We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The scene at the D.C. Council chamber last Friday resembled an audition for a high school play. At the front of the huge room sat D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp and a couple of her colleagues looking down upon Shalom Baranes, the design architect for the renovation of the John A. Wilson Building. The rest of the auditorium was vacant, save for the towering presence of LL, plus a couple of stragglers.
Although the councilmembers were questioning Baranes about a pressing topichow much space the council was to occupy in the new, improved Wilson Buildingfew cared to tune in for the fine points of the discussion. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had meetings to attendhis budget was set to come out the following Mondayand the local press had apparently tired of writing stories about an old building.
The hearing was good training for Cropp et al., who say they are learning to go it alone in their fight to occupy their ancestral home. In a closed-door meeting last Tuesday, councilmembers bemoaned the slow progress of their efforts to re-occupy the building and all but agreed to designate Williams obstructer in chief. Despite his campaign promises and the resources at his command, said several councilmembers, the mayor has treated the re-occupation plan with as much dispatch as a resolution proposing Lauch Faircloth Appreciation Day.
A month after vowing to restore exclusive D.C. occupation of the Wilson Building, Williams has little to show. The mayor has yet to untangle the legal and financial thicket that keeps the District out of its building. Nor has Williams called in chits with his White House and congressional admirers to ease the federal government out of its space there. Monday’s budget proposalwhich ignores the re-occupation and its potential costscompletes the picture of mayoral indifference. “It’s not a major initiative in the budget,” said Williams in response to a question from LL.
On Wednesday, Williams replied to similar questions with a nonreply: “We would have to agree on the amount.”
“Fuck the mayor,” says a councilmember who steadfastly insists upon anonymity. “If he doesn’t want to be associated with restoring the city’s municipal symbols, we’ll do it by ourselves.”
The council’s dream scenario, of course, is to back out of the deal, pay for all of the renovation costs, and banish the feds from sharing sacred municipal space with D.C. As this publication explained on Feb. 26, implementing the plan may entail handsome payoffs to key parties. In mid-February, the Williams administration pledged to run the numbers.
Councilmembers had every reason to think the mayor was on their side. “The goal of this administration is to see the seat of city government occupied by District offices as soon as possible,” said the mayor at a Feb. 8 press conference on the city’s surplus. “We are pursuing every avenue.”
But Williams’ handling of the issue has felt more like a long, winding road with no discernible destination. That’s surprising, given that the task in question would appear a natural fit for a guy who made a name for himself as chief financial officer: Find out how much it would cost the city to pull out of its $52 million 1995 deal with developer T. Conrad Monts to renovate the building and rent out certain areas to the federal government.
The dealthe most complicated scheme this side of Donald Trump’s Taj Mahalis confusing enough to have flummoxed Deputy CFO Tom Huestis, the number cruncher spearheading the administration’s analysis of the council’s predicament. Despite Williams’ stated belief in the urgency of the building’s return, the spear hasn’t moved very fast.
Huestis says he’d love to speed things upif only the council would cooperate. In his attempts to sort out the contractual obligations of the various parties, Huestis recently marshaled legal help from Corporation Counsel John Ferren. However, Huestis insists that highly technical contracts account for only part of the delay in figuring out just how the District can get its city hall back. The rest, he suggests, is due to the intransigence of D.C. Council Secretary Phyllis Jones, who served as the council’s point woman in the Monts deal.
On Feb. 23, says Huestis, he asked Jones for several documents that he hadn’t received in his original exchange with the council. “The council or its attorneys have not provided us with any of these documents. They have sent us to opposing attorneys’ offices to get them, which is a little strange,” says Huestis.
Jones said she had forwarded documents to budget officials in February but was “not aware” of any follow-up requests.
“I would like for us to be able to move faster,” said Cropp when asked about the slow progress of Williams’ minions. To her credit, though, Cropp has discontinued the great council tradition of passing blame and sitting on your hands. Last week, she reached a pro bono agreement with accounting firm Arthur Andersen to complete the financial scenariosan initiative that councilmembers cite as proof of their resolve on the Wilson Building.
“Since the mayor hasn’t come through, let’s hope that Arthur Andersen comes through,” says At-Large Councilmember David Catania. “We’ll have to see.”
Flip-flopping and dissing a project close to councilmembers’ hearts is a political blunder for Williams. His budget’s call for slashing D.C. General Hospital’s budget and proposal to move the University of the District of Columbia’s campus have already touched off a firestorm of criticism, as have proposals to institute managed competition and shrink the city payroll. And Williamswho has struggled to live down the high-handed reputation his CFO tenure earned himhas been slammed for neglecting to consult beyond his small circle of advisers before proposing such sweeping changes.
It doesn’t take Dick Morris to explain that Williams is going to need all the help he can getand that scratching the council’s back on the Wilson Building might make it a little more inclined to take heat for supporting the mayor’s budget.
“Here he is assaulting home-grown institutions like UDC and D.C. General,” says Wilson Building cornerstone layer Mark Plotkin. “[On Monday] he had a chance to affirm his support for another home-grown institutionthe Wilson Buildingand he diminished it with his remark.”
