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Just when pundits and politicians prepare to count Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. out, Hizzoner steps up with a stroke so outrageous and so reminiscent of the old, masterful mayor that even LL has to worry about how deadly dull D.C.’s political theater could become without its leading man.

Last month, Hizzoner took note of the backlash against the financial control board’s hiring of Camille Cates Barnett, the former city manager of Austin, Texas, to serve as the city’s chief management officer. Protesters hit the streets to decry a racist affront to home rule, screaming that an unelected, unaccountable white woman had usurped the powers of an elected black man—just the sort of indignation that Barry rides to the polls.

With home-rule warriors providing cover, Barry hatched a scheme to install former Richmond, Calif., city manager Floyd Johnson as the District’s new city administrator, with a contract that plagiarizes Barnett’s five-year pact, which pays $155,000 yearly. The deal conveys the kind of irony and in-your-face message that the mayor has patented. Although Barry expects the control board to rip up the contract, he will probably make much hay out of the fact that he found a qualified black man with management experience in California city government and Florida state government who was passed over by arrogant, autocratic control board chairman Andrew Brimmer in the rush to hire Barnett. When Brimmer & Co., as expected, block Johnson’s plush contract, the board will look like the chief clerk for “the Plan” to restore white control in the nation’s capital.

In his public pronouncements, of course, Barry will spew boilerplate about hiring the best administrative talent and deny that Johnson’s hiring has anything to do with race or gender.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

“I don’t think Barry has any real intention or expectation that this is going to go through,” says an incensed city official. “He is just using this guy, and I think it’s awful that the mayor would play with someone that way.”

But Barry has little regard for whom he plays—he just wants to be in the game. And the city administrator position is one of those slivers of D.C. government where Hizzoner still has some wiggle room. For starters, the D.C. Council has no authority to block Barry’s selection for city administrator or alter his contract offer. In offering a five-year contract to the new city administrator, a post that Michael Rogers vacated last year, Barry will also block the next mayor from choosing his own city administrator. The contract will extend beyond the four-year term of the person elected mayor this fall.

“That’s outrageous,” notes the official. “But Barry has done outrageous things before.”

Indeed. That’s why he’s Mayor-for-Life.

Johnson, contacted at his California home this week, seemed unaware that he is a pawn in Barry’s game to checkmate his rivals on the control board. Johnson confirmed that he had been interviewed by Barry “a few weeks ago.”

“I wouldn’t say at this juncture that it was an absolute firm offer,” said Johnson, 50, who left his Richmond city manager’s post Jan. 2 after a four-year stint. “I am interested, but there remain a few matters that I have to discuss and he has to discuss with the control board.”

“They have more to do with roles and responsibilities than with salary,” Johnson added.

He declined to comment on the control board’s selection of Barnett over him to be CMO. “She appealed, obviously, to a majority of the control board, as opposed to me,” he said.

According to a control board official, it’s bad enough that Barry may hire one of the board’s rejects for city administrator. But Hizzoner’s desire to salt the wound by offering Johnson a contract equivalent to Barnett’s all but ensures renewed hostilities between the city’s top elected official and its appointed overseers.

The Jan. 30 congressional hearing on the city’s improving finances aired a preview of the battle that will unfold if Barry proceeds with his plan. D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton got wind of Barry’s plans prior to the hearing and grilled the mayor on whether he was getting ready to hire a new city administrator at a high salary. Barry hemmed and hawed, ducked and dodged, but did not rule out the move. Johnson’s name did not come up during the hearing.

Brimmer, who also testified before the House D.C. Oversight subcommittee, grudgingly acknowledged that Barry has the power to hire a new city administrator. But Brimmer said Barry could not pay the new city administrator the full $115,000 salary that Rogers received, let alone the $155,000 annual pay the mayor reportedly wants to offer Johnson. The duties of the office, Brimmer noted, had been reduced, with many transferred to Barnett. While Johnson would oversee the city’s libraries, parks, and a handful of minor functions, Barnett rules over nine critical agencies.

The control board chairman pointed out that his panel had frozen the $4-million budget for the city administrator’s office and that some of that money would be transferred to other city agencies, including the Office of Corporation Counsel. The control board approves all spending by the city administrator’s office and can slice Johnson’s salary. The board, however, may not be able to shorten a five-year contract for Johnson.

