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The marathon D.C. Council debate on the future of the city’s school board reached its climax Thursday, Feb. 17, during a windy monologue by Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. After describing how hard he had worked on the contentious issue, the two-term councilmember and education committee chair told everyone just how he felt about the proposal—to establish a hybrid of the traditional elected board favored by councilmembers and the appointed one championed by the mayor—that sat in front of him.
“I want to vote against this with all my heart and soul,” said Chavous.
Then he caved: “But I can’t.”
The councilmember’s attempt to stake out both sides of the debate might have been forgivable if he hadn’t slighted anonymous parties for “duplicity,” “lack of integrity,” and “sticking up their finger to see which way the wind is blowing.” If Sigmund Freud had been there, he might have concluded that Chavous was just scolding himself for the cowardly vote he was about to cast.
On one score, though, Chavous distinguished himself from the six fellow councilmembers who helped place the hybrid proposal on the ballot for a referendum later this year: He at least admitted that his vote was a heartless surrender to political expediency. The others—Chairman Linda Cropp, Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6), Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Jim Graham (Ward 1), and Carol Schwartz (At Large)—used every possible rhetorical distraction to avoid acknowledging the pusillanimity in the compromise plan. “The leaders of this city made a decision,” said Jarvis after the vote. “That’s what you elected us for.”
Sure, with one caveat: We want good decisions. A resolution declaring that what the council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams are serving is an utter loser would itself probably fetch a 12-1 council majority (see chart). Instead of choosing between two real proposals—a fully elected or a fully appointed board, that is—they shoved through a plan that is “hybrid” mainly in the sense that it borrows the worst from all competing proposals.
“I want to thank the mayor for being willing to compromise,” said Schwartz at a press conference after the vote. “Nobody feels all good, and nobody feels all bad.”
Except, perhaps, the public. The double-talking and dissembling dished out by Cropp & Co. demonstrate that the bad old days of D.C. governance are sneaking up on us like rumors about a 2000 council run by Mayor-for Life Marion S. Barry Jr. It was a compromise, after all, that gave us the Wilson Building crisis, and it was a series of compromises that funded the city’s mid-’90s deficits. In this sequel, all that was missing was an incoherent statement or two from the likes of Harry Thomas or Hilda H.M. Mason, plus a chunk of plaster falling from the ceiling of the council’s former digs.
The scene at the “new” council chambers last week clarified that the monthslong machinations over schools oversight had lost their place in the civic attention span. Media and government employees aside, there were 12 people watching the proceedings, a turnout more appropriate for appointee confirmations on the Public Employee Relations Board.
And who could blame the public for tuning out? For starters, “school governance” is the most boring issue to hit the city since tax-increment financing. And the debate’s been droning on since last summer, making LL feel as though he’d spent six months in confinement with minutiae-mining At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson.
By LL’s best estimation, city leaders lost their audience with the voters about five flip-flops ago. To recap: After a series of fall hearings, Chavous late last year advanced a plan to shrink the elected school board and change how its members were elected. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, meanwhile, advanced a bill for an appointed board. Ambrose put forth a hybrid configuration. Noting that the most popular of the three proposals—Chavous’—didn’t radically revise schools oversight, Williams added a takeover proposal of his own on Jan. 5 (public interest level: confused).
A few weeks later, the council and the mayor reached an apparent compromise on a hybrid panel, but Williams bagged out at the last minute (public interest level: sagging). The council then resolved to put the issue directly to the voters by placing both extremes on a referendum ballot (public interest level: dying). Control board Chair Alice Rivlin intervened, directing elected leaders to settle on one option. Williams and seven councilmembers thereupon discovered new appeal in the hybrid approach (public interest level: dust).
The postvote press conference yielded plenty of evidence that the council itself doesn’t believe in the plan enough to push it through a referendum this fall. In addition to conceding the plan’s deficiencies, Schwartz even played up a sunset provision that would retire the two-headed monster after four years if the council issued a vote of no confidence. “This is the only way I would compromise—with a four-year window of opportunity,” said the councilmember.
Phase-out plans receive top billing only when the schemes they’re attached to are bogus.
To justify his support for the hybrid, Graham harped on what he called the sole consensus point: “There has been one constant—and that is that what we have in place right now isn’t working. We have to change what we have now.” LL couldn’t tell whether Graham was referring to the control board’s farcical appointed Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees—a panel of lackeys for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman—or to the elected Board of Education—the equally farcical panel that has discredited schools oversight for more than 30 years.
If Graham meant the latter, he should have considered the implications of his own plan. After all, the schools will return to the status quo if the voters reject the council plan at the ballot box—an outcome that would have been less likely if the ballot had included a choice between elected and appointed options.
Although questions like those hung in the air, Graham and his council colleagues plowed ahead, proud to have united around such a bad idea.
The hybrid vote was a bellwether event in D.C. politics, not for what it’ll do to straighten out the schools, but for what it says about how the city is now governed. On one front, the school negotiations confirmed that the pattern of double-dealing on the part of Williams can no longer be dismissed as the twitches of a neophyte politician. Instead, it is a character flaw that will preoccupy anyone—from labor to the council to Congress—who sits down to talk business with the mayor. The chief executive’s string of last-minute betrayals—the vitriolic backflip on last year’s tax-cut plan, the abandoning of his agreement to co-sponsor the appointed board plan with Patterson, and now this—will precede him to the table.
