Sign up for our free newsletter
The District is the only place in the country where trash collection is a white-collar profession. This is how it works: A garbage packer makes its rounds in the morning with a three-man crew. After the crew throws on a couple tons of refuse, the packer breaks an axle. The crew takes a seat on the curb and waits a couple of hours for a tow truck to haul the packer away. Then it waits another three hours for the repairs, allowing crew members to don eyeshades and spend the rest of their day calculating how much overtime pay the mechanical mishap has generated.
The system works better for garbage men than taxpayers. Over the past three years, the Department of Public Works (DPW) has averaged a whopping $1 million in overtime outlays, mostly because of faulty and poorly maintained equipment.
Diagnosing problems like DPW’s overtime habit requires all the managerial acumen of a GED student. Yet the control board has employed an army of high-priced MBAs to expose all the inefficiencies in the District bureaucracy. Thus far, the board’s consultants have managed to gobble up $6.5 million in public money, generating reams and reams of reports that all bear the same bottom line: It’s management, stupid.
But we knew that.
“Sometimes I just want to stand up and scream at them,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas. Last week, Thomas met with a group of control board consultants who had prepared a management report on DPW, which Thomas oversees as head of the D.C. Council’s committee on public works. “They said we need new trucks, and I was thinking, ‘I was saying that six years ago.’”
Other recommendations rang familiar to Thomas. The consultants recommended “realigning” trash routes; Thomas recommended “redesigning” them years ago. The consultants advised DPW to collect fees for underground cable and estimated that the agency could collect “several million dollars”; Thomas made the same recommendation and put the figure at $7 million. The consultants said to “stabilize” and “fix” the computers at the motor vehicles bureau; Thomas said to “replace and modernize” them. And so on. (See chart.)
The control board could have saved some hasslenot to mention taxpayer moneyby checking out the existing literature on the agency’s problems. But it never knocked. “The consultants didn’t have guts enough to come to this committee,” says Thomas. “They didn’t talk to [my staff], to methey didn’t talk to anybody.”
Thomas would have been even more pissed off if the consultants had plagiarized his committee’s recommendations. That’s basically how members of the now-defunct Business Regulatory Reform Commission (BRRC) feel.
In the summer of 1996, Mayor Marion Barry stacked BRRC with a group of local business types to plot an overhaul of the city’s archaic business regulations. In a startling break from local tradition, BRRC actually held regular meetings, studied the regulations, and wrangled over recommendations for improving the system. In September, the commission released the result, a massive report brimming with analysis and 120 regulatory reform proposals. “This was a comprehensive look at the whole business environment in the District of Columbia,” says Douglas Patton, an attorney with Patton & Co. LLC and chair of BRRC.
After BRRC issued its recommendations, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who heads the council’s committee on consumer and regulatory affairs, organized several task forces to translate the recommendations into a bill. The task forces recently finished their work, which Brazil presented to the council this week.
“We worked for four weeks on this project, on our own time,” says Larry Mirel, a downtown attorney who headed one of the task forces.
Somewhere along the line, though, the control board decided it needed to pay someone to do the same job and signed a contract with top-flight law firm Holland & Knight to execute the board’s very own business regulatory reform project. According to Holland & Knight attorney Dennis Horn, the project has a number of objectives, including to identify regulations that unnecessarily frustrate businesses or block services to consumers.
“That was our main mission,” says Patton. “I thought we did a pretty good job of it.”
True, but with one distinction: Patton and his cohorts on BRRC did their work for free; Holland & Knight is getting $753,011 plus up to $77,000 in expenses. “My God,” says Patton. “That’s a fair amount of change.”
Control board executive director John Hill says Holland & Knight’s mission is in fact much broader than BRRC’s. “They’re taking a look at all regulations and then addressing problems in regulations that affect management efficiency, delivery of efficient services, the business environment, and quality of life for residents of the District of Columbia,” says Hill.
That’s a lot of efficiency, delivery, and quality to review by Jan. 12, when Holland & Knight’s report is due. “In that period of time, the only thing they can do is go back and see what everyone else has done and regurgitate it,” says a member of Brazil’s task force who asked to remain anonymous.
Hill notes that Congressin the legislation that gave the board direct control of nine D.C. agenciesstipulated that the board review the BRRC recommendations. The legislation did not, however, require the board to dish out $753,011 in the process.
Last week, Holland & Knight met with a few of the volunteers who helped Patton and Brazil with their initiatives. The purpose of the meeting wasn’t hard to divine. “They asked us to a meeting to tell them what we know,” says a source who attended the meeting. “I spent hours and hours on this, and now you’re asking us to give you all we know so that you can get paid.”CP