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Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous began his April 15 hearing on the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) with a nasty look on his face. Seated before him was mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer, an emissary entrusted with defending Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ now-dead proposal to move the university from its Van Ness enclave to an unspecified site east of the Anacostia River.
From his leather chair atop the council dais, Chavous looked like a king among serfs. He blasted Omer for his boss’s failure to honor the royal court, aka the council’s Education Committee. “The mayor has testified before various committees based on what is important to him,” said Chavous. “It would be good to hear from him on this.”
When Omer suggested that he would capably represent the mayor on UDC, Chavous snapped like King John: “I don’t think it’s in your purview to determine whether [your presence] is sufficient for the council.”
A few minutes later, Omer was dutifully responding to the councilmember’s question about filling openings on the UDC board of trusteesuntil Chavous cut him off. “Excuse me,” said Chavous.
“Let me just say, Mr. Chavous,” shot back Omer, “that if you want me to follow you, then that is a problem, but if you want to allow me to answer your questions in a thoughtful way, you have to give me the appropriate time.”
Instead of giving the chief of staff more time, Chavous opted for insult. “The reason I’m interrupting you is because I don’t want you to look as though you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In the shouting scrum that ensued, Omer managed the only intelligible outburst: “I resent that, Mr. Chavous.”
Resentment, these days, is running like an AC current between the seventh and 11th floors of One Judiciary Square, where the council and the mayor make their offices. Outright hostility has replaced early promises that a revamped council and a new mayor would jointly push a consensus agenda through the most serpentine gantlet in municipal America. Four months into the era of cooperation, tax-cut plans, after-school programs, and public works projects must all pass through a new grindergrudgebefore they reach the taxpayers.
The rumble at city hall signals that city governance is indeed entering a new epoch albeit one that differs from the one painted in January’s rosy pronouncements. Because D.C. is now solvent, city politics have stakes beyond the purely symbolic. And unlike in the boom years of the ’80s, when councilmembers rolled over for Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., current legislators interpret the District’s good fortunes to mean there’s something worth arguing over. After years of public ridicule, the council is now serious about exercising the oversight that D.C. has never had. Which explains why councilmembers took such offense when Williams disclosed budget details to his “ward coordinators”political nobodiesbefore he briefed the council.
An institutional slight, however, doesn’t quite account for the animus that’s been flying around the hearing room. For starters, four councilmembersChavous, Jack Evans (Ward 2), Harold Brazil (at large), and Carol Schwartz (at large)are on the record as coveting Williams’ job, although Chavous thus far is the only one to have bared his jealousy on the dais.
Others have less petty reasons to doubt the mayor’s good faith. At an April 1 hearing, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose posed a number of detailed questions about the mayor’s Medicaid plan. As Ambrose spoke, Williams looked away, focusing on a doodling projecta pair of contiguous equilateral triangles, from LL’s perspectiveand shifting continuously in his seat. Ambrose abruptly ended her interrogation. “I stopped talking because the mayor didn’t appear engaged,” Ambrose later told LL.
Then there’s At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who operates under his own rules of executive branch hostility. “We at the council have 24 hours in our day, and you have 24 hours in your day,” Catania bellowed at Omer at an April 13 hearing on after-school programs. “I’m concerned about what you are doing with your 24 hours.”
Councilmembers who are neither resentful about being beaten at the polls nor offended by mayoral slights are relying on the new epoch’s ultimate trump card: good government. Nearly every week since the March 15 release of Williams’ budget has featured a new miniscandal over its shoddy details. First came the UDC land screw-up, then an abstruse Medicaid proposal, and finally an after-school plan with no specifics.
And last week, Schwartz’s Public Works Committee explored the administration’s proposal to shut down the city-run trash-transfer station at Fort Totten and consolidate all municipal transfer functions on Benning Road SEa scheme that Williams knew nothing about. “I would like to move all trash-transfer stations out of the District,” said Williams at a community meeting last week. “Obviously, moving trash-transfer stations to Benning Road isn’t consistent with that, so I have to talk to some people. People will say, ‘Well, he’s mayor and didn’t know that.’ Well, so be it.”
The trash-transfer plan will go back where it came from, along with UDC, Medicaid, managed competition, and after-school programs. All the programs share two things: One, Williams believes deeply in them. And two, he’s failing to win over the legislators who must enact them.
One Williams proposal that will no doubt sneak through the council’s fine net is his small-business tax cut. Nine councilmembers have already endorsed the scheme as part of their veto-proof Tax Parity Act of 1999. But Williams is already gunning for other elements of the council’s planpersonal- and property-tax reductionsand should get an assist from control board Chair Alice Rivlinwho, like every other federal type, has yet to sour on Williams’ style.
