About the only action item left for D.C.’s elected school board is determining which member will deliver its eulogy. First seated by act of Congress in 1968, temporarily suspended by the control board in 1996, the city’s oldest elected body—in its original form, at least—passed away this fall, even as the city officially debated its future. Just months before the board is to regain the powers an appointed emergency body has held for the past three years, everyone has an opinion on the future of educational governance. It’s just that none of those opinions favor the board as we know it.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous has proposed downsizing the panel from 11 members to 9 members to promote greater board unity. Mayor Anthony A. Williams favors unspecified shrinkage. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson wants to go even further—ditching the elected membership in favor of an appointed panel of just five members, the better to ensure that the board is “accountable” to someone.
And Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose is drafting a hybrid of the Chavous and Patterson proposals—primarily because she says District voters won’t go for a fully appointed board.
Their differences notwithstanding, all three councilmembers are striving for the same goal: Oust the nincompoops.
There are, of course, other routes to the same destination. Try, for example, rewording the city’s home rule charter thus: “The voters of the District of Columbia shall elect 11 members to the Board of Education, none of whom shall be nincompoops.”
Enforcement, of course, is another matter. LL favors requiring all elected candidates secure “non-nincompoop” certification from a Star Chamber headed by…LL. Certificates would be issued only after background checks ferreted out incidents of throwing water pitchers at meetings, race-baiting, asking for lavish perks, and defrocking colleagues for petty offenses.
The current elected school board is guilty of all those offenses, having compiled a record of futility and discord whose wreckage reaches far beyond D.C.’s public schools. The resulting public antipathy toward the board has provided cover for Chavous, Patterson, and Ambrose to entertain a notion unthinkable a decade ago—namely, “reinventing” the home rule movement’s first institutional achievement out of existence.
Squaring off against that legacy is most awkward for Chavous, the guy who spent most of last year hammering rival mayoral candidate Williams for brokering home-rule-trampling accords in the back rooms of Congress. At the polls, the city’s pro-democracy vote turned out in favor of its statehood champion. “One would expect to be able to hold Kevin Chavous to democratic standards,” says Tim Cooper, executive director of Democracy First, a local group that rallies for complete democracy for the District.
On paper anyway, Chavous’ democracy credentials are intact. His proposal doesn’t advocate appointing school board members, but rather selecting them through an abstruse citywide election process designed to water down the power of “parochial” ward interests.
By opening the docket, however, Chavous invited competing bills less respectful of pure elective democracy. His colleagues are now sending in their RSVPs. “He kicked off the debate,” says Patterson, who commends her colleague for bringing political attention to school governance. Cooper withholds the encomiums. “He opened the Pandora’s box,” he says.
Nationally, however, that box has been open for years. In bastions of rowdy civic democracy like New York and Boston, elected local and state executives have warred with local school boards, using buzzwords remarkably similar to D.C.’s: “accountability,” “expertise,” and “reform.” The political tide has turned against direct democracy in schools management. It just took the District—where the school board has an emotional, historic resonance—a little bit longer to succumb to the trend.
Curtailing grass-roots democracy holds little political peril for Chavous, Patterson, or Ambrose for other reasons, too. Last year’s election showed that a D.C.-democracy platform alone fetches few votes, no money, and a lot of righteous-sounding pamphlets. As of the Board of Election’s most recent counting, only 3,626 of the city’s 325,000 registered voters identified with the D.C. Statehood/Green Party. Asked on a survey to choose among six civic priorities, attendees at Mayor Williams’ recent Neighborhood Action summit put voting rights dead last, with a 8 percent showing—good enough to edge out only one category: “Other.”
With no political muscle, the statehooders will have to rely on political theory—their specialty—to beat back an appointed school board. They could point out that the panel’s problems stem from a candidate pool depleted by the desertion of the public schools for charter programs and private alternatives. And they could argue that a powerless, demoralized board with no mission was bound to self-destruct.
Better yet, they could trumpet democracy’s greatest triumph yet: Free elections are, to date, the only proven way of keeping career candidate/ ankle-biter Bob Artisst from gaining a seat on the school board.
Perhaps those arguments will resonate more forcefully with regular D.C. citizens, who must approve any school board changes in a referendum, than with councilmembers. When asked whether she feared that her proposal would prompt a backlash from the democracy lobby, Patterson started chuckling. “Perhaps they view me as a lost cause,” she said.
Tough-talking Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Vanessa Dale Burns can manufacture a scowl fierce enough to inspire industry in the city’s laziest tree crews. That very look was on display at a November press conference rolling out
traffic-control initiatives designed to show the mayor as a champion of responsive services.
Burns boasted of a strong record against companies inclined to cut corners on obeying regulations governing utility cuts in city streets. “We’ll shut you down,” said Burns to a bank of cameras parked at the corner of 17th and I Streets NW. “That’s enforcement. That’s what we do.”
Well, actually, that’s not what they do, according to Burns’ very own records.
Following the director’s statement, LL asked DPW spokesperson Linda Grant for a list of companies busted by DPW’s enforcement arm along with an accounting of the penalties imposed against them. Grant replied that disclosing such information conflicted with “department policy,” because companies may appeal the fines.
