Dump the current control board right after a clean audit and the first surplus in years? Seems churlish, not to mention shortsighted. After all, before Andrew Brimmer and the Brimmerettes came along, the District was dealing with fudged numbers, a Congress riven by hatred for its adopted home, and a citizenry that couldn’t get For Sale signs up on its houses fast enough. We’re just getting started, right?
Well, the nice numbers that the control board is putting up are just thatnumbers on a page somewhere. Out here where you live, the District is still a sick punch line halfway through a third control year. The calculus that measures the quality of lifeschools, cops, and city servicessuggests that the District remains a bad bet for the future.
Use the Ronald Reagan test for the control board: Are you better off now than you were three years ago? Any chance that your kids are headed into an improving school system? That you will end up finding your stolen or towed car in one piece? Thought not.
Yeah, yeah, Jesus Christ and his 12 apostles couldn’t have turned the District into a functioning municipality in less than three yearseven if they worked Sundays. After all, Marion Barry and his ilk had a full 20 years to screw it up. Says control board executive director John Hill, “Change is not easy. It is not linear; it is messy. And it’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and play Monday-morning quarterback. The control board is about making things happen, and there are a lot of people in this city who are here to keep things from happening. We are as frustrated as anyone about the pace of change here.”
Fixing cities is a complicated business, but both Philadelphia and New York had much more to show for their experiments in autocracy after three years, thanks to boards that addressed problems instead of studying them. Almost three years in, and the low-hanging fruit remains unplucked.
When control board members come up for reappointment this spring, they’ll no doubt point to the city’s FY 1997 surplus and ever-improving standing on Wall Street. And if they’re really crafty, they’ll manage to convince President Clinton that they should share credit with Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams for the turnaround.
But even as the board basks in the glow of some nice numbers, it’s worth looking at the way the board has run its own show. A conga line of consultants has picked up serious money by recycling and retrofitting data that was readily available. (See Page 22.)
And if you are going to put Williams on the credit side of the control board’s ledger, then you have to make a lot of room on the debit side for former police chief Larry Soulsby. Long after it became apparent that Soulsby lacked the fundamentals to lead a one-man parade, let alone 3,500 officers, the control board stood by him. (See Page 20.)
The board is showing the same blind faith in Gen. Julius Becton, whom it appointed to run the D.C. public schools in November 1996. Becton may have been a fine Army general, and he may have done a fine job of preparing the nation for disaster when he was at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but he has done nothing but perpetrate one since he has been here. (See Page 18.)
While the board has harped on the D.C. government’s legendary incompetence, it has failed to undo it. Many of the hacks who have robbed the District of viability are still running the show. The board promised to work itself out of a job by instilling sound management in the ranks. Now it seems the board wants what D.C. bureaucrats have long enjoyed: lifetime employment. (See Page 24.)
And the control board has shown zero ability to remediate the error of its ways. Brimmer’s imperiousness runs up and down the organization: never retreat, never admit you were wrong, and never, ever say you’re sorry. Brimmer believes that he and his cohorts are on a mission and that he has a sovereign right to run over all objections. (See Page 26.)
D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton helped draft the enabling legislation for the control board three years ago. Norton, who gives the board credit for the diminishing crime rate, is still waiting for more substantial returns.
“The control board will ultimately be judged by what the city looks like, feels like, and smells like. You could have surplus after surplus, but if you look around after the control board and you are the last one to turn out the light, then you have failed,” she says.
Councilmember Kathy Patterson gives the control board its due and some holy hell: “Progress has been made. Being back in the bond market and having a balanced budget is incredibly important, and the control board has been a big part of it.”
But like a lot of people who have tried to approach Brimmer, Patterson has had enough of his boardroom manner: “Dr. Brimmer has been a disaster. Dr. Brimmer is to the control board as Marion Barry is to effective city government. He has a perception of rank, of not wanting to hear anything that is contrary to his privileged positionand that was from the get-go.”
Brimmer’s municipal misanthropy, along with his penchant for mistaking reams of reports for progress, leaves him unlikely to be reappointed. But if he gets the boot, his pals on the control board should walk the plank with him. Stephen Harlan has absolutely butchered his assignment of police oversight. “Silent” Ed Singletary has been one more affirmative vote, nothing more. Joyce Ladner and Constance Newman have displayed episodic awareness of community concerns but have been complicit in Brimmer’s decision to hide behind prerogative.
When Clinton decides who will follow the underwhelming act of the current control board, he should consider anointing people who are already staked in the District, who know intimately what needs to be done without commissioning any more reports, and who are willing to listen to the citizenry they propose to govern. We need people who can use the power of a few to enhance the lives of the many.
The clock is ticking, each tick made more precious by the absence of elected control over the future of the District. When it hits the year 2000, the people who are still here deserve schools that can educate, cops who can police, and a city that is capable of governing itself. CP
Reason 1: Education
The roof has fallen in on the control board’s schools takeover.
By Tom Stabile
Gen. Julius W. Becton knows how to put on a show, and his first major public gig a year ago at H.D. Woodson Senior High School found him in top form. The retired U.S. Army bigwig presided stoically as his troops unveiled a plan to shutter 18 D.C. public schools. The plan featured a knockout chaser: the promise to raise an unprecedented $50-80 million within 18 months by selling surplus buildings. It was a declaration of war on the D.C. Public School system (DCPS) status quo, a boast that put even the sharpest critics of the school takeover on notice.
