Rep. Ernest Istook, chair of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, customarily begins his hearings with a smile, a nod to the witnesses seated before him, and a brief, upbeat opening statement. So when Istook slammed his gavel Sept. 29 with an icy visage and tore into a Dostoyevsky-length monologue on the perils of medical marijuana, it was clear that he was pissed.
Istook could have channeled his angst toward 75,536 liberal-minded D.C. voters, who together gave the medical-marijuana proposal—known as Initiative 59—a 69 percent victory at the polls last November. But the Oklahoma Republican no doubt had nightmares of being engulfed in a smoke cloud puffed by a throng of Peter Tosh followers.
So he opted for an easier, more partisan set of targets: D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and President Bill Clinton. Together, these two “soft-on-drugs” politicos rejected the appropriations package advanced by Istook and his Republican cohorts—a bill loaded down with the customary panoply of “riders,” those nettlesome legislative tack-ons that mandate everything from AIDS policy to compliance with the Buy American Act. One of the riders, Istook’s favorite, would have killed the medical-marijuana initiative.
“I have decided to veto this bill,” said the president in a Sept. 28 statement, “because Congress has added a number of unacceptable riders that prevent local residents from making their own decisions about local matters.”
In a deft burst of colonialist thought, Istook wondered how the president could call “unacceptable” conditions under which D.C. residents have labored for years. “[T]his is the 28th consecutive year [some of the riders] have been included in the D.C. appropriations bill,” thundered Istook. “Of the riders, 21 were new and 51 were carry-overs. Of the seven [the president] claims are the reason for vetoing the bill, only one is new.”
The only new aspect of the appropriations package, Istook continued, was congressional largess. “We left alone and respected the budget of the mayor and the city council,” he said. “We added dollars which we had no obligation to add [emphasis Istook’s].”
The chair thus answered a question that has lingered since the Jan. 2 inauguration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams: How would Congress reward the city for getting over Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and replacing him with a manager who makes no waves on touchy matters of statehood and home rule?
The vaunted congressional good will, as it turns out, is redeemable for dollars—around $60 million—but not for democracy.
The Hill’s appropriators outfitted Williams with a reformist’s tool kit: funds for severance packages to usher the bureaucracy’s dead weight into retirement, funds for police crackdowns in troubled neighborhoods, and funds for a cleanup of the Anacostia River.
Funds, funds, and more funds. In the early ’30s or the late ’70s, Congress’ large allowance for D.C. would have constituted a magnanimous gesture to the inhabitants of its plantation. We are now, however, in the late ’90s, the boom time that prompted these selfsame legislators to propose an $800 billion tax cut.
Against that backdrop, $60 million is like an extra ration of cornbread at dinner.
As with all other funds in the D.C. budget, Congress has stipulated which policies the money cannot enact—like legal action in pursuit of voting rights, needle exchanges, and homosexual-couple adoptions. Those flashpoints clarify that control over social policy, not the generosity of the funding package, is where the power imbalance between the city and Congress manifests itself. No mayor—not Barry, not Williams, not Rudy Giuliani—and no amount of good management will change that.
In fending off charges that he’s trampling on home rule, Istook has obliquely alleged that his funding bill has won over the average District voter—a boast that rests on evidence that the D.C. Council never consented to Norton’s push for a veto. “I think the council would have loved to have had the chance to say yea or nay to a veto,” says council Chairman Linda Cropp, who confirmed that Norton did not consult her before issuing her veto appeal but merely extrapolated the council position from the various letters it had sent protesting the riders.
Of course, probing for dissent among the ranks of the powerless is classic autocratic behavior, and Istook does it as well as Mobutu Sese Seko: “Led by the Delegate from the District of Columbia, city officials went along—grudgingly in some cases, I know—and urged a veto.”
What he’s saying, believe it or not, is that Norton, our voteless congressional delegate, has too much power.
Bus service for special education students in the D.C. public schools is in a crisis worthy of Aeroflot, circa 1977. In Sept. 24 testimony before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, for example, Barnaby Terrace resident Jean Thompson complained that Laidlaw Transit Inc., the school system’s bus contractor, had left her 15-year-old wheelchair-confined son curbside in front of his school one day in September; he didn’t make it home until 7:30 p.m.
Glitches similar to Thompson’s actuated special ed watchdogs this summer to call on the school system to buy more buses and staff up the city’s 299 routes. In an Aug. 5 letter to Gene Shipman, acting associate superintendent for operations, attorney Tanya Harvey wrote, “I implore you and Superintendent [Arlene] Ackerman to address this very serious and immediate issue. [The system] cannot transport 1,000 more students than were transported this summer with only 54 more buses and no buses in reserve.” Harvey represents the special ed students who were involved in the successful 1995 class-action suit against the school system known as Petties vs. D.C.
Shipman simply ignored Harvey’s request, according to Beth Goodman, who also represents the Petties plaintiffs. “We received no response from Mr. Shipman, nor were additional buses ordered,” says Goodman, a lawyer with the downtown firm Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer, Fidell & Bank.
