On Election Night, Anthony Williams celebrated his mayoral victory by inviting D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp and her colleagues to join him onstage at the Mayflower Hotel. After building an impressive coalition that swept all wards in the Nov. 3 election, Williams was trying to make space in his tent for the city’s historically fractious legislative body.
The gesture, on the council’s part, carried about as much sincerity as a vow of friendship from Linda Tripp.
When the next mayor sat down with councilmembers three weeks later to map out their new lives together, Williams asked for a rather reasonable concession: that the council put off changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which governs land-use decisions throughout the city, until after he takes office in January. The urban-planning vision codified in the Comprehensive Plan, Williams reasoned, might conflict with the economic development goals he had unveiled in his campaign.
Whatever Williams’ motives, they weren’t good enough for Cropp, who last week allowed her colleagues to go ahead and approve changes to the Comprehensive Plan. In doing so, Cropp has drawn fire from citizens groups and land-use planners for pampering wealthy developers. Some of the changes removed housing requirements for downtown development, boosting the speculative value of choice properties.
Williams will have to resort to another gesture, like offering Cropp choice tickets to his inauguration, to cement an alliance with the council.
Special treatment notwithstanding, the new mayor may have trouble figuring out just which Linda Cropp will pick up the gavel when the 13th council session begins Jan. 2. Before her diss of Williams’ request on the Comprehensive Plan, Cropp had distinguished herself as an affable but wishy-washy captain of a boat with no charted course. And indecisiveness invites mutiny, as Cropp is now discovering.
In the ongoing musical chairs over committee chairmanships, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose appeared to have a lock on the council’s Public Works Committee, whose chair was vacated by vanquished Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas. Ambrose had made a play for the chairmanship, and none of her colleagues had initially expressed much interest in vying for the oversight-intensive job. Last week, though, Cropp decided to give that post to At-Large Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz. “That’s an internal process for the council to deal with,” Cropp said this week, brushing aside LL’s inquiry.
Schwartz had been licking her political wounds since her loss to Williams in the Nov. 3 mayoral election, and her interest in the Public Works committee chair came as a surprise to Ambrose. Some councilmembers fault Cropp for siding with a Republican against one of the rising stars of the council’s Democratic majority.
In a rare break from the ranks, Ambrose has chosen to defy Cropp’s decision and is lining up seven votes to snatch the Public Works chair away from Schwartz when the council determines committee assignments at its first meeting in January.
Cropp claims she made her decision solely because six-year veteran Schwartz has more council seniority than first-termer Ambrose, but council watchers suspect other motives. Ambrose sided with Williams in urging Cropp to delay action on amendments to the Comprehensive Plan until next year. When the council approved those changes last week, Ambrose voted present instead of jumping on the bandwagon.
The Ward 6 councilmember last week also forced Cropp to withdraw legislation that would have granted an exemption from current restrictions on trash-transfer stations to Dickie Carter, the politically active owner of Urban Service Systems Corp., who wants to operate a dump site on New York Avenue NE.
“I’m sure that none of the trash-transfer operators are pleased at the thought that I would be in charge of that committee and constantly watching over this issue,” Ambrose told LL this week.
An industry representative concurred.
“The solid waste people feel Carol understands the kind of give-and-take that is going to be necessary in the solid-waste industry,” this spokesperson said. “But the industry is walking on eggshells right now, and I don’t think they’re actively going to do anything on her behalf.”
When Cropp does take a stand, she reveals why she’s usually so indecisive. Cropp pushed for council approval of the proposal to build a theme park on Children’s Island in the middle of the Anacostia River, despite widespread opposition from neighboring communities and environmental groups. Cropp won the battle last spring against stiff opposition from Ambrose and At-Large Republican Councilmember David Catania. She lost the war, though, when the financial control board nixed the project.
Cropp’s defenders excuse her occasional lapses and insist the council needs a conciliator in the chair. Since taking the reins of the council 16 months ago, following the death of former Chair Dave Clarke, Cropp has brought calm to a body wracked by tension during Clarke’s chaotic, stormy stewardship. Unlike Clarke and his predecessor, the late John Wilson, Cropp has ruled with a wavering, velvet hand, and has given the chairs of the council committees much more independence.
“You don’t have a heavy-handed approach,” notes a council staffer. “The committees are able to function without having to capitulate to the whims of the chair. The council functions so much better than it used to.”
Cropp kept the council operating smoothly in a year when 11 of the 13 members stood for re-election or sought higher office. Civility reigned in the chambers despite the competing political aims of four councilmembers who harbored futile hopes of stepping up to the mayor’s office.
