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When D.C.’s public schools reached their nadir in the mid-’90s, no diatribe against the system was complete without mention of the inevitable textbook delays. Whether students marched into the grungy halls of District learning on time or a few weeks late, it seemed that textbooks always arrived at least a couple of weeks later.
Although much in D.C. has improved in the intervening years, the schools haven’t yet banished their yearly textbook bug. This past school year, for example, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman instituted a special reading program called “Success for All,” which required new textbooks and other supplies for participating elementary schools.
That’s where “Success for All” encountered its first failure. Several schools in the program neglected to fill out their textbook procurement forms properly, causing long delays in delivery. Ackerman’s minions reportedly complained to Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) Richard Fite, who insisted that nothing could be done because procurement rules had to be obeyed. No one was happy with the outcome.
Especially Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who took office in the middle of the brouhaha. Last week, the CPO became the latest sacrifice to the cause of Williams’ control over the D.C. bureaucracy, a campaign that started with the January sacking of Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett and has progressed unevenly over the past six months. Unlike most senior officials, Fite had a fixed term—set to expire in 2002—and thus didn’t technically work at the pleasure of the mayor. No matter: Williams wanted him gone.
Williams was reportedly dissatisfied with Fite’s efforts to tutor D.C. agencies in the intricacies of his procurement system. A full understanding of that imperative requires a digression on the spellbinding history of D.C. procurement: In the bad old days, the agencies handled all procurement in house—meaning, for example, that if the Department of Public Works wanted more snowplows, it would process the paperwork, negotiate with vendors, take delivery, and so on. Just about every agency screwed up its procurement function, crippling the city government and, in 1996, motivating D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil to push legislation centralizing all purchasing in a CPO independent from the mayor and the council.
Administration sources say the directors of “nearly all” agencies have faulted Fite for slowing down important purchases. Instead of helping agencies boost their procurement proficiency, sources say, he was content to lay blame on them. “It’s a sort of ping-pong thing between the agencies and the procurement officer, and the mayor wasn’t going to put up with it,” says an administration source.
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson serves up a counterspin: “The reason to have the CPO is to hold the agencies accountable, and there are people in the agencies who don’t like to be held accountable.” In the wake of Williams’ move against Fite, Patterson defends the CPO’s professionalism and his track record on reform: “Richard Fite has done more to reform this government in two years than any other two people, including the mayor.”
The Williams people say they’re sure everything will be fixed once their yet-to-be-named appointee succeeds Fite. “He’s a fabulous choice,” says mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong. But this Mr. Fabulous Choice will have to do something far more tricky than just train the agencies on paperwork: He’ll also have to tiptoe between Williams’ sphere of influence and that of Patterson, whose Government Operations Committee oversees procurement.
Hammering away at Williams is a familiar pastime for Patterson, who was the sole councilmember to endorse him in last year’s Democratic primary but who since then has stared the mayor down over campaign finance and budget issues. In deposing Fite, Williams is ending a professional relationship that Patterson and Fite have cultivated away from public view and that has helped the councilmember solidify a reputation as the council’s 24-7 oversight queen. Patterson says her committee may open an investigation into procurement reform and the independence of the CPO.
Listening to Patterson, LL can’t help but think she longs for greater control over matters like these. Perhaps there should have been five councilmembers in last year’s mayoral race.
Through decades of development disputes, Shaw political activists have perfected an ad hominem brand of petty community politics. Every time LL picks up the phone, one neighbor is accusing another of, say, pocketing public funds or misrepresenting the neighborhood. One activist even posted a placard in her window featuring a nearby rival’s name under a red circle and slash.
Times are changing, though: These days, Shawites are playing ad hominem politics over a non-petty matter: $1.25 million in community development grants—known as the “Shaw fund”—from the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA). The outlay stems from a September 1997 memorandum of agreement in which WCCA pledged numerous perks for put-upon neighbors of the monstrous new six-square-block convention center rising among them.
That memorandum of agreement, however, was just about the last thing that Shaw residents agreed upon. Two years after its signing, the community is as far as ever from a consensus on how the money should be spent. And until it unites behind a legitimate plan, the funds will remain right where they are.
“We need to receive a viable proposal,” says WCCA spokesperson Tony Robinson. “It’s a little disappointing that the community hasn’t come together in a better fashion.”
Or at all. The fissures have gaped wider in recent weeks amid nasty exchanges between fellow advisory neighborhood commissioners Leslie Miles and Rodney Foxworth. Miles holds Foxworth responsible for the delay, because Foxworth heads the Greater Shaw Consensus Group, an umbrella organization that has dedicated itself—sort of—to finding uses for the Shaw fund. “That group was basically created for the sole purpose of handling the grants,” says Shaw politica Beth Solomon.
“In two years, all Rodney has done is engage a bank and partner with some agency that administers money,” says Miles. “There is no indication of how the money will be spent.”