In the council chambers, meanwhile, the school debacle exposes the limitations of Cropp’s leadership. The chairman has thrived in the inevitable comparisons with predecessor Dave Clarke, a tendentious quibbler who divided the council and permitted years of fiduciary misfeasance. Cropp replaced Clarke’s excesses with http://www.bland.gov, a leadership style that values consensus and harmony above all else, including sound public policy. In her own words: “The art of governing is negotiation and compromise.” When asked why she didn’t rally her colleagues around her preference, Cropp replied, “There was no vote for an all-elected body.”
Lest D.C. voters get too depressed over the council’s cowardly actions, there’s always At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil. Although Brazil wisely voted against the bill and issued a nice critique of the plan, he showed up at the press conference for the winning side. When asked why he had shown up, the councilmember replied, “I just heard there was a press conference.”
In his remarks to the press, Brazil noted, “I was on the minority team, but if I had known how it would turn out, I would have joined [the majority] earlier.”
Last Nov. 9, Rohulamin Quander, the mayor’s agent for historic preservation, issued an order barring the Archdiocese of Washington from proceeding with the demolition of seven historic buildings on the 900 block of F Street NW. The ruling was nicely written, well reasoned, and…nearly two months late.
The old D.C. placed just this sort of low priority on prompt regulatory decisions; developers grew accustomed to waiting years for rulings from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and administrative law judges like Quander. These days, however, the government pays a price for missing deadlines. Under a series of 1998 regulatory-reform amendments, Quander had 60 days to issue a ruling; failure to act within that time frame, under D.C. law, amounts to automatic approval of the demolition request.
The archdiocese no doubt appreciates its release from bureaucratic purgatory: Thanks to Quander’s delay, his decision to save the buildings was rendered moot (“Raze Be to God,” 7/30/99; Artifacts, 2/18). On Jan. 31, DCRA issued raze permits, and preservationists have been told that the archdiocese needs just a few additional authorizations before letting the wrecking ball fly. Andrea Ferster, an attorney representing the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, has threatened to sue DCRA if it allows the demolition to proceed.
None of the pro-preservation litigation would be necessary, of course, if Quander hadn’t done such an effective imitation of a philosophy-Ph.D. candidate. In his November ruling, Quander even did some proactive ass-covering, citing the following excuses for the date on his order: “extensive administrative changes” in his office, “limited…staff,” and turnover in the post of DCRA’s chief administrative judge.
In other words, working conditions standard for any government office.
Quander’s tardiness prompted rumors that he had been reprimanded by DCRA brass—an allegation that agency spokesperson Jacqueline Wallace declines to address. “He’s still here on staff,” says Wallace, adding that she can’t comment on the reprimand rumors because “it’s a personnel matter.”
But if Quander’s block-destroying blunder gets off unscathed, the administration may have some explaining to do. After all, simply forgetting to meet costly deadlines was just the kind of thing Williams campaigned against back in 1998. Administration sources, though, are tight-lipped about just why the administrative law judge should be allowed to remain in his job. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price blames an unexplained “breakdown in communication” for Quander’s lack of compliance with the very statutes he is supposed to administer.
Ferster, for one, won’t fault Quander for his ruling. “It was remarkably expeditious, when one considers the complexity of the case, the issues, and the number of witnesses,” says Ferster, who argues that developers will overload the mayor’s agent with cases to ensure automatic approvals in the future.
That’s certainly possible, but it’s not an excuse available to Quander. Sorting out complex issues on a deadline is his job—and he whiffed on what is arguably the most critical preservation case that the downtown historic district has ever faced.
Ward 8 rabble-rouser and construction contractor Cardell Shelton must have missed the Feb. 13 Washington Post poll showing a 77 percent approval rating for Mayor Williams. A veteran of two mayoral recall campaigns—against Sharon Pratt Kelly and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.—Shelton is threatening a third against D.C.’s current mayor. This time, Shelton’s rallying cry is not general ineptitude (in Kelly’s case) or bad treatment of taxi drivers (Barry’s offense), but the administration’s refusal to pay his invoices.
Shelton claims the city treasury owes him $18,000 for his work in launching a pilot program to supervise disadvantaged youths in rehabbing a pair of dilapidated homes in Northeast. The program, he says, was moving right along until last August, when Department of Housing and Community Development Director Othello Mahone killed it. Shelton dutifully packed up his tools but insisted on payment for services rendered. Paul Savage, one of Mahone’s deputies, says that the two sides are trying to reach an accommodation this week.
Failing that, Shelton will get busy organizing his 23 percent market share of Williams detractors. D.C.’s mutineers, though, shouldn’t be on the lookout for Shelton’s trademark camouflage pickup truck, which crisscrossed the city on behalf of Barry’s recall. “I’m going to use the van on this one,” says Shelton. “The exhaust pipe is off the pickup, so you can’t hear me talk.”CP
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Sharon AmbroseKevin ChavousLinda CroppJack EvansKathy PattersonHarold Brazil
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Jim GrahamPhil Mendelson
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