Whether Shipman was pushing for more buses or not, his position on the issue became clearer in late September, after he accepted a job as a “division manager” at Laidlaw—the very firm he had been charged with regulating. Among Shipman’s first duties in his new capacity was to draft a Sept. 30 letter to Ackerman requesting—surprise!—30 new buses, according to Laidlaw spokesperson Tracy Baynard. “We have alerted them to the number of buses needed,” says Baynard, “and now they are reviewing the information.”
Shipman-as-contractor may have better luck than Harvey in getting more special ed buses on the streets, but his revolving-door act doesn’t exactly hearten advocates. “The problem that we have is not that he went from the school system to Laidlaw,” says Goodman. “It’s that he was not responsive at the school system, so there’s no reason to believe his performance at Laidlaw will be helpful.”
When you’re entrusted with monitoring 78,000 students and a $630 million budget, your schedule can fill up pretty fast. For Superintendent Ackerman, the itinerary of community meetings and staff consultations has apparently gotten so crowded that she’ll have to skip all D.C. Council education oversight hearings for the rest of the year.
In September, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ Education Committee sent Ackerman a list of 12 hearings slated to cover everything from special ed to school uniforms. Ackerman has informed councilmembers that she has more pressing appointments.
We all make choices about what we do with our time,” says At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who has harped on the superintendent’s absence from recent education hearings. “I told her, ‘I don’t see you, and you’re the only continuum of responsibility in the school system,’” continued Catania, referring to the Balkanized oversight of the city’s public schools. Catania reports that Ackerman presented her excuses for blowing off the council in a private meeting last week.
Channel 16 didn’t send a cameraman to chronicle that exchange.
In response to an inquiry from LL, Ackerman spokesperson Devonya Smith notes that Chavous lined up his hearings without consulting with the superintendent. “The hearings happen to conflict with long-standing appointments,” says Smith.
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz said the superintendent’s stay-away policy is raising the specter of a council subpoena—an extreme tactic last used against testimony-averse Wilson Building developer T Conrad Monts. “We do have the ability,” says Schwartz. One way or another, adds Chavous, “[Ackerman] will be attending.”
The imperative of putting Ackerman before the council has recently taken on greater urgency in light of the school system’s sluggish responses to interrogatories from Chavous’ committee. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, for one, would be happy to excuse Ackerman from the council chambers so long as she lifted her embargo on publicly available information. “Earlier this year—in January or February—we tried to find out the start date of school,” says Patterson, “and it was suggested by someone in the superintendent’s office that we submit a [Freedom of Information Act request].”
* Rep. Istook wasn’t pleased to learn the results of the District’s successful medical marijuana initiative. On the very day that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics announced that 69 percent of D.C. ballot casters last November voted in favor of Initiative 59, Istook released a statement interpreting its inevitable sociocultural impact: “Late-night TV will never let us hear the end of this,” said the congressman.
Well, perhaps the Oklahoman should stick to sticking up for the guys and gals in ten-gallon hats and bag his career as comedy reviewer.
Says a spokesperson for David Letterman, the host of CBS’s Late Show: “He hasn’t made any jokes about that. He’s focusing on jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton and Dan Quayle—you know, all that other stuff.” A spokesperson for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show didn’t return a call for comment.
* Last Wednesday night, a Nerf basketball disrupted a meeting between Williams and his Commission on Violence Against Women, aka “the violence commission.” The errant toss was traced to mayoral Legal Counsel Max Brown and a couple of office mates, who were enjoying a light moment after working hours. The moment grew lighter when Denise Snyder, a commission member and executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, whipped the ball back into the field of play. It hit Brown straight in the face. “There’s a lot of people who’d pay a lot of money to throw that ball,” jokes Brown.
* Skeptical councilmembers mustered last week for an informational meeting hosted by the Williams folks on funding plans for Cora Masters Lady MacBarry’s Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. Williams was proposing to contract with MacBarry’s nonprofit Recreation Wish List Committee to build a $5 million center financed almost entirely by taxpayer dollars. That incongruity prompted Patterson to ask why Wish List would appear at all on the contracting documents.
Elliott Branch, the recently appointed D.C. procurement chief, responded that MacBarry’s group “essentially holds the intellectual property” for the tennis center and has already established ties with subcontractors and service providers. The jargon didn’t impress Patterson. “I have heard no compelling reason why the District should contract with Wish List,” said the two-term councilmember before the vote. “And I see no reason as to why the Procurement Practices Act should be waived.” The Ward 3 Democrat proved unable to sway most of her colleagues. When the council voted Tuesday, only Schwartz joined her in voting against the politically powerful former first lady’s project.
* Earlier this year, Mayor Williams treated the council with about as much deference as a defunct advisory neighborhood commission, ignoring the panel in his myopic drive to reform the D.C. government before Easter. After a period of repentance, Williams this summer pledged a thaw at One Judiciary Square and seemingly credited each of the council’s 13 members—for something or other—by name at every one of his public appearances. This week provided another example of upgraded mayoral diplomacy, not to mention vastly improved calendar-reading skills: On Tuesday, Williams sent birthday flowers to council Chairman Cropp. CP
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