Barry, just to make sure he had all of his bases covered, told the panel he’d be happy to forgo hiring a new city administrator and transfer his few remaining powers to Barnett—as long as she would report directly to him. Look for Brimmer to dance naked in the middle of Thomas Circle before that ever happens.

PERFORMANCE PAY

OR HUSH MONEY?

William Tidball made little noise last fall when he left his post as chief of staff to D.C. schools czar Gen. Julius Becton. Sources in the school system reported that Tidball’s departure was preceded by several clashes with chief operating officer Gen. Charles Williams over the slow pace of school roof repairs. But more than four months after Tidball bolted, the terms of his bon voyage are turning heads downtown.

Control board auditors have been examining the $12,000 performance bonus Becton awarded his loyal aide last Oct. 24, more than a month after Tidball’s Sept. 20 resignation. After Becton “grossed up”—aptly enough—the bonus to pay the additional taxes that Tidball would incur on his $120,000 annual salary, the bonus totaled more than $18,000, according to school administration and control board sources. The control board auditors are questioning the legality of awarding a bonus to an employee long gone from the city payroll.

The control board is looking at a larger pattern of grossing up lucrative bonuses in the Becton administration. Brimmer ordered the investigation last month, after citizens became grossed out by tens of thousands of tax dollars in bonuses Becton handed out to Williams, academic officer Arlene Ackerman, and others. All the bonuses were grossed up to pay the income taxes for the recipients.

Tidball’s ties to Becton date back to the retired Army general’s tenure as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Ronald Reagan. Becton enlisted Tidball’s services again in January 1997, after the control board put Becton in charge of the District’s troubled public school system. As Becton’s chief aide, Tidball quickly gained the confidence of D.C. councilmembers and staffers on the council’s education committee, who otherwise regarded the Becton administration as secretive and uncooperative.

Last summer, Becton assigned Tidball to head up a task force to get schools open on time, which Becton had pledged to do shortly after replacing ousted school superintendent Franklin Smith in November 1996. To carry out that assignment, Tidball had to work with Williams, who was in charge of repairing and replacing school roofs in time for the scheduled start of the current school year early last September.

During meetings with Tidball, sources say, Williams would report that work was under way at various schools. Tidball, however, became suspicious and, upon checking with school principals, discovered that work had not even begun at those schools. When Williams learned that Tidball was checking up on him, he stopped cooperating with the task force altogether.

Williams’ intransigence frustrated Tidball, and he eventually went to Becton with his complaints. Becton sided with his fellow general, and Tidball immediately offered his resignation. His last day was Sept. 20, just a few days before the schools opened—three weeks late, thanks to delays in roof repairs.

Tidball’s silence about his clashes with Williams, and the post-departure bonus he received, has stirred speculation that Becton may have been rewarding his loyal aide for being a good soldier and keeping his mouth shut.

LL posed this question to school system spokesperson Beverly Lofton on Jan. 26, and we’re still awaiting her return phone call.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

A pop quiz for political junkies:

Where in D.C. can you find voters who cast ballots for government reformer Sharon Pratt Kelly in the 1990 mayoral election, incorrigible Great Society liberal David Clarke in the 1993 council chair race, spiritually rejuvenated ex-con Marion Barry in the 1994 mayor’s race, and conservative gay Republican newcomer David Catania in last December’s at-large council contest?

Are there really such voters in D.C.?

Yes there are, and they can be found in Ward 1’s Precinct 39 in Mount Pleasant, Ward 1’s Precinct 22 north of Logan Circle, Ward 6’s Precinct 86 in Capitol Hill’s Kingman Park neighborhood, and Ward 6’s Precinct 91 near 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Government watchdog Marie Drissel uncovered these four bellwether precincts while compiling a sophisticated analysis of recent voting patterns and registrations in hopes of convincing Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams to run for mayor. Drissel went to a scheduled luncheon meeting with Williams last Monday armed with her analysis, but she was too late.

That morning Williams had faxed out a statement ending his brief flirtation with mayoral politics.

Drissel says her analysis shows that Williams could have gotten 34 percent of the vote, leaving Barry with 25 percent, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil with 21 percent, and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous splitting up the remaining 20 percent.

Drissel was obviously unimpressed with the $216,000 mayoral war chest Evans revealed this week, three-fourths of which he raised during January.

Williams said he would resist the mayoral draft because of personal financial concerns, not concerns over raising campaign cash. His one-week exploration of a possible mayoral bid provided an early spark of excitement in this dreary election year.CP

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