Not that Williams is totally friendless at the locally elected level. One rare ally is Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, who has been downright saccharine in her budget assessments. “I am one of the happiest people around, because you’ve turned the focus on economic development in the communities and you understand how that works,” Jarvis told the mayor on March 17.
Of course, there’s one other distinction that Jarvis doesn’t share with her colleagues: political dependence on the mayor. Vulnerable in her own ward, Jarvis has promised her constituents economic development in the form of a towering government building on Georgia Avenuean initiative that hinges on Williams’ say-so.
District politicos are giddy with assumptions in these heady financial times. In pushing his budget, Williams projects continued $400 million surpluses, productivity improvements, and so on. Tax-slashing councilmembers do the same.
Last month, though, the city’s Child & Family Services Agency (CFSA) sent a quiet notice to One Judiciary Square that the assumptions needed a slight adjustment. The foster care agency, as it turns out, is on schedule to overspend its 1999 budget allocation by $24 million.
In a memo to the chief financial officer, CFSA Deputy Receiver Milton Grady outlined a number of reasons for the shortfall, including a paltry 1999 appropriation of $107 million, debts to vendors from previous fiscal years, and the high cost of a “management information system.” To meet those obligations, Williams will have to dig into D.C.’s treasurydeeply.
In a so-called gap-closing plan submitted to city budget crunchers, Grady specified just how the pain should be inflicted: $13 million to reimburse CFSA for prior payables and $8.5 million to help the agency comply with a court order to upgrade foster care in the city. (Grady proposes to close the rest of the gap through “revenue enhancements” and other cost-saving measures.)
“We have their gap-closing plan, and we are reviewing it,” says D.C. budget spokesperson Elaine Merguerian.
LL’s advice to Williams and his budget minions: Stop the reviewingjust approve it. After all, CFSA isn’t like the Department of Public Works or the Office of Cable Television. It operates under a court-mandated receiver appointed to right all the wrongs in the foster care system that were documented in the 1995 LaShawn civil action. If Williams balks at the requests of receiver Ernestine Jones, he may find himself before an angry judge demanding compliance with court orders and dishing out fines for noncompliance.
And if D.C. doesn’t pay, foster care nonprofits will find themselves bankrolling the systemmuch as they did in 1996, the last time the city’s foster care system went broke. The city contracts with nonprofit agencies to distribute monthly support payments to foster parents. Three years back, when the District’s disbursements dried up, the nonprofits took out loans to make the payments.
“Foster care parents have to be paid,” says Mark Cooper, executive director of the Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area Inc. “To cut them off from funding is not realistic.” Cooper says that agencies like his are the “last link” in the foster care food chaina precarious position for a nonprofit. “I’ve heard as many as 200 agenciessmall outfits that counted on that city paymentdidn’t have the credit line or resources to continue to exist.” Dying foster care agencies could precipitate a larger crisis, cutting needy children off from help.
If people like Jones don’t articulate the threat convincingly enough to city hall, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan surely will.
At a propaganda stop last Thursday night in Ward 6, Mayor Williams delivered his standard pitch on public policy priorities before opening the floor to questions. One of the first queries came from a 10-year-old in the audience: “How does your budget address the needs of children in poverty?”
Presented with an opportunity to go big-picture on his youth platform, the mayor opted instead to go spreadsheet. “We are reprogramming funds that are in surplus right now,” Williams told his preteen inquisitor.
The mayor who talks so much about putting children first still hasn’t learned how to talk to them. Then again, he hasn’t exactly refined the art of communicating with that sliver of D.C. adultdom that doesn’t belong to the Government Finance Officers Association.
The Ward 6 appearance capped a string of exercises in Bureaulingo for the mayor, on a day that will live on in linguistic infamy as the wonkiest in D.C. history. After a council hearing on personnel law and a Capitol Hill hearing on revenues and “gainsharing,” Williams still had plenty of terminology left for the audience at Ward 6’s Hine Junior High School. “We need a program that weds strategic planning with neighborhood planning, which is part of performance management,” said the mayor. Through it all, LL kept a tally of the mayor’s linguistic overruns:
•“Strategic planning process”2
•“Neighborhood planning process”2
•“Post-audit, after-the-fact basis”
Although the mayor’s word choices often gainshare him a room of quizzical looks, he did find a team partner on the Hill. In the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia’s hearing, Rep. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) questioned the mayor on the city’s financial systems, information-management systems, and all kinds of other systems, as well.
Williams prefaced his response with an uncharacteristic nod to the congressman: “I applaud you for asking about systems, because they are really important.”CP
1.As in, “We want to leverage our city services for economic development.”
2.LL has no idea exactly what this means, but is sure it is a wonky term.
3.LL also has no idea what this means, but notices that it has two sub-terms in the mayor’s lexicon: “short-term tool kit” and “long-term tool kit.”
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