The Magnificent Five, known collectively as the D.C. financial control board, rode into Thomas Circle in the spring of 1995 on a mission to tame the out-of-control D.C. government and free the city from the stranglehold of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. More than two years later, the control board faces the risk of being converted into five more voices in a crowded chorus defending an entrenched, entangled government they are unable to reform.
LL may have to recast the Magnificent Five as the Five Blind Mice if they continue to mimic the style and tactics of the man they were sent here by Congress and the White House to roust.
True, control board chairman Andrew Brimmer and his four deputies have stripped Barry nearly naked of his responsibilities, but the mayor can find vindication in a control board that seems to be hunkering down in a dysfunctional bunker instead of ushering in the much-needed period of genuine reform.
At it is, Brimmer & Co. whine about media coverage, stack public meetings with sympathetic bureaucrats, demand secrecy from their subordinates, embrace and defend Barry appointees who haven’t performed, fail to hold their own appointees accountable, and orchestrate media events to reform the government by public relations rather than public rule. Sound familiar?
They’ve endorsed, and even given hefty raises to, Barry hacks like employment services director Alexis Roberson, who announced last week that she is stepping down in the face of increasing scrutiny of her troubled agency from Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
“The control board has taken up the line, ‘If only the press would report all the good work we do and not pick on these little things.’ That’s exactly what Barry does,” observes Columbia Heights Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gary Imhoff.
By going on the defensive, Imhoff notes, the control board now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of justifying chronic chaos in the schools and the police department “rather than remaining the outsiders who are trying to fix things.”
Last week’s events provided substantial evidence that the Barry style has caught on within the ivory tower at 1 Thomas Circle. On Tuesday, Oct. 21, the control board staged a rare public meeting out in the community, in the evening, when working folks could attend. But the meeting at Anacostia High School drew only about two dozen residents. Instead, D.C. bureaucrats, security guards, control board staffers, consultants, and police officerspresumably there to demonstrate support for embattled Police Chief Larry Soulsbyfilled most of the auditorium seats.
The event showed that Brimmer, who likes to refer to himself and his colleagues as “the authority,” has learned well from the local authority on municipal manipulation. During his 15 years in the mayor’s office, Barry perfected the practice of stacking his venues with legions of sycophants.
The next afternoon, Brimmer, in a vintage Barry gambit, opened the control board’s public hearing on the police department by complaining about the Washington Times’ coverage of the Anacostia meeting the night before. (Brimmer couldn’t gripe about the Washington Post’s reporting because the Post ignored the event.)
Judging from the control board’s increasing testiness over its media portrayal, LL wouldn’t be surprised to encounter the Magnificent Five stomping on issues of the Post and the Times, as Barry and company did during a Sept. 26 going-away party for convicted killer, embezzler, and mayoral aide Rhozier “Roach” Brown.
Still smarting over reports of the stacked audience in Anacostia, last week Brimmer ordered reporters to take note of the standing room-only crowd jammed into the basement of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library for the Wednesday-afternoon hearing. Barry has been taking reporters to task in front of public audiences since he entered public life, an approach that Brimmer apparently feels comfortable aping.
Reporters who did look closely discovered an audience salted with police officers from each of the city’s new 83 Patrol Service Areas (PSAs), who had been instructed by the chief’s office to attend the control board meeting. Officers in each of the PSAs were also reportedly encouraged to drag along residents who support the chief and the control board’s efforts to reform the department.
At one point during the hearing, assistant police chief Rodney Monroe introduced 11 of the 19 officers present from PSA 711 in Anacostia. (The remaining eight were probably off duty that day and couldn’t come in because the department is trying to crack down on its overtime frenzy.)
“This is not a staged event,” Monroe said with a sheepish grin.
To which control board member Constance Newman quipped, “If it were staged, you would have them facing the other way.”
As if on cue, the police officials turned to face the TV cameras.
Outside, police cars lined the block surrounding the library, and officers loitered on the sidewalk. A tourist stumbling upon this scene might have thought that an armed fugitive was hiding among the dusty stacks of the MLK library.
Control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan said afterward that he was aware that police officers had been encouraged to turn out community residents for the meeting but that he saw nothing wrong with the department wanting to demonstrate the level of support it has within the community. And just in case showcase meetings don’t do the trick, the control board has also hired the high-powered PR firm of Powell Tate to turn Sow’s Ear Soulsby into a silk purse.
Last week’s show of support may be as illusory as the statistics Harlan, Soulsby, and others keep tossing out to argue that the Soulsby-led reforms have achieved sharp declines in crime citywide. Community activists say they haven’t really noticed the drop in crime in their neighborhoods and accuse the department and the control board of manipulating stats to prop up Soulsby.
During the hearing, control board members offered only softballs to Soulsby and his aides, playing none of the rigorous hardball necessary for legitimate oversight. Control board members saved their hard curves for community witnesses like Mark Thompson of the local NAACP, who advocates re-creating a 40-member civilian complaint review board to oversee the Metropolitan Police Department. Judging from the board’s grilling of Thompson, his proposal seems to have little support within “the authority.”
The control board’s biggest PR gambit centers on its escalating war with D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian, who is no PR slouch herself. Despite lining her office walls with her latest press clippings, she refuses to let the TV cameras take so much as a single shot of the one person who seems to be in charge of District schools. Although the control board picked retired Army Gen. Julius Becton to take over the school system last November, the uncompromising Christian is the real superintendent and thoroughly relishes her power in overseeing the 1994 Parents United suit over school fire-code violations.
As it stands, Becton and his aides can’t even rewire a lighting fixture unless Christian gives her approval beforehand. Becton attempted to turn public opinion against the judge by defying her order to seek prior approval of school roof and boiler repairs. The general and his troops knew their defiance would lead the judge to shut down schools where work is under way, but they are hoping that parents angered by these disruptive closings will pressure Parents United into dropping its lawsuit.
Last month, control board member Joyce Ladner ventured out of 1 Thomas Circle to hold a choreographed news conference during which she led chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” against Parents United founder Delabian Rice-Thurston.
And the school administration isn’t just playing defense. Becton’s office was the source of recent rumors that Christian’s husband, Ernest Washington, previously worked for the school system and may have left under unfavorable terms. During parents’ night last week at Deal Junior High School, which the judge’s son attends, Washington said he had never been employed by the school system.
There were also widely circulating rumors that Parents United’s lawyers have billed the government as much as $400,000 for representing the advocacy group in the lawsuit, but Becton denied that his office was the source. The law firm of Steptoe & Johnson is doing the legal work free of charge, the firm’s lawyers confirm.
Many parents of D.C. schoolkids have probably noticed that Christian has been the only source of reliable information in the tussle over facilities. Even when Parents United joined hands with Becton to have schools open with roof work under way, Christian spurned the truce. Her position was subsequently vindicated when there were fires and roof-tar spills during the renovations.
Every time there’s an effort to lay the blame elsewhere, it ends up sticking to the control board and their hand-picked soldiers. By adopting the tactics of the regime it sought to displace, the control board has ended up in much the