That’s actually a charitable assessment. Foxworth told his Shaw neighbors the same story he told LL: that he had established a partnership with the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, a group that administers large grants like the Shaw fund. He should have gotten his story straight with the foundation. When asked about Foxworth’s version of events, foundation President Terri Freeman paused a moment to pluck her memory. “It’s been at least a year, maybe two, since we’ve talked [to Foxworth],” says Freeman. “But there’s no agreement, and we have had no conversations with Rodney since then.”
When asked to account for his slowpoke ways, Foxworth brandished his resume. “I do community development work as a profession,” he says. “Folks who know community development know that we’ve come a long way in a short time. Folks who don’t know community economic development, they just don’t get it.” Too bad LL can’t dip into the Shaw fund for a scholarship to get himself a master’s degree in community development. That way, he could learn from the experts just how feigning a partnership with people you haven’t actually spoken to in a year constitutes community economic development.
Anyone lacking the requisite professional background, Foxworth suggests, fails to appreciate the community dynamics behind the ongoing project. “You have to understand that organizations in the greater Shaw community have no history of working together at all,” says Foxworth.
And if Foxworth keeps holding himself out as an authority figure, there’ll be no need to revise those history books. Foxworth’s Greater Shaw Consensus Group, for starters, has lost so many member associations in recent months—including the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, the Blagden Alley Association, and the
O Street Civic Association—that it hardly carries the clout to call itself a group, let alone forge consensus. “We don’t want to be affiliated with this group,” says Deering “Tip” Kendrick, president of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, who calls Foxworth’s coalition “a do-nothing” group that doesn’t represent Shaw.
Kendrick says he may formulate his own proposal to disburse the funds. And if he delivers even the most threadbare draft, he’ll be miles ahead of Foxworth, who has opposed any restrictions on how the money can be used.
“At one point, the group essentially asked us to just create the program” without a proposal, says Robinson.
* Advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) 6A Chair Daniel Pernell has never distinguished himself with tact and political savoir-faire. As LL reported earlier this year, Pernell last year solicited a $20 ANC contribution from a restaurant owner whose liquor license was under review by the ANC and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (LL, “Checkbook Diplomacy,” 4/16). “How much is your license worth to you?” Pernell reportedly asked Ohio Restaurant proprietor Ethel Harper. Pernell deposited Harper’s contribution in his personal account.
Most of Pernell’s fellow commissioners agreed that the move was boneheaded, unethical, and embarrassing. But few thought it would put Pernell in hot water with the law.
Then came the subpoena.
On June 16, D.C. Superior Court issued a grand jury summons to ANC 6A Vice Chair Gus Ventura regarding the fiduciary rectitude of Pernell’s commission. To supplement Ventura’s testimony, the court mandated all manner of financial documents from the ANC office, including balance sheets, income statements, bank statements, internal audit reports, and, of course, bills of lading.
While the probe could touch on the activities of several of 6A’s 14 commissioners, Ventura concluded that the authorities are after Pernell and current commission Treasurer Gregory Ferrell. “They are the targets of the investigation,” says Ventura, who notes that in a recent deposition, prosecutors asked questions about no commissioners other than Pernell and Ferrell.
Ventura says he delivered more than 30 boxes of documents to prosecutors—a bit of judicial compliance that he says enraged his colleagues. “Pernell said I had no right to seize the documents,” Ventura says. Pernell denies the charge: “I told Mr. Gus that I don’t know why he wants to take those records out, since those records don’t have anything to do with any of us.”
Ventura’s report notwithstanding, Pernell distances himself from the probe, arguing that the records in question don’t pertain to his decisions as chair. “Why should I be worried? We haven’t done anything wrong,” Pernell told LL. The chair, nonetheless, is jittery enough to have convened a special meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the subpoena and Ventura’s actions. Ventura will be out of town for the meeting and insists there’s not much to discuss. “Like I had any choice in the matter,” he says.
* All year long, the Williams administration has been dabbling with power politics. Now and again, it has shown the guts to censure a few mouthy, rogue ward coordinators and campaign a bit for loyalists on the ward Democratic committees. Last month, however, the mayor chose the nerve center of District power brokerage to beta-test his increasingly cocksure style: the Commission on Women.
According to commission Chair Mary Parham Wolfe, mayoral aide Marie Drissel told all commissioners at a June 14 meeting who was boss. “The mayor and I want to bring in all new commissioners, because there is a cloud over [the commission],” Wolfe quotes Drissel as saying.
Wolfe, who was appointed by Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., says that Drissel’s “undignified” behavior reduced the meeting to a “catfight” and raises doubts about her ability to handle her job overseeing the city’s boards and commissions. The chair has resigned herself to losing her seat along with other Barryites on the commission but blames Drissel for petty obstructionism as she finishes out her term. “She came on board and withheld our mail and checks for the commission,” charges Wolfe, who also chairs the Ward 8 Democrats.
Now that’s smash-mouth politics.CP
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