Nearly a year later, they know better than to take Becton at his word. Instead of $80 million, DCPS has raised a feeble $800,000 and hopes for another $9 million from sales that have been “pending” since, oh, before Labor Day. Becton’s pie-in-the-sky promise of heaps of revenue has proved pure follylittle more than sugarcoating for an unpopular school-closing plan.
The episode is symbolic, however, of a much greater distraction at work: Becton himself. Desperate to show firm resolve against the District’s No. 1 problem, the control board engineered a November 1996 takeover that replaced discredited DCPS superintendent Franklin Smith with Becton and jettisoned the board of education in favor of a new trustees board appointed by the control board.
The initial ballyhoo about the takeover had its desired effect: Becton and the trustees were cast as conquering warriors who would clean up the mess left by Smith and the deposed school board. A year of lurching from one fiasco to another, however, has left DCPS worse off, if that’s possible. As Becton & Co. get the schools into an ever finer mess, it has become clear that when it came to digging DCPS out of a very deep hole, the control board forgot to do its homework.
It’s important to remember how we got here. After a year or so atop the D.C. government hierarchy, the control board faced mounting pressure from Congress to end local control of the city’s public schools. Smith was mismanaging the system in plain view of parents and the media. The screwups were legendary: no textbooks in classes, no systemwide student head count, fire-code violations in every hallway.
In meetings with the board, Smith vowed to follow up on various “suggestions” for improving the system but always found an excuse to avoid taking action. Frustration with Smith’s no-account administration eventually percolated up to Capitol Hill. On Aug. 20, 1996, House Speaker Newt Gingrich sent a letter to control board chair Andrew Brimmer: “I continue to be troubled by the state of the District of Columbia’s public school system.” The message was clear: The congressionally created control board was to step in and end the crisis. A couple of weeks later, Smith gave the board a pretext for doing so. D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian cited the schools for numerous fire-code violations, which delayed the start of classes by three days.
The board began plotting the most brazen assault on home rule since Reconstruction: an Election Day coup of the elected school board. Even as District residents scanned the headlines to find out whom they had elected, a leaked news story announced Becton’s installation as DCPS czar.
The control board billed its school coup as proof of its commitment to accountable governing and to restoring a modicum of civic pride. School activists, however, say the bold stroke reflects a commitment to a more dubious goal: shrinking the board’s unwieldy portfolio.
“As soon as they put Becton in place…it seemed to me [the control board] did not want to have a role,” says Tammy Seltzer, a special education activist with D.C.’s Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “They essentially told us, ‘It’s taken care of.’”
It sure seemed taken care of. A retired general, a high-profile black leader, and a motivated manager all wrapped up in one package, Becton was what Vermont Sen. James Jeffords touted as “what this city needed…a man that could command immediate respect and that could instill confidence in people that action would result.”
But the choice turned out to be largely cosmetic, argues DCPS activist Mary Filardo.
“They went looking for the image of leadership, integrity, can-do resolve without looking for the substance they needed it for,” says Filardo. “[They assumed] that they’d figure it out later with enough power and money and time.”
Filardo contends that control board members and staffers looked at DCPS as a misguided ship in need of a strong captain, and not as the sinking hulk it really was. (The control board opted to stay mum, failing to grant repeated Washington City Paper requests to speak with its representatives.)
“They thought the solution was strong leadership which could overpower any problems in the infrastructure,” she says. “They didn’t understand that we didn’t have systems, we didn’t have processes, didn’t have data.”
Since his hiring, Becton has frequently complained of being blindsided by a system in total disarray. Indeed, his deputy in charge of facilities, retired Gen. Charles Williams, explained his inability to get last summer’s roof work done on time at a Senate hearing last month by saying, “When I arrived here…I had no staff, I had no plan, only $11.5 million was available for funding, and that had been somewhat committed.”
It’s absurd on one level for anyone to claim ignorance of DCPS’s being brokenall you had to do was pick up the newspaper. However, complaints by Becton and his staff that they weren’t ready have some grounding: The control board had dropped them headfirst into the wreckage with little more than good wishes. The “Children in Crisis” report, which the control board published in 1996 as the basis for its takeover, was more a snapshot of a disaster than a blueprint for reform. The report never asked nor answered specific, fundamental questions: What policies weren’t being followed? What systems weren’t working? Which staffers weren’t doing their jobs? What remedies had failed? How much money was available?
Judith Jones, a former employee under Williams and now one of his biggest critics, says the control board’s lack of planning was evident in the marching orders it gave Williams and Becton to close more than 30 of 150 DCPS schools within the next few years. When Jones challenged control board member Stephen Harlan in a letter last October to explain why DCPS needed to shed 30 schools, he cited a study the control board had obtained a year earlier. When she asked him to produce it, he dispatched a control board staffer to return her call.
“They could not say who did it, how it was done, what data was in it, and then told me they didn’t have a copy,” says Jones. “They’re basing their decisions affecting thousands of students on the basis of a study they claim they can’t find.”
Plenty of signals have gone off warning that Becton’s train is jumping the rails. His regime didn’t produce its most fundamental documenta new academic planuntil nearly a year into its tenure. His staff drew up a $180-million wish list for school construction and renovation projects for fiscal year 1997a wasteful exercise when most signs showed, correctly, that the schools wouldn’t get even a third of that amount to spend. His subordinates’ attempts to complete a systemwide student head count got a failing grade last summer from the General Accounting Office, which said Becton’s numbers weren’t much better than the phantom figures they replaced. And his hand-picked special education chief, Jeff Myers, managed to miss four deadlines over six months to produce a mandatory report for the U.S. Department of Education outlining how DCPS would serve special-ed students.
