the administration to submit a budget amendment accounting for the projected savings. Ten other councilmembers signed the letter.
The letter proved once again that the confrontation-averse Cropp can always be relied upon to save Williams from abject embarrassment. But it also capped a dreadful week that exposed the 11th floor as a messy refuge for the type of managers Williams pledged to oust with a “shovel, not a broom.” Oops, that was former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
In his broadside at the administration, for instance, Evans suggested that cleaning up the mayor’s budget proposal is janitorial duty beneath the council. “This document, in its current form, needs an enormous amount of work by the executive,” wrote Evans.
Here’s the scary part: The budget document is already the product of an enormous amount of work. The mayor’s office got busy on this year’s budget package almost as soon as last year’s equally embarrassing set-to with the council concluded. Months of planning and PR work went into the November 1999 “Neighborhood Action” summit, in which 3,000 locals voted on their civic priorities. Williams downloaded the summit’s results into his budget plan.
And instead of presenting his budget to the council as a fait accompli—the reigning strategy in 1999—the mayor previewed his proposals in private sessions with nearly every councilmember this year.
Taken together, the mayor’s citizen summitry and council-stroking mark a departure from standard Williams administration behavior: This time, the mayor did a masterful job of playing politics, overcoming a longstanding liability that has caused him numerous well-publicized fiascoes. But at the same time, he failed to do what he once excelled at: to present airtight, gimmick-free numbers to the public.
A leading accomplice in the second consecutive bungled budget presentation is Valerie Holt, the controversial Rivlin protegee Williams named chief financial officer last spring. Rather than forking over the finished budget numbers a mayor needs, Holt has spent her time justifying the delayed release of her city audit, fighting councilmembers’ attempts to get her fired, and otherwise cementing the inept record she first acquired while serving as D.C.’s controller while Kelly ran up a record-breaking budget deficit.
The Evans-Patterson “take it back” campaign, pace the gripes of Williams backers, doesn’t arise from any political animosity the fiscally conservative Northwest councilmembers may bear toward the fiscally conservative Northwest-resident mayor. After all, Williams hasn’t hatched a secret plan to install more traffic signals in Dupont Circle, nor has he vowed to “end leaf collection as we know it” in Friendship Heights. He has invited councilmembers to his public events and systematically proceeded to kiss their asses. The councilmembers’ beef is not with mayoral protocol; it resides, instead, within the margins of Williams’ FY 2001 Proposed Operating Budget and Financial Plan.
The $62 million in proposed savings, for example, breaks out like this: $37 million from management-reform efforts, $15 million from a mayoral program called “risk management,” and $10 million from “operational improvements,” aka managed competition. When asked which category presents the most legitimate shot at delivering on mayoral promises, Patterson demurred, “That’s a real challenge, because there’s no specificity in any of the three areas. Last year, we budgeted $10 million for management-reform savings and got none, and we were promised $30 million in savings from managed competition and got none.”
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has trouble mustering the outrage of colleagues Evans, Patterson, and Catania. “Why can’t we work with what we’ve got?” asks Graham, who told LL he wanted to “speak personally with the mayor” before declaring his position on the most recent budgetary machinations.
Graham’s words convey the payoff that Williams’ newfound political openness is generating. Since the councilmember was consulted privately about the budget, he is eager to return the favor. And there’s another set of calculations that the Williams people have forced on Graham et al.: Fidgeting about management savings could be interpreted as opposing the most aggressive education-reform campaign since home rule. “If we don’t agree with him and spend money that we do not have, it’s a political issue for us,” says Patterson.
The delay in producing the city’s audit for fiscal year 1999 has evolved from a serious public issue into a running stand-up gag. On March 13, Holt told reporters that the audit should be available “soon.” When asked whether “soon” was measured in days or weeks, Holt declined to specify.
By congressional mandate, the deadline for the audit is Feb. 1; when Holt realized she couldn’t make that date, she promised to meet a new goal of March 15. With that deadline dutifully missed, she is starting to act as if the audit were her doctoral dissertation. Right now, there is no new target date for the document. “It may be [ready] next week,” says Lucy Murray, Holt’s spokesperson.
The glitch is that the city still can’t reconcile its cash accounts—an operation akin to balancing your checkbook every month. The scramble to complete this bit of basic accounting has spawned a low-level public feud between Holt and principals at Mitchell & Titus LLP, the firm in charge of analyzing the numbers. Last week, Mitchell & Titus managing partner Gregory Holloway slighted Holt for failing to provide documentation on $40 million in cash discrepancies. Holt responded in a letter so thick with minutiae that LL had trouble finding a passage to quote. Perhaps this throwaway line will do: “I look forward to working with you in a mutually supportive manner to bring closure to the audit…”
Holt has at least one good motivation to postpone that very closure: The minute she hands the audit off, chances are she’ll get the ax.
