City Paper is not for tourists
When the D.C. Council passed standard budget-support legislation in June of last year, members assumed the bills would proceed along the legislative path without any hang-ups. They passed the scrutiny of then-Mayor Marion Barry, who signed the bills on June 24. Council staff then forwarded the legislation to the control board. Everything seemed to be right on schedule.
Right on schedule, that is, until it reached the offices of the control board, which also must sign off on council bills. According to its enabling legislation, the board has seven days to pass or reject legislation from the councilwith an option to extend the review period to 14 days. But when these particular bills landed on the desk of a control board staffer at the end of June, the staffer looked them over and then promptly sent them back to council secretary Phyllis Jones, with a note attached saying, “The Authority…does not acknowledge receipt.”
Because the board didn’t acknowledge receipt, the seven-day clock never officially started. Someone on the board apparently decided that the finances needed a little tinkering. So, for all practical purposes, the board pretended not to have received the bills.
After consulting with control board staff, Artie Blitzstein, the council’s budget director, supplied a bit more financial data. But by the end of August, the legislation was still in limbo, prompting Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson to draft a letter to incoming control board Chair Alice Rivlin alerting her to the delay. It took yet another memo, from a Patterson staffer, this one challenging the legality of the stalling, before the legislation was passedmonths after it made it through the council and long after the seven-day review period intended in the board’s enabling legislation had come and gone.
Delays like these have confounded councilmembers and staff, who say that bills are often detained at the control board level long past the deadline. Some are lucky to make it through at all. According to a list compiled by Jones’ office, bills submitted to the control board as long ago as the summer of 1997 have yet to be picked up for review. The oldest was submitted to the control board on July 9, 1997. It’s an “emergency act,” urging immediate action to an area along O Street SE where a crumbling wall and soil erosion threatened to damage city streets and nearby houses.
Two years’ worth of soil erosion later, the houses are still thereno thanks to the control board and the city, which have yet to act on either the beleaguered area or the bill. (Last week, the mayor’s office and the council again introduced legislation to improve the area.)
Despite its official deadlines, the control board manages to stall on legislation by simply refusing to start its time clock, citing concerns about the finances of many of the bills. Councilmembers and others question whether the process is a legal oneand say that either way, it’s still a practice that creates an opening for abuse and ineptitude for a city government still seeking to revive an image tarnished by years of dysfunction.
“The purpose [of the control board] was to interpose another level of government review,” says Jamin Raskin, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, “but not to create a sort of graveyard for local legislation.”
Of course, stalled legislation is consistent with the control board’s apparent lack of an agenda. Cloistered in its Thomas Circle offices, the crew seldom holds public meetings, let alone circulates with the locals it serves. Now that Mayor Anthony A. Williams is running the city’s agencies and the city is in the black, the control board, which used to run the government, is back to just watching it. As the control board tries to re-situate itself in this new era of government, stunts like holding off on legislation show that it might just be getting in the way.
“I think what their role is is what the authority and the staff are wrestling with,” says Patterson. “The time is right for reassessing, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Phil Mendelson has been on the council for only a few months, but that’s long enough to see that there’s something not quite right about the control board’s review process. “What they’ve invented is this artificial construct,” says Mendelson, an at-large councilmember. “When you allow this kind of arbitrary situation, we’re creating something outside the law, an extralegal mechanism that lends itself to abuse.”
But according to John Hill Jr., the control board’s executive director, board members created a list of regulations on submissions from the council in February 1997. The list includes a how-to on preparing an acceptable financial statement, which says that if a piece of submitted legislation is missing any part of the financial statement, then the control board can reject it for review. “On those, the clock is not ticking,” says Hill.
Hill says the board adopted the procedures to help the council help itself. When control board staffers return a bill to the council, Hill says the board sends along a letter outlining the flaws in the financial statement and suggesting ways for improvement. The board staffers then follow up with council staffers to work together on ways for whipping the fiscal statement into shapeat least a shape acceptable to the board, says Hill. “There’s a reason we did that. We would like to work with council instead of receiving and rejecting publicly,” says Hill. “We’ve viewed this as sensitive to the needs of the council.”
The response from most council employees: Thanks, but no thanks. According to councilmembers and their staff, letters returned along with refused legislation often consist of nothing more than a boilerplate paragraph stating that the financial impact statement is inadequate, and nothing more. “So we know that much, but we don’t know what’s inadequate about it,” says Mendelson.
Council employees also add that despite Hill’s claims, it’s usually council staffers who are the first to pick up the phone for follow-up action. Jones says it’s usually up to Blitzstein or his staff to contact control board workers to determine what is wrong with submitted legislation. “It basically then becomes something that’s on our plate, not theirs,” adds Patterson.