But as badly as Becton’s baby steps went, he wasn’t getting any guidance from the people who had given him the shoes. The control board didn’t spend an ounce of energy on DCPS oversight. How else to explain the control board’s assent when DCPS presented a plan last June 9 promising that 50 new roofs would be in place by Sept. 2, even though bids for the jobs hadn’t even gone out?
“The area where they really fell down was oversight,” says Seltzer. “They were not interested in looking over Becton’s shoulder. They washed their hands of it. They put a board of trustees in place, but the trustees were no more than a rubber stamp [for Becton].” And now the trustees have lost their ink pad: A recent D.C. Court of Appeals ruling declared that the control board had gone beyond its statutory power in creating the trustees board.
Worse, the lack of oversight gave Becton and his subordinates the mistaken and arrogant notion that no one would get in their way. At the Senate hearing last month, Williams said he “had no idea” that Christian would not allow work on schools while students were in thempreventing the entire school system from opening on time when the roof work on 30 buildings stretched into late September. Eyes right, General: The judge had insisted on the same condition in previous standoffs with DCPS, including one on Williams’ watch.
The ensuing disastercity schoolchildren enduring a three-week shutdown, far longer than any Smith-era delayfinally forced the control board to pretend it was paying attention. It commissioned an independent audit of the summer roof projects, which resulted last month in a scathing assessment of DCPS’s capital improvements and procurement program; Becton and Williams, the audit concluded, had proceeded with no organization, no planning, and no expertise.
In media interviews just after the audit’s release, Brimmer was apologetic and somber, pledging that the mistakes wouldn’t happen againa damage control style perfected by ousted superintendent Smith. CP
Reason 2: Police
The control board stood by Soulsby, and now we’re paying the price.
By Ken Cummins
Last October, the management team installed by the control board to shape up the mismanaged, reform-resistant Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) prepared a 34-page report titled “Milestones.” Packaged in a tidy, bound booklet with blue cover, the report listed the changes within MPD since the control board took command.
MPD’s new overseers took credit for every changeno matter how minorwithin the department during the first eight months of 1997. But before the “Milestones” review was ready for public release last November, WUSA-TV (Channel 9) broadcast details of MPD Chief Larry Soulsby’s sweetheart rental arrangement at the posh downtown Lansburgh apartment building. Four days later, Soulsby resigned.
The chief’s demise was one milestone the control board and its management team didn’t want to publicize. The report, wrapped in a colorful folder emblazoned with Soulsby’s name, never saw the light of day.
The control board seized authority over MPD last March amid public outrage over the department’s general ineptitude and the senseless killing of officer Brian Gibson outside the notorious Ibex nightclub on upper Georgia Avenue. In its raid on MPD’s downtown headquarters, the control board made its mandate clear: out with incompetent captains and commanders, out with officers hiding behind desk jobs, and out with obsolete police techniques and technologies.
But the board’s purge did not touch Soulsby. Not only did the chief survive, he quickly became the front man for the reform movement, despite his widespread unpopularity within the ranks, his presence in the middle of many of the fiascoes the control board sought to remedy, and his demonstrated lack of control over the department. The control board propped Soulsby up as the department’s savior and the epitome of a skilled, big-city police chief.
The control board’s rendition of its success story at MPD now lies buried in the files maintained by the Booz-Allen and Hamilton consultants. The board selected the consultants to micromanage the department at an estimated cost to D.C. taxpayers of $100,000 weekly. Those few who have laid eyes on the report contend the work is heavily padded with changes already under way prior to the control board’s March 1997 MPD takeover.
“It gives them credit for everything that was long in the works before they took over,” says Ward 6 police watchdog Sally Byington, a member of MPD’s citywide Citizens Advisory Council, a group that has been elbowed aside by the control board. Byington faults high-priced Booz-Allen consultants for recycling past reports and the control board for failing to fund and implement recommendations already on the shelf.
Control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan claims he and his MPD management team, known as the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) Partners, can rightfully take bows for the good news: a 24-percent drop in some citywide crime categories. Although declining crime swept the entire country prior to last March, Harlan points out “crime was still going up in the District.”
No one has bought that line.
Community activist Dorothy Brizill and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose allege that MPD has been underreporting crime and hiding violent crimes in nonviolent reporting categories. Some of Ambrose’s Capitol Hill constituents, for example, contend that muggings in which the victims were badly beaten have been recorded as robberies instead of assaults.
Aside from the debate over whether police officials are cooking the stats, the suppressed control board/Booz-Allen “Milestones” failed to point out the many missteps and wrong turns taken by the MOU team during its first year of running MPD, including:
•Replacing squad car beats with 83 Police Service Areas (PSAs) drawn by the consultants without community input. The revised policing map last summer touched off protests from community groups warning that PSA boundaries would destroy long-standing efforts to strengthen community policing. The consultants also underestimated by 400 officers the total number needed to staff the PSAs.
“Booz-Allen admits they miscalculated the number of officers in each PSA necessary to make the model work,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a member of the MOU management team and chair of the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee. “Everybody was complaining they didn’t see any police out there. That was the reason.”
•Disbanding the central homicide unit at headquarters and dispersing veteran homicide detectives throughout the city’s seven police districts. The quick dispersion last September came in response to media reports that homicide detectives had failed to solve more than two-thirds of the city’s several hundred annual murders.
Last month, top D.C. police officials conceded what many at MPD already knew but couldn’t teach the Booz-Allen consultants: that homicide detectives need to work out of a central location and share information with each other. The detectives were transferred back to headquarters in January.
