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Westy Byrd’s years as a Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner apparently didn’t teach her much about coalition building. On June 25, as the whole city now knows, Ward 2’s current school board rep caught board President Wilma Harvey (Ward 1) allegedly having a staffer make personal travel arrangements for her. A sad denouement played itself out on July 22, when Byrd and five colleagues voted to oust Harvey from the presidency. Harvey is now vowing to sue, and a consensus is emerging among D.C.’s political and media elite that the elected school board ought to be abolished.
Through 14 years on the board, Harvey developed a well-documented soft spot for the perks of public office. The “scandal” that Byrd witnessed, however, merits neither her Office of Campaign Finance complaint, nor the palace coup, nor the citywide ridicule that has accompanied the dust-up. Instead, it belongs right alongside other alleged miscues in Byrd’s file on Harvey, a set of complaints that can be unsheathed when the board conducts its annual presidential vote next January. But Byrd only compounded the error of her overreaction with a disastrous choice of allies: Dwight Singleton (Ward 4) and Don Reeves (Ward 3).
She should have stopped there. Approaching the battlefield with that corps is like venturing into hand-to-hand combat alongside Richard Simmons and Fabio. When they hear the command “Fix bayonets! Charge!” your cohorts’ idea of leadership is a trot to the nearest media outlet, quotes at the ready.
Those quotes, when mouthed by Singleton and Reeves, purport to raise the banner of good government. They actually may end up shrinking the government by whisking the elected school board into oblivion. The hapless mugging for the camera might be funny—in a Benny Hill sort of way—if the stakes weren’t so high.
That Singleton is wallowing in the press focus on the board’s recent turmoil was clear at the July 22 beheading of Harvey. In response to criticism that he is seeking a higher profile in another bid for a D.C. Council seat, Singleton sounded off: “Whether I run for city council or opt for the mayor’s seat, I am committed to this city….Therefore, I sought political office.”
Singleton, though, has never hogged the spotlight as effectively as Reeves, who was elected to the school board just as the control board stripped away its oversight powers in 1996 and handed them to an appointed trustees panel. In his first year on the suddenly powerless body, Reeves won the president’s chair—a pulpit from which he made news tackling every D.C. issue except one: the city’s children. Reeves’ harping on elected and appointed colleagues always washed up in the press, but anything he may have said about dull topics like curriculum or testing never seemed to make waves.
Reeves first captured headlines by threatening to resign his assigned seat as the elected board’s representative on the appointed trustees panel, citing that body’s secretive ways. Then he leaked personnel memos confidentially circulated to members of the appointed panel. And then he wondered why he was being excluded from its policy deliberations. He wrapped up the year by announcing his candidacy for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council—where he pulled a lame 5 percent in the Democratic primary.
Consigned to serve out his lowly school board term, Reeves has fallen back on his proven MO. In the spring, for instance, he hammered his colleagues for attending a national convention of school boards in San Francisco—a fit of nattering that won him a story in the Washington Times. And he has made sure that no account of the ongoing power struggle between Harvey loyalists and Byrd’s six-member coalition excludes his pat soundbites.
LL remains amazed that the dailies didn’t pick up on this jewel from the July 22 meeting, when Reeves was impugning the embattled board president for allegedly liberal use of the school board car: “I have driven with Mrs. Harvey to a number of fast-food restaurants on the way to meetings.” Next thing you know, Harvey will have the gall to pull her car over when she needs to use the bathroom.
Over the weekend, Reeves continued his rampage, criticizing Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous for failing to contact newly elected board president Singleton as the councilmember attempted to mediate the internecine dispute. “Whoever he’s dealing with, other than the president of the board, is inappropriate,” said Reeves in a July 31 Washington Post story. Chavous apparently hadn’t hewn to Reeves’ finely tuned sense of protocol.