Councilmembers worry that control board staffers are rejecting legislation without the consultation or approval of even one control board member. Some councilmembers point out that at times, they’ve called control board members to complain about the slow pace and that members often had no idea that legislation had even been forwarded, let alone delayed. With the glory days of the board’s mission over, its members are starting to look as if they’ve checked out, toono matter what the consequences.
“There is a sort of tyranny of the staff going on,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, whose bill on trash-transfer-station regulation has been held up since January. “And that’s something [board members] need to deal with.”
It’s this sort of unmonitored environment that seems especially susceptible to abuse, say many councilmembers, who speculate that delays are often due to staffers’ personal opinions or outside influence. “The staff gets lobbied just as much as the council, which is truly not appropriate,” says Ambrose. “I think sometimes staff listens to the lobbyists.”
Hill says current control board members are aware of councilmembers’ complaints about the process and have asked to be consulted when bills are returned to the council. Hill also flatly denies accusations that decisions are personal: “We don’t make judgments on the basis of personal feelings. It’s purely the impact the legislation has on financial stability. That’s the criteria.”
But Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, general counsel to the council, says the real problem is that the control board just can’t do what it’s doingwhether it’s good for the bottom line or not. The law creating the control board says members must approve or disapprove of legislation within 14 days, she says, and doesn’t allow for stalling. “There is no provision for ‘We don’t accept this,’” says Brookins-Hudson. “It’s either yes or no.”
Hill says that the control board is following provisions: its own. “The board has the ability to establish reasonable procedures,” he says. “The council knows that process.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the process is legal, says Brookins-Hudson. “That’s their internal regulations. It’s not part of the statute. That’s not a law,” she says, adding that regulations must stay within the bounds of the legal requirements. “That’s their interpretation of the statute. It’s different than our interpretation.”
Ask most local civic activists and government workers, and they’re not surprised that the current control board has put off review of council legislation. The new control board members haven’t been doing much of anything lately, they say, at least as far as the public and other government workers can tell.
“If you ask most people to tell you what the role and the mission of the control board are, even the people who follow the control board really can’t tell you,” says private government watchdog Dorothy Brizill, who was one of the few locals to trudge down to control board meetings even when they mattered.
Mission control is what the board seems to be struggling with these days. Without day-to-day management of the city’s nine agencies, and amidst signs that cuts in its other powers are on the way, the control board and other politicos are re-evaluating just where the board fits in. When the mayor’s office forgot to invite the control board to the announcement of the budget surplus, for instance, some took it as a sign that the board is simply not needed as part of the city’s regular governing.
Hill says the alleged snub was simply an oversight: “I’m sure that’s all it was. We didn’t read anything into that. If the mayor or council chair wanted to tell us something, they would tell us.”
But Hill agrees that a change to a more “normal government” has caused the current control board to reassess its role in local government. Hill sells this role as building “regular communication” with elected officials. (The board meets weekly with the mayor and Council Chairman Linda Cropp.) He adds that the change in the balance of the government scales hasn’t reduced the value of the board. “The control board has all of the power that it always had,” says Hill.
Not that anyone outside of its offices would know that. Activists complain that the current control board has had virtually no public meetings and only briefly introduced new members last October. To be certain, some of those members could certainly use more lengthy introductions. Newcomers like Darius Mans and Robert Watkins are nearly unknown when it comes to local activisma fact that has some questioning whether the two are qualified for the job. “They were chosen to be on the control board, but they are not known by and large to the D.C. community,” says Brizill. “And in the back of your mind you wonder to what extent they really know D.C. and its issues.”
Last summer, Brizill was asked to write up a description of local politics for an online city guide. But when she got to a segment detailing the racial demographics of local governmental leaders, she had to pause. “I literally had to call someone over there and say, ‘I’ve never seen Darius Mans, and tell me if he’s black, whitewhat is he?’” she recalls.
Watkins is also new to local politics, but already building a reputation that doesn’t do much for the control board’s feet-dragging image: According to several sources, he regularly nods off during control board staff meetings as well as gatherings for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, of which he is acting chair. “We’re all very shocked by it, but it happens every meeting,” says one government employee who regularly attends meetings with Watkins. “During spirited discussions, you’ll look up and see [his] eyes are open,” says this government employee. “Then you move on to some more mundane thing, and you look up and boom, [he’s] gone.”
Watkins did not return two calls seeking comment.
Of course, most activists and councilmembers would be happier to see board members kicking back if it meant they’d also quit slowing down legislation. That’s not likely to happen any time soon. As Hill put it, not accepting bills for review is part of the control board’s processand if the board’s tenure proves nothing else, any bureaucratic process is hard to change.
Still, if board members are virtually disappearing from the city’s political sphere, it’s a trend most councilmembers like, despite their legislative-review rejections. “I’ve seen the control board play less and less of a role in the last three months, and that’s a good thing,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
Adds At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz: “I think that now, given the financial house is in order…I would like to thank them for their service and say, ‘Adios.’”CP