“Everybody involved in the homicide unit when the decision was first made whispered to me that this was a bad idea and it wasn’t going to work,” says a veteran homicide detective. “But Soulsby went along with it because Booz-Allen recommended it.”
•Painting new police cars with red and blue decals. Booz-Allen had recommended the new design so that residents would notice the new police cars and feel reassured that more officers were on the streets. Instead, the new cars are widely ridiculed as “the Pepsi police.”
“I don’t think you have to play that psychological game,” Evans says.
But at Booz-Allen, image is everything.
•Taking over a police department already suffering a morale meltdown and further alienating competent officers and officials by unflinchingly backing Soulsby. While the media has highlighted the comings and goings of the department’s incompetent officers, it hasn’t focused on its competent officers, who are going, not coming. Over the past year, experienced and knowledgeable officials like Inspector Jim Lingerfelt and deputy chiefs Claude Beheler and Joyce Leland have quit or been forced out after being made scapegoats for the chief.
Even members of the police management team rate the control board’s first-year performance as average at best.
“I’d give them about a C-plus,” says MOU Partner Evans. “They made some mistakes in underestimating the police force’s ability to make change.”
“They have some good ideas,” adds Evans. “But, like many of us, they put a lot of stock in Chief Soulsby, and he turned out not to be the right person.” Evans was part of that particular problem, maintaining a posture of public support for Soulsby long after he became aware that Soulsby wasn’t up to the job.
Choosing Soulsby as the department’s savior sealed the fate of the control board’s effort to bring competent policing to the District for the first time in decades. In Soulsby, Harlan and his management team found a yes man who would do their bidding without hesitation, no matter how ill-conceived or ill-advised the reforms might be.
“Soulsby’s position was, ‘I’m going to keep this job at all costs. And if Booz-Allen tells me to paint the cars pink and blue, that’s exactly what I’m going to do,’” relates a veteran police official.
As Ambrose would remark of Soulsby some months later, “This is not an inquiring mind.”
And Soulsby also lacked the mettle and wits to bring reform to a department where officers have made careers out of avoiding standard police work. Soulsby epitomized the loyal, ass-kissing cop who manages to climb up through the ranks on the back of internal department politics. In most big-city police departments, the unimaginative Soulsby would have been fortunate to rise above the rank of sergeant. His ultimate elevation to police chief in mid-1995 was a purely political move by Mayor Marion Barry, who hoped his selection of a white police chief would play well with a hostile, Republican-led Congress determined to take away his powers.
Barry chose Soulsby with a nod and a wink to disgruntled black officers that the new boss would be replaced by a black police chief by the end of 1996. But Barry couldn’t follow through on his pledge, because the African-American police officers in line to succeed Soulsby had too many stains on their records.
When the control board, prodded by the public and an anxious Congress, added police chief’s chief to its ever-expanding list of duties last year, Soulsby was still sitting in the chief’s chair. Harlan reasoned that keeping Soulsby on top would expedite the changes the MOU Partners planned to impose on MPD. It was a foolish gambit. Harlan, the control board’s point man on MPD, failed to realize that rank-and-file police officers who openly ridiculed the chief wouldn’t follow him out of the room, let alone into a bold new era of a corruption-free, competence-driven MPD.
The management team, Harlan said, hoped that by hanging on to Soulsby it could avoid the inherent delay of searching for a new chief, a process that would have taken several months.
Soulsby’s abrupt resignation eight months later came just moments after his roommate, MPD Lt. Jeffrey Stowe, was arrested on charges of extortion and stealing department funds. Stung by revelations that he and Stowe had shared the Lansburgh apartment, Soulsby addressed a roomful of reporters and police officers Nov. 25 and announced he was retiring.
Harlan and other MOU Partners quickly seized the microphone to praise the discredited Soulsby and shield him from reporters’ questions. Stowe pleaded guilty last week, and Soulsby’s role in these scandals remains under investigation.
Now the control board is approaching its first anniversary as master of MPD but has been forced back to the starting line by Soulsby’s swan dive. The search for a new police chief is nearly three months old.
If the control board’s second year of playing police chief ends as badly as this one, D.C. residents may be ready to turn the department back over to Barry. At least residents didn’t make fun of the police cars when he was mismanaging MPD. CP
Reason 3: Money
Why reinvent the wheel for free when you can pay $50 million?
By Jonetta Rose Barras
Television cameras and notebook-toting journalists are crammed into Room 1030 at 1 Judiciary Square, where Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams preens, smiles, and boasts about an achievement it has taken him nearly three years to attain: a fiscal 1997 audit that shows the District government in the black.
Three days earlier, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (aka the control board) released its own audit. The board didn’t hang any banners, brief the D.C. Council, or hold a press conference. The control board knows its handling of public money doesn’t merit any bragging.
The control board was expected to rein in the city’s outrageous spending habits by reducing both the size and cost of government. But the five-member panel has done none of that. If austerity has come to the District, it has certainly bypassed 1 Thomas Circle. Meeting no dollar it didn’t feel compelled to consume, the control board has become the District’s chief spending officer. And the control board’s brand of cronyism and overspendingunlike the Barry administration’sbears a congressional seal of approval.
The board is now poised to shell out $185 million on reforming the District governmenta project that Congress not only supports but actually initiated. In doing so, Congress has apparently overlooked the tendencies of the city’s most spendthrift instrumentality. In nearly three years atop the D.C. government, the board has:
•Spent more than $50 million on consultant contracts. Many of the contracts were awarded without bidding; most of them produced reports that duplicated studies previously conducted by the elected government.