Reeves denies having his eyes on a political prize. “I don’t know what the advantage of publicity would be,” he says. “I am not running ever again for city council or higher office. The fact is that there is nothing to be gained in terms of image building by deposing Wilma Harvey. We are trying to improve the process that makes us a deliberative body rather than the one that just makes us a bickering body.”
In fairness to Byrd’s anti-Harvey group, Reeves and Singleton are only two of six. There are also Tonya Vidal Kinlow, a hard-working activist with allies throughout the school system, Robert Childs, an even-tempered—if somewhat truant—voice, and Byrd herself, whose dreadful political judgment finds a counterweight in her single-minded devotion to the District. Byrd claims that the bona fides of her allies is “not the issue.” “The issues need to be laid out before the public to understand,” she says. (The sixth coalition member is Ward 6’s Benjamin Bonham.)
When you choose to lie in bed with Reeves, however, you wind up with a Fourth of July noisemaker, full of sound and fury and press releases signifying nothing. With his bombast, his capacity for cranking out cranky letters, and his speed-dial menu for the local media, Reeves becomes, perforce, the spokesman for any cause that allows him into its tent.
Thus far, Reeves & Co. have only a shared distrust of Harvey and a coziness with D.C. schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to unify them. Byrd has acknowledged that her coalition looks more favorably on the superintendent than Harvey’s faction does. But the new majority has no consensus on other things that matter—like charter schools, curriculum, and budget allocation. The lack of vision is all the more frightening in light of the additional challenges now facing the board: an ongoing dispute over the presidency and a struggle to regain standing with Congress, the control board, and the public.
Compare the current scenario with the status quo at the time Byrd first began consorting with Reeves. The board had a pliant control board headed by Alice Rivlin, who has devoted her tenure to respecting locally elected entities. It had a schedule for recouping its oversight responsibilities. And it was gaining a creeping public respect for its job in watch-dogging Ackerman’s ham-fisted management. All the while, board members were working quietly on the various policies and reports required under the control board’s power transfer scheme.
Too quietly, in fact, for Byrd, Reeves, et alia.
If city workers do a poor job of clearing snow from D.C. streets next winter, they won’t be able to blame low morale. Last Friday, the Department of Public Works (DPW) hosted the “1998-1999 Snow Awards Program,” a celebratory to-do in the Reeves Center courtyard with some heady headliners: Mayor Anthony A. Williams, DPW Director Vanessa Dale Burns, and the Rev. J. Terry Wingate of the Purity Baptist Church.
Lest the attendees undervalue their heroism in taming last year’s Yukonesque winter, organizers plastered the place with feel-good banners: “Keep on Plowing,” “You’re Great,” and “You Are Much Appreciated.” Each worker received a blue “Snow Team” cap and a copy of the municipal best seller Seven Habits of Highly Effective Public Works Departments. The program ran for three-and-a-half hours and featured a $10,000 catered spread of ribs, barbecued chicken, apple cobbler, and cake, from Capitol Hill’s Port Cafe.
The free lunch filled most of the 600 seats. Predictably, it also drew some stragglers whose role in snow removal is limited to stomping their shoes at the doormat. Lawrence Guyot, a longtime Ward 1 rabble-rouser and employee in the Department of Human Services Youth Services Administration, donned a Snow Team cap and joined the festivities. LL supposes that troubled teenagers benefit from efficient snow removal, too.
The crowd stood to applaud Williams, who strapped on the pompoms and led a cheer of his own, mixed with the standard mayoral wonkery: “I am going to work with [DPW Deputy Director] Art [Lawson] and Vanessa to ensure that you’re properly recognized for the great job that you’re doing.”
Unmentioned fact of the day: total accumulated snowfall for last winter—11.6 inches.
STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE
LL takes it upon himself to scour all local publications in search of little-noticed gems on D.C. politics that loyal readers may appreciate. An item in the August edition of Capital Style—a celebrity-obsessed glossy with an episodic interest in city politics—just may have unearthed a hidden fault line in Mayor Williams’ administration: “[T]he mayor has…been cozying up to gays—so much so, according to sources, that it’s already starting to cause talk of sexual-preference favoritism in Williams’ administration, where several key positions are now held by gay appointees, including public advocate Carlene Cheatam, Ward Eight coordinator Philip Pannell, and scheduler David Howard…” read the entry in the magazine’s Capital Eyes column.