DPW’s stiff-arm prompted a full pat-down by LL’s investigative team into all enforcement actions taken by DPW in recent years. In a Freedom of Information Act request, LL demanded records of all fines, tickets, and correspondence related thereto. To accommodate the anticipated heap of paperwork, LL cleared his shoulder bag of all kinds of municipal detritus, including Harold Brazil circulars, the mayor’s famous short-term action charts, and various spreadsheets containing LL’s preliminary fiscal 2001 budget calculations.
No need. “[P]lease be advised that the Department has no records of tickets issued or fines imposed regarding right-of-way utility cuts,” read a Dec. 2 letter from DPW FOIA Officer Emma Clark. Now there’s a paperless office for you.
But over the past two years, says Grant, the department has issued 197 permits for utility cuts—authorizing the very potholes, sinkholes, and protuberances that have vaulted right-of-way cuts to the top of the public consciousness. Not a single instance of shabby road-repair work has merited a $300 public-space fine from DPW’s allegedly hardassed inspectors.
In its defense, the department insists that it has ordered three companies—PEPCO, Level 3, and MetroMedia Fiber Network—to stop work pending correction of faulty roadwork. Of course, DPW has no documents to support such a claim and some brusque denials by the companies to undermine it.
“No, never,” responded Level 3’s Larry Pion when asked whether DPW had ordered his crews to halt work. And even if the department had issued verbal orders to abandon a job, it admits that it has never revoked a right-of-way permit—the technical term for Burns’ claim of “shutting down” projects.
DPW’s laxity in the face of scarred streets confirms what D.C. residents have long suspected: that the city is riding shotgun with fiber optic technology companies, while leaving motorists to steer out of harm’s right-of-way. Although Williams has pledged to put more utility-cut inspectors on the streets, bona fide enforcement requires not just personnel but also the backbone to slap citations on scofflaws.
“The technology companies are operating with just total impunity,” says Councilmember Ambrose.
If politicians on Capitol Hill and One Judiciary Square have acquired one skill over the years, it’s recognizing a nice, plump slush fund. In the District’s budget act for fiscal year 1999, Congress created a $50 million fund for D.C. infrastructure projects—streets, roads, bridges, and the like—and also for the loosely defined goal of “economic development.”
Because approval of the funds straddled the administrations of Suspect-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and Mayor Williams, the $50 million sat untouched for most of this year. Until, that is, Republican Virginia Rep. Tom Davis found a suitable application for a scoop from the honey pot. Davis attempted to steer $7 million of the funds for environmental cleanup costs around the District’s Lorton Correctional Complex, which sits atop land that will revert to Fairfax County by 2002. Residential development of Lorton has long been a pet project of Davis’—and a nice piece of “economic development” for Fairfax County.
“There were tens of millions of dollars in that fund that were not obligated,” says Davis spokesperson David Marin.
That argument didn’t persuade D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “He said, ‘We’re gonna take the money, but we’ll replace it,’ and I said, ‘I must have gotten in the Congress yesterday, because these people can’t replace anything.’…I had to chase these people off this money.”
Davis found another funding source for his soil project, leaving other pols to chase for a piece of the pie. Here’s the quick and dirty:
* Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who lives in a boat on the Southwest waterfront, lobbied for a chunk to clean up the Anacostia River, one of his favorite cruising spots. Price tag: $5 million.
* Mayor Williams wanted a cool $4.5 million to fund the District’s millennial celebration. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), chair of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, deemed a New Year’s party insufficiently infrastructural to qualify for the funds.
* Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis and her council colleagues have asked for a number of goodies out of the fund, including promotion of home purchases and special funds for Ledroit Park, Petworth, and Columbia Heights.
Through it all, not a penny of the money has yet been spent. Istook is still holding up the funds over objections to Jarvis’ housing and neighborhood-development projects. “Housing doesn’t qualify as infrastructure, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as economic development,” says a Capitol Hill source.
* Staffers in Mayor Williams’ Office of Planning and Economic Development probably didn’t expect rough treatment from their new boss, Eric Price, who left a position with the AFL-CIO to fill Doug Patton’s position. While Price wanted to install his own people in the office, in mid-November he told three Patton holdovers—Mary Rudolph, Rose Matthews, and Lindsley Williams—that they would have until early January to find new jobs. On Dec. 1, however, Price ditched the laborite approach to office relations: Matthews and Williams were given two days to clear out, while Rudolph would have until Dec. 10. The dismissal shocked the staffers, who were under the impression that Williams had barred layoffs in the holiday season. “Ho, ho, ho!” said Rudolph.
* Speaking of the holidays, ’tis the season for insecure incumbent councilmembers to show signs of desperation over challenges to their seats in next year’s elections. Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen has drafted freelance money man Kerry Pearson to host a fundraiser for her exploratory committee examining the 2000 race. And Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans commissioned longtime Barry pollster Diane Feldman to gauge his prospects against potential opponents Westy Byrd and Beth Solomon. The shocking results? Byrd has a weak 36 percent name recognition in the ward and Solomon a nonexistent 10 percent, according to Evans’ own report. “I feel good about where we’re situated,” says the Ward 2 councilmember. CP
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