•Significantly hiked the salaries of its own staff.
•Approved unprecedented bonuses for its hand-picked directors.
•Created a new caste system for city workers under which control board employees are handsomely rewarded for their labor while longtime bureaucrats are disparaged or fired.
Although the control board has brought the same old crappy services to city residents, it has treated companies like the consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick to a ride in first class. When the control board took power in 1995, it hired Peat Marwick to perform the annual audit mandated by city law. In previous years1992 through 1994Coopers & Lybrand had performed the audit for a total of $600,000 per year, according to government documents obtained by Washington City Paper. (Current District law limits auditors to three consecutive years.)
Rather than use the Coopers & Lybrand amount as a ceiling, the control board permitted Peat Marwick to boost the audit cost to $1.8 milliona 200-percent increase. Peat Marwick conducted the audit again in 1996, for the same amount. But in 1997, the tab jumped again, this time to $2.8 million. That’s a 370-percent rise over three yearssafely ahead of inflation. (Critics are fond of pointing out that control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan is a former Peat Marwick exec.)
Peat Marwick rival Deloitte & Touche bid $2.1 million to conduct the 1997 audit but dropped out, leaving the board in the lurch, according to board executive director John Hill. “We couldn’t get anybody else,” he says. That’s because Peat Marwick, the board’s darling, scared off Deloitte & Touche. John Hummel, an audit partner at Peat Marwick, wrote a letter to his competitor, stating, “You will find continued excessive fraud in many areas, including procurement, payroll, and pension payment. Discouragingly, this fraud is accepted as a way of doing business and is not penalized by the District.” Peat Marwick, of course, wasn’t discouraged enough to pass up the audit.
Deloitte & Touche’s exit cleared the way for Peat Marwick’s auditing windfall, which Hill explains as standard business practice. “What firms usually do is that in the first year, they incur a tremendous amount of costs. There is a learning curve,” says Hill. “Over the next two years, you have to be able to recoup your investments.”
But Peat Marwick knows the District. It’s been neck deep in the local government long enough to be considered a fourth branch. Since the control board’s arrival, Peat Marwick has received more than $12 million in contracts. And the company performed audits for the city as far back as 1989, when it was named Peat Marwick, Main & Mitchell.
The attempt to elbow aside Deloitte & Touche may have been a ruse to keep the pipeline open for Peat Marwick, which had lost its contract with the D.C. public schools. Officials there were forced to terminate an auditing contract after the federal Department of Education complained about the quality of Peat Marwick’s work, according to the Washington Times.
While the board takes care of its consultants, it’s just as generous with its staff. In the past two fiscal years, more than 80 people working for the control board received bonuses and raises totaling more than $260,000. One person won a bonus even after he had left the payroll. For fiscal 1998, the board jacked up Hill’s salary by $7,000to $122,700circumventing legislation that capped the salaries of the CFO, the IG, the control board’s executive director, and the city administrator at the federal Executive Level 4: $115,700.
Hill denies that the control board is spendy as a matter of habit. The board’s contracting, he says, has been competitive and has rescued city agencies trapped by an outdated procurement system. And even though the board does a lot of business with Peat Marwick, Hill maintains that Harlan is never in the room during discussions involving the company.
And as far as salaries and bonuses go, it’s all a matter of perspective, says Hill: Control boarders aren’t overpaid; District government employees are just drastically underpaid. He insists that the board didn’t break any laws when it upped his salary and that Congress intended to set a ceiling only on the basenot total compensation.
“[The board] could give me a bonus, a car allowance, or any of those [additional] things,” he adds.
Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, whose House subcommittee crafted the legislation authorizing the control board, says of the board, “They have done a good job overseeing how the city’s money is spent. [The fiscal] picture has actually improved.”
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.
If Barry were pulling the city’s purse strings, Davis would be pointing out all the potholes in the District’s recently released audit, which boasts a surplus of $185 million. He would note that more than half of the additional $110.9 million in revenue collected last year came from back taxes and cannot be considered “new revenue.” That stream will dry up soon.
Another $53.6 million of the surplus is attributed to a one-time privatization effort. And finance officials kept at least $80 million in additional fiscal 1997 expenditures off the budget and therefore out of the calculations. If you did nothing but subtract that $80 million from the $185 million surplus, you’d call off the parades. In the old days, Davis & Co. would have said the audit was riven with creative accounting gimmicks.
No amount of bookkeeping legerdemain, however, could hide the escalating cost of maintaining the D.C. government. In spite of what you may have heard, from 1995 through 1997 the per-resident cost of running the city increased from $6,019 to $6,252. The local budget also increasedfrom $3.3 billion in 1995 to $3.4 billion in 1997, according to data from budget officials. The hikes came even though the city cut 12,000 workers or positions from its payroll and lost 10,000 residents.
A nugget of information hidden in the annual audit offers insight into how taxpayers are still forking over more money. According to the audit, the District spent $52.4 million less on salaries and wages than it did in 1996. But those savings were swallowed by the contracting beast let loose by the control board. During fiscal 1997, the government spent nearly $52 million more than it had the previous year on private contractors and consultants. The failure to arrest spending means District residents shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for tax cuts.
Davis can’t explain the budget and per capita increases. He disapproves of the bonuses the board has issued and admits that the control board ignored a clause setting a cap on Hill’s salary. Still, he dismisses out of hand any suggestion of freezing salaries. He cautions against nitpicking the panel’s work and warns not to “lose sight of the forest for the trees.”