The squabbling between Holt and her auditors continued in a recent conference call with all stakeholders—control board staffers, D.C.’s inspector general, the council, the CFO, and staffers from Mitchell & Titus. The auditors announced that they had sent Holt critical information on the project—a declaration that the CFO regarded with skepticism. “From that point on,” recalls a source who overhead the spat, “it went like this: ‘No, you didn’t,’ ‘Yes, we did,’ ‘No, you didn’t,’ ‘Yes, we did.’” Just as the third round was commencing, control board Executive Director Francis Smith intervened. “It was so embarrassing,” says another conference call participant.
* As any good preacher will tell you, no problem is too small or trifling for God. If you keep the faith and follow the Bible, most Christians say, you can get help from the Almighty on just about anything.
LL, however, is calling for a full-fledged theological conference on how much energy God can devote to the highly bureaucratic crises at a lowly D.C. government quasi-independent agency—specifically, the Public Benefit Corp. (PBC), which oversees D.C. General Hospital.
This timeless issue requires immediate attention because D.C. General employees learned earlier this month that their institutional problems may be too great for the secular D.C. Council and Mayor Williams. A flier distributed widely among hospital staff implored workers to observe the following prayers:
* “Dear Lord, thank you that while we in the Administration are resting in you, you are working the perfect solution to these Medical/Dental Staff issues and thou can not fail.”
* “Dear Lord, thank you that the PBC is in compliance with [the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations].”
* “Dear Lord, thank you that the PBC’s FY ’99 Budget is balanced and that we are in JCAHO compliance.”
A PBC employee interpreted the fliers as a sign that Christian fundamentalists are infiltrating hospital management. “The papers were pasted all over the walls and the elevators,” says the employee. (LL is more offended by the secularization of text from the Church of the Holy Acronyms.)
PBC spokesperson Dee Hunter said the prayer sheet was the work of an “individual employee,” not PBC management. And Hunter scoffed at staffers who complained about it, insisting that they were just out to “embarrass us.” Sounds like grounds for a fourth prayer line: “Dear Lord, protect us from disgruntled low-level bureaucrats.”
* Next time Mayor Williams chafes over the D.C. government’s ever-escalating personnel costs, he can pick up the phone and vent his rage on embattled Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Vanessa Dale Burns. Two weeks ago, LL chronicled Burns’ illegal use of a city-owned SUV and a driver to ferry her back and forth to work. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the department this week revealed that Burns’ designated driver, Kevin Glover, has racked up more than $3,200 in overtime pay since last September as the director’s chauffeur.
Linda Grant, Burns’ spokesperson, attributed the overtime to Glover’s attendance at nighttime community meetings. “That’s how his time was spent,” says Grant. The records tell a different story: In six of the most recent 12 pay periods, DPW offers no justification whatsoever for keeping Glover on duty past quitting time.
* The Williams administration has apparently decided that having one married couple in the cabinet—DMV Director Sherryl Hobbs Newman and Department of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman—is quite enough. The mayor’s minions, after all, recently turned down Dawn Kum, wife of Department of Health Director Ivan C.A. Walks, for a position in education policy. According to two administration sources, there was no such position available when Kum applied.
Kum, to her credit, realized that this is D.C., where there’s more than one destination for an education-policy wonk. So she tried to interest D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in granting her a similar position at schools HQ on North Capitol Street. Although Ackerman had the same personnel constraints as the Williams camp—that is, all policy positions were filled—she created a slot just for Kum: executive director of governmental policy and external relations. “Mrs. Ackerman was committed to seeing to it that all external processes had a central person,” says Kum. God forbid she hire a peripheral person.
* The latest issue of the Ward 2 Democrat newsletter celebrates the achievements of Shaw resident Deering “Tip” Kendrick. In its “Democratic Spotlight” column, the publication announces that Kendrick has been elected to the board of trustees of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the D.C. Preservation League, as well. “Wow,” gushes the newsletter.
One complication: Kendrick is a Republican. Bud Lane, chair of the Ward 2 Democrats, says there’s no reason to deprive the GOP of a little publicity here and there. “Right now, they’re toothless, so we can afford to be generous,” he says. CP
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