The next time he’s asked about his budget’s Wilson Building gap, Williams might at least want to come up with a more defensible dodgelike noting the futility of basing budget projections on a figure that no one can calculate.
That’s a cover that all staked partiessave Jonescould hide behind. “I met with the mayor and others on the complications that really flow from District’s financing of this project, and we talked until we realized we didn’t know we what we were talking about,” says D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “This is rocket science.”
Instead of complexity, though, councilmembers are now more focused on Williams’ dis. When they’re not slamming him for ignoring them, legislators have no shortage of proposals on how Williams could cut through the contractese. “He could lean on his good will with the president,” says Catania. “Or he could ask for assistance from the Hill.”
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has an even simpler view: “He could do it in a week if he wanted to.”
WILLIAMS’ SENSE OF SNOW
While his armada of pale-yellow snowplows cleared nearly a foot of snow from city streets a week ago Tuesday, Mayor Anthony A. Williams swung into credit-taking mode before the cameras. “What’s happening here is what didn’t happen in [the blizzard of] ’96,” said the mayor in an interview from the Reeves Center with Channel 4 correspondent Shari Macias. “We put in the investment to get these trucks running, get them on standby status, so we can get them out on the streets. That’s the difference.”
Another difference: Williams is no longer in the CFO’s office, freezing operating funds for the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW).
Blizzard mythology casts blame for the ’96 fiasco on Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., who distinguished himself by declaring that streets untouched by city plows were in good condition. Residents, on the other hand, found impassable side streets, and commuters complained that even main routes were treacherous days after the dumping. The municipal collapse, said critics, was the coup de grâce of the Barry years, a bundling of mismanagement, deception, and surliness in the face of crisis.
No one ever mentioned that Hizzoner had an able accomplice: his very own CFO.
Three months before the ‘zard, CFO Williams imposed a drastic belt-tightening program on city agencies, prohibiting them from spending more than 80 percent of their quarterly allotment in any fiscal quarter. The decree was appropriate for agencieslike, say, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Correctionswith steady annual operating costs.
DPW was another matter. To outfit itself for snow disasters, the agency must spend about 35 percent of its annual budgetthat is, 140 percent of its quarterly allowancein the first quarter, an imperative pointedly forbidden under the CFO’s edict. DPW officials crossed their fingers and prayed for a typically lame D.C. winter.
The Lord showed them about as much respect as did their constituents, blanketing the city with two once-in-a-century storms in 10 days. The 40-odd rickety DPW trucks were no match for the ‘zard.
“One of the ironies of him being mayor is that many of DPW’s service-delivery problems are a result of him not letting us spend when he was CFO so he could build up a surplus,” says Cell Bernardino, who was a deputy director of the agency at the time. “We couldn’t get trucks, and we had to borrow salt from Maryland, because the financial folks and their allotment system kept us from doing our jobs.”
Credit Williams with brilliant use of a managerial tool he often cites in his wonky press conferencesbenchmarking. “[Acting DPW Director] Art [Lawson] has 105 trucks on the streets,” Williams told the Channel 4 mike. “In 1996, I think we had one truck on the streets.”
GRAHAM’S TIME CAPSULE
In his short tenure in elective office, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has revealed several facets of his political style to his colleagues and constituents. First, Graham will do everything possible to appear visible on the big issues in his ward, like economic development and nuisance properties. Second, he has the endurance for 12-hour council oversight hearings. And third, he has no equal when it comes to keeping negative press in play.
Last week, Graham introduced a “sense of the council” resolution stating, “Members of the Council of the District of Columbia are hereby notified that they are expected to serve in that capacity on a full-time basis.”
At this rate, Graham may soon call for an appropriation of $500 to install a time clock and councilmember time cards in the coffee room.
The resolution springs from Graham’s ongoing attempts to defend a stealth consulting contract that he signed last year to do part-time fundraising for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, where he worked as executive director before assuming his council duties. The contract called upon Graham to work eight hours a week for the clinic, despite his campaign promises to work full time on the council. Neither Graham nor Whitman-Walker disclosed the deal to the public at the time it was completed.
Graham pulled out of the contract after a Whitman-Walker board member pressed for public disclosure and LL began making calls on the issue.
That would have been a great time for Graham to bank on D.C.’s short political memory and quit calling attention to the issue. He could have announced a Ward 1 blue-ribbon panel on supermarkets, or rat abatement, or even subway-construction trauma. Instead, Graham kept the story alive by opting for the full-time resolution, complete with this insight on labor law: “Full-time service is commonly defined as meeting or exceeding 40 working hours per week.”
Given lines like those, LL forgives Graham for dragging his heels in returning calls on the resolution. And in what is emerging as a pattern on the full-time/part-time conundrum, Graham this week withdrew the resolution from consideration. “It’s not anything that I would present myself,” says At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, articulating the council’s tenor on the resolution.
“Maybe someone told him it was an insane idea,” says a council staffer.CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.