Would that Capital Style’s scoop were true, says Pannell—whose position pays him $0. “If these so-called sources are grumbling about sexual favoritism, it sure isn’t being showed toward me,” he says. As Ward 8 coordinator, Pannell’s main job is rounding up Williams faithful for mayoral photo ops in the ward. And only a writer for Capital Style would call Pannell’s latest promotion—a seat on the mayoral Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs—a “key position.” “That doesn’t put me on the gravy train; it doesn’t even provide the mashed potatoes,” says Pannell.
Cheatam, too, insists she’s never come across the phenomenon reported in the magazine. “Gay people supported Tony Williams, so, yeah, he’s going to appoint a few people,” says Cheatam. And should Capital Style writers need assistance from Cheatam’s constituent services shop, they’re well advised to withhold their affiliation. “Capital Style will get no further information from me,” says Cheatam, “not even the spelling of my name.”
* The Increased Opportunity for Local, Small and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises Emergency Amendment Act of 1999 is the sort of legislation that ordinarily sails through the government without a solitary mention in the press. But on July 26, Mayor Williams, half his staff, supporters from all across the city, and Councilmembers Charlene Drew Jarvis and Sharon Ambrose gathered at Anacostia’s big chair to celebrate the signing of the bill—a document that will open up $735 million in government procurement opportunities to local merchants.
“With this legislation,” said Williams, “we will encourage more jobs for District residents, reward businesses that stay in our city, and make our government more efficient—all at the same time.”
Wow! Now that’s an amazing policy hat trick. Whoever came up with that bill no doubt deserves a raise, or at least a few extra vacation days.
The Williams administration apparently opted for the latter reward, giving the bill’s architect—ousted procurement chief Richard Fite—all the leisure time he can handle. Mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong acknowledged that Williams didn’t thank Fite for his work on the bill “because [Fite] wasn’t invited.”
Back in July, Armstrong cited Fite’s fate as a function of the administration’s hard line on accountability: “If you don’t produce in this administration, you’re gone.”
* On Monday, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey asked the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to revoke the liquor license of Diversite restaurant on 14th Street NW, the subject of a previous LL column (“Diversite Training,” 7/16). In a letter to board Chair Roderic L. Woodson, Ramsey cited seven incidents of violence radiating from the club, including the 1998 murders of Warren Helm and Matthew Muir.
“The number and severity of the criminal offenses occurring at or around the restaurant leads us to conclude that the interests of the community would be served if the restaurant’s license to sell alcoholic beverages was revoked,” reads the letter. On Wednesday, the board continued its hearings on the neighborhood liquor license protest against the club.
“We will challenge Chief Ramsey’s allegations,” says Diversite owner Martin Mendelsohn. “He has been poorly advised by some of our neighbors, who, again, failed to check facts.”
* In a June interview with LL, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Doug Patton articulated the new regime’s no-nonsense approach to government action on development plans. “Make a decision, that’s my feeling,” said Patton. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the right decision, but make the decision and move on.”
Patton clearly forgot to pass along that ideology to the administration’s three new appointees and the Redevelopment Land Agency board.
In an early-July meeting, the trio—Interim City Administrator Norman Dong, former Commerce Department official Larry Parks, and Georgetown businessman Richard Levy—punted on nearly a full agenda of pending projects. Among the deferred items was the sale of an acre of land in Southwest slated for a town-house development. The Williams appointees wanted more time to review a deal cut long ago by the developers, Potomac Investment Properties Inc., and the city. “This is a $23 million development,” says Steven Gewirz, Potomac’s principal. “It’s costing the city tax money every day.”
Responds Levy: “All we’re looking for is information on which to make a decision.” CP
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