But the control board’s arrogant self-enrichment has offended people other than just nitpickers. D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has her staff researching federal statutes the control board reportedly used in deciding to hand out expensive signing bonuses. “What is the standard and the formula?” she asks.
“If I were the control board, I would get my act together before somebody up here does,” Norton says, adding that privately some congressional representatives are looking at ways to curb the panel’s spending.
A recent report submitted by the control board to Congress suggests the board isn’t listening or that it simply doesn’t consider Norton and others like her a threat. For example, chairman Andrew Brimmer says he needs $185 million for management reforms, even though Williams says the city can only spare about $126 million in fiscal 1998. And while Congress applauded the board’s spending more than $200,000 a year on the salary and inducements for chief management officer Camille Cates Barnett, it might not be as thrilled when as many as three deputy CMOswith salaries in excess of $100,000are hired before the summer.
In addition to tapping the city’s general operating fund for its spending spree, the control board has pulled resources from interest earned on escrow accounts it manages on the District government’s behalf. Prior to fiscal year 1998, the control board didn’t have to report to anyone how that money was spent.
The report shows that the board spent $42,000 on its futile citywide management reform hearings, $833 of that for vans to transport members. If Barry and other elected officials had wasted money this way, they would have received a bountiful service of tar and feathers. But what’s good for the goose seems to have no effect on the ways of the gander. The control board, insulated by its mandate and tightfisted image, can spend as it likes until Congress comes home to roost. CP
Reason 4: Reform
The control board has made sure
that when the city regains the right to govern itself it won’t be able to do so.
By Erik Wemple
In the summer of 1995, District residents heard a soothing monologue of happy talk from the control board. Chairman Andrew Brimmer promised to balance budgets, reorder municipal priorities, exile cronies, and shame flat-assed bureaucrats.
Mixed in with the platitudes on accountability and oversightlines that all aspiring District big shots have masteredwas a specific initiative conceived to touch every last D.C. taxpayer: an overhaul of the sprawling Department of Public Works (DPW). That made sense. After all, DPW is the Wal-Mart of D.C. government, administering everything from driver’s licenses to sewer cleaning.
And like any agency that tries to do too much, DPW executed most of its tasks poorly. The department made municipal recycling look like an Apollo expedition, collected trash at its leisure, and turned D.C.’s streets and sidewalks into a crucible for materials testing. Nary a local couldn’t have filled a three-hour board hearing with DPW gripes.
Like the true good-government warriors they claimed to be, the control boarders pushed performance-based management as a remedy for the department. A Reagan-era “innovation” that never made it big in the District, performance-based management gives rank-and-file workers an incentive to do their work. Every dollar that a given division saves against its budgetary outlay becomes available for staff bonuses and raises.
But DPW workers would be more likely to master Arabic than the logic of incentive-based management. DPW managers and D.C. Council public works committee chair Harry Thomas urged the control board to start small, launching performance targets in one of the department’s 11 divisions, and then expanding the program to other divisions.
Adhering to its tradition of listening halfheartedly to what local officials advise and then going the opposite way, the board attempted to install the program throughout DPW in one grand stroke. The results proved as disastrous as any indigenous D.C. government initiative, including Marion Barry’s hyperhyped “Transformation Plan” of 1996.
Today, nearly two years after the board first foisted its scheme on DPW, only six of DPW’s 11 administrators have signed on. “We have had to delay that process,” said DPW director Cell Bernardino at a Feb. 13 council hearing on the plan. In a flurry of bureaucratese, Bernardino explained that DPW was trying to merge two distinct management programs and had stopped signing performance contracts. Management reform under the control board, it seems, is a perpetual work-in-progress.
The board’s DPW follies can’t compete with its marquee screw-upssee “Education” and “Police”for media attention and public derision. Thwarting management reform at DPW has proceeded quietly, for good reason. Even if the board put a couple of bumbling generals in charge of trash collection, the public would never respond with the outrage that springs from fouling up the school system.
Yet when congressional Republicans pin the restoration of home rule to the improvement of service delivery, they’re obliquely slamming the board for failing to deliver on one of its chief mandates: to introduce sound management to the District government.
“In many respects, it’s like an old person,” says control board critic Dorothy Brizill. “What you’ll see is the government in a non-control board year reverting back to its old ways. I don’t see them rolling up their sleeves and improving the work force.”
“If the Mayor or the Council…notifies the [control board], the President, and Congress…that the District government will not adopt any [control board] recommendation…[the board] may by a majority vote of its members take such actions concerning the recommendation as it deems appropriate…”
That’s Public Law 104-8, which created the control board. In straightforward legalese, the statute gives the board authority to do…well, anything it wants. Usurp the board of education, an oversight panel elected by the people? Oust the superintendent of schools? No problemjust issue the fiat.
But the board was afflicted with Jimmy Carter syndrome: It had power but chose never to use it. Only after Congress complained did the board annex the D.C. public schools. And only after Congress passed last summer’s District revitalization bill did the board wrest control of nine city agencies from the incompetent clutches of Mayor Barry.
While the crowd at 1 Thomas Circle waited for specific instructions to do its job, District agencies rotted. Last fall, a spate of board-mandated consulting reports documented poor management practices, outdated technology, duplication of tasks, inefficient allocation of resources, and other sorts of bureaucratic dysfunction in every city agency that counts. Nearly every malaise cited in the studies was festering at the time the board took officemore than two years before.