She steered the body through tough budget negotiations with the D.C. financial control board, improving relations with the city’s congressionally imposed overseers. Those relations had become strained under Clarke, who, like Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., fluttered between cooperation with and resistance to the control board. Cropp also rebuilt the council’s credibility on Capitol Hill after the damage inflicted by her predecessor.
When Clarke chaired the council, his breakfast working sessions sometimes lasted only a few minutes, as councilmembers sought to flee the room before their ulcers flared up. Under Cropp, a recent session ran for two hours, and there was no sound of grinding teeth.
In the council’s action on the Comprehensive Plan, though, Cropp deserted her inclusive management inclinations and railroaded her agenda to approval. Before the council voted on the changes, community groups such as the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Committee of 100 complained they had not been able to find out what changes were being proposed in time to head off the Dec. 1 vote.
Federation President Barbara Zartman said her organization had managed to obtain a copy the Friday after Thanksgiving when an organization official paged Rob Miller, Cropp’s Comprehensive Plan guru, and persuaded him to open up the chairman’s office on a holiday weekend and run off a copy of the 600-page document.
Other interested parties did not have Miller’s pager number and were still in the dark when the council voted, only four days after Zartman managed to finagle a copy of the coveted but scarce document.
Opponents of the Comprehensive Plan changes view the council actions as rewarding campaign contributors who otherwise would have had to endure tedious hearings before the Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to get zoning restrictions eased. In securing an exemption from the zoning process, developers also avoid having to build housing in poor neighborhoods as compensation for removing housing requirements on downtown properties.
“If these were actual projects, you’d have to look more carefully at them,” says Kirk White, assistant director of planning for the District during the ’70s. “But these changes are purely speculative land plays for improving the value of the properties by having higher office and commercial use, as opposed to residential use.”
Hiking private land values “certainly was not my intent,” Cropp says. “We did what the citizens in these communities wanted.”
Many of the changes lift residential requirements on parcels in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhoods east of the proposed new convention center, as well as south of Massachusetts Avenue NW downtown. An amendment offered by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans loosens development restrictions on the 800 block of 16th Street NW so that the owners of the Hay-Adams Hotel can build a rooftop reception room overlooking the White House. Evans’ change actually specifies the size of the room to be added.
Reviewing the Hay-Adams project is the rightful duty of zoning regulators, says newly elected At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who believes that the Comprehensive Plan should set broad objectives for land use.
“Not only should the Comprehensive Plan not be that specific, you have to wonder why it is that specific,” Mendelson says. “We used to have massive fights when Dave Clarke was chairman over referencing a block. This is referencing a building.”
Mendelson may be one of the reasons behind Cropp’s rush to judgment on controversial changes in the plan. One councilmember claims Cropp concluded she stood a better chance of ramming these changes through the current council than she will after January, when Mendelson, along with newly elected Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, will take their seats. Those three might ask pesky questions that would delay or derail the proposals.
Cropp denies hurrying the changes through the system, claiming the amendments were “time-sensitive and could not be put off.” Next thing you know, Cropp will be calling an emergency Christmas session to consider the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympic games.
Cropp’s behavior on the Comprehensive Plan raises questions about her ties to the local business establishmentquestions that D.C. labor leaders are now asking themselves.
Two weeks ago, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 25 President John Boardman and Political Director Rick Powell took Cropp to lunch at the pricey Capitol View Club atop the Hyatt Regency Hotel to celebrate her election to a four-year term as chair. The union leaders also wanted to find out what legislation Cropp intended to push through the council during its final two meetings of this session.
During the luncheon, paid for by Local 25, Cropp never let on that she planned to push for a 667-week limit on workers’ disability payments, as well as a $396 weekly cap on benefits, when the council took up the issue again last week.
“I was shocked,” says Boardman. “Linda admitted to us she hadn’t seen any quantitative analysis on the bill to justify caps.”
“We were completely taken by surprise by her vote,” adds Powell, the union’s registered lobbyist.
Cropp told LL she had seen enough data to warrant cuts in workers’ comp. “The reality is we have made some very tough decisions,” she says of her stewardship, “and the council has been the stabilizing force in the District over the past 16 months.”
Rob Hodgson, who managed Cropp’s July 1997 campaign to fill the vacancy created by the death of former chairman Clarke, claims it’s too soon to judge Cropp. Hodgson claims that the real Cropp will emerge now that she has won the Nov. 3 election to serve a full, four-year term as council chair.
“She has been riding out Dave Clarke’s term this year,” says Hodgson. “She’s going to be a different chairperson starting in January.”
But even Hodgson admits he can offer the next mayor no clues as to how the real Linda Cropp will behave.CP
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