With political cover from Congress, the board is now doing what it was appointed to do: hire a chief management officer and fix the government from the ground up. But the board offers no apologies for delaying real change for two and a half years. “The mayor was given the chance to do the job. As soon as operational control ran toward us in August, we immediately went out and did a nationwide search. We found someone with a national reputation [new Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett] to come on board in January. I think that’s awfully quick,” says control board executive director John Hill.
The suggestion that it would be unseemly to step on elected governance sounds a bit odd coming from a board that on Election Day 1996 leaked news of its plan to depose the school board. As soon as the control board took over most city functions, though, it showed how poorly prepared it was to spearhead management reform in the District. In a strange nod to power-sharing, Congress’ revitalization act gives the board final say on who runs D.C. government agencies, but Barry gets first crack at naming appointees.
When it came time to review Barry’s recommendations, the board acted in the best tradition of the D.C. Council, which in the 22 years of home rule had never rejected a mayoral appointee. The board confirmed all the appointments forwarded by the mayor. In a few of the cases, the board’s approval was justified, as Barry had found some qualified managers at the agency level.
Yet the control board couldn’t play spot-the-crony any better than the council. For instance, it rubber-stamped the appointment of David Watts to run the troubled Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). At the time of his appointment, Watts was finishing up an undistinguished stint as head of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). DHCD is little more than a filter for federal housing and economic-development grants; only a handful of positions are funded by local tax dollars. The agency evaluates local bids for federally funded projects and then awards contracts for their execution. That’s it.
Somehow, the board surmised that evaluating housing bids had prepared Watts for DCRA, a morass of surly administrators, indecipherable registration and application codes, and World War II technology. Although every city agency has its own horrific historyand three are under federal receivershipmost locals see DCRA’s dingy cinderblock walls and disheveled offices as Exhibit A of District dysfunction. Churning out recommendations on how to fix the place took a highly motivated group of business types 15 months.
Late last summer, when Barry forwarded his agency appointments, good-government types on the council and elsewhere urged the board to conduct a nationwide search for a manager who had overhauled business regulations in other large cities. “We wanted someone who had done this before,” notes a council source. “We could have gotten someone from somewhere else.”
The board, though, was happy to accept what Barry had offered. “David Watts, as far as I was concerned, was a Barry cronyend of story,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. (Watts did not respond to an interview request.)
It may be the end of that particular story, but not of the control board’s willingness to settle for the same old mediocrity. The board approved Jearline Williams to head the Department of Human Services last September. Williams’ chief qualification for the post was that she had headed the Office on the Aging, a small outpost that council sources allege she managed poorly. Also on the board’s good-to-go list was Department of Employment Services director Alexis Roberson, a close friend of Barry’s and a terrible administrator in her own right according to city officials familiar with her tenure. Roberson padded the agency’s payroll amd awarded job-training grants to contractors who boasted virtually no record of finding work for the unemployed.
The control board can be forgiven for failing to re-engineer DPW in two years, and perhaps for approving Barry cronies as agency heads. But the board hasn’t even taken on the big, systemic management issues whose resolution could hasten the restoration of home rule. If the board is really serious about setting the city right, it needs to address huge, gaping holes in the management of the District:
•Labor: Last month, the schools barely averted another crisis. The system’s janitors and cafeteria employees threatened to strike over pay and other considerations. School management and the janitors’ union worked out a compromise before the strike was slated to begin. Although this episode ended well, it exposed the inequity at the core of District government: While control board staffers rake in raises and bonuses every year, most municipal employees have gotten just one raise since 1994.
•University of the District of Columbia (UDC): Barry and the board have mud-wrestled over funding levels for UDC several times since 1995. The board, of course, wins the clashes, and last year clipped 125 employees from the UDC payroll. The move helped balance the city’s budget, but it left an outsize shell of a community college sitting on Connecticut Avenue and a law school begging to keep its accreditation. The board has never answered the question: Should the District be funding higher education?
•D.C. General Hospital: For years, the city’s publicly funded hospital has provided health care for the uninsureda socially laudable function but hardly a recipe for solvency. Last year, the city established a public benefit corporation to run D.C. Generala largely cosmetic change that does little to stop the hospital’s drain on tax dollars. The District needs to decide whether to keep D.C. General and in what form. Some guidance from the board might help.
If the consultants hired by the control board were doing their job, they’d deliver the real bottom line: The people managing the reform process need to be replaced. CP
Reason 5: Community
An arrogant meritocracy ignores
By David Carr
Public meetings at the control board are not very complicated affairs. Last Thursday, five weeks after the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the control board had overstepped its mandate when it delegated governance of the school system to hand-picked trustees, a rare public performance was scheduled in a conference room at 1 Thomas Circle. The agenda was 11 words long:
“Consideration of an Order regarding the District of Columbia Public Schools.”
The meeting was a tad short on suspense, as well. That morning, intrepid Washington Post reporter David Vise (in a piece co-written with Debbi Wilgoren) had previewed the board’s decision in stunning detail.
Debate? Control board chairman Andrew Brimmer read a tortuous prepared statement outlining the semantic cover that will allow the trustees to continue running the show and the elected school board to continue running its mouth.
Process? Brimmer’s associates on the control board picked their way through short statements in which they tossed promises of a bold new era of cooperation with the school board like so many beads off a Mardi Gras float. Joyce Ladner, the control board’s point person on education, talked about how tough it was to come to a decision, although there was no evidence of any cracks in the control board’s great wall of unanimity.
Dialogue? None of the people in the 32 chairs in the meeting room was allowed to speak. Petulant, muttered asideselected school board chair Wilma Harvey quietly chanted, “It’s a lie,” as Brimmer chewed through his statementand uncomfortable shifting in chairs were about the only noises that democracy made at this particular public affair. The only countervailing opinion came in written form: A representative of congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office passed out a statement slamming the board for ignoring the court.
At least there was voting, that last, vestigial reminder that we are not marooned in some banana republicyet. Up on the dais, a unanimous tick-tock proceeded. Case closed. Meeting adjourned.
The proceedings of the board are no more democratic than Eva Perón stepping up to the balcony of Casa Rosada and preening for the masses, but Brimmer never promised a pageant of representative government. Still, while the junta-esque efficiency of the board’s public forays may be in keeping with the group’s monocratic origins, there are other models the control board could aspire to.
Back when the District was just getting into the autocracy business, Felix Rohatyn, who played a starring role in the fiscal rescue of New York two decades ago, told the Post that legitimacy comes from the people whether they elect you or not. “When private citizens get involved in issues of great public power and issues that are controversial and painful, the openness of the process is very important. It is a question of public education,” said Rohatyn. In the same story, Brimmer mapped out the antipode: “There will be few public meetings rather than many. Privacy is required to assure the safety and confidentiality of the discussions.”
Brimmer’s view has prevailed. After a few public meetings at which he and his cohorts were mau-maued endlessly, he retreated to the back room, where he couldn’t hear the home rule types parading outside with megaphones and crude signage bemoaning the rape of democracy. The low point came after the ’96 elections, when the freshly elected and newly dumped school board stormed the control board offices but was held at bay by a screwdriver-brandishing guard.
It didn’t have to be this way. Few people would argue that the control board or something like it wasn’t necessary. But in his campaign to impose a Federal Reserve-style regime on the city, Brimmer has shunned all District residents, regardless of what they have to contribute.
“I think it is an extraordinarily inefficient way to do business. If you were trying to turn a company around, and you ignored everyone who knew anything about it, I don’t think you’d have much luck turning it around,” says Mount Pleasant activist Bonnie Cain.
“There is this widely held perception that we are so incredibly backward because we have this mayor, that there is something desperately wrong with us, and essentially anybody who was involved in the system in any way cannot be part of the solution,” Cain adds.
By making decisions behind an expanding moat, the control board has cut itself off from the very data that would help it speed up the reform process and keep the jackals off its heels. The board’s disdain for local government has left it isolated to the point where it only seems sure of what its (highly) paid consultants tell it.
Almost three years into their tenure, control board members and staff can quote chapter and verse from their reports, but they lack the kind of feedback that would tell them, for instance, that the District’s schools are on a fast train to nowhere. Their paid think tank didn’t tell them that police chief Larry Soulsby had lost the respect necessary to lead his department until he tanked, and they won’t get the message on Becton until a lot more time and money have gone for naught. Life in an echo chamber may keep dissonance at a minimum, but it won’t produce the kind of results that will rebuild the District.
“People gave up electing leadership, but the trains are not running on time,” says American University law professor Jamin Raskin. “The schools did not open on time. People now see we have the worst of all worlds, and the control board is viewed as one more level of bureaucracy.”
The District’s chief financial officer, Anthony Williams, should be one of the least popular people in the District. He is an officious bean counter who has fired entire offices in the District government. Yet Williams enjoys so much cachet in town that he recently had to rebuff a campaign to draft him as a mayoral candidate. Certainly Williams’ stellar record on the city’s finances accounts in part for his appeal. But there’s another reason the CFO is popular in the District’s neighborhoods: He has visited them. When you ask him about it, he sounds a little like Rohatyn.
“Because you are part of a powerful appointed authority, I think it is all the more incumbent upon you to go out in the community and get an understanding of what people’s priorities are,” says Williams. “It helps you keep your role and your position in a proper perspective. You are not God.”
Tell that to Brimmer. Any public appearance the control board chair has ever made has involved a magisterially raised dais, a three-minute limit on presentations, and a hasty retreat to shower thoroughly from his time amongst the hoi polloi.
“I think that in general, when I came to Washington, I was flabbergasted by the lack of community input in decisions, so I think there are a lot of tangible reasons to attend [advisory neighborhood commissions] and to invite them in,” Williams says. “There are also some important intangible reasons. There is something of a religion to meeting with the public. It may not end up having a huge impact on the decisions, but I think that by being out there, you build trust and confidence in the choices you make, even when people don’t like some of those choices.”
Williams believes that as the control board’s power has grown, so has the importance of its losing the papal mien.
“The control boardand I think they would agreedid not see themselves as people who were chosen to run the city. But as it became clear that the management of the city was going to be in their hands, they needed to make a transition in their public outreach as well. As a group, these are not people who have had to deal with a lot of community involvement,” says Williams.
Activist Dorothy Brizill has hammered on the control boardsince before it was appointedto mix it up with the people it hopes to govern.
“I accept the notion that the control board can work and has worked in other cities,” says Brizill. “But in the three years that they have been existence, I have never been in a meeting where I thought there was a real dialogue between the control board and the citizens.
“Let me be blunt. I have the definite impression that they regard the community as the enemy and are as contemptuous of the citizens of the District as they are of Marion Barry.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson believes that citizens, and even their elected officials, wouldn’t mind getting stiffedif the results were there.
“I think citizens, activists, and everyone else would be much less concerned about the arrogance and unapproachability if they saw the [control board] as effective. It then raises the issue:…Are they so ineffective because they don’t know what to do or because they just refuse to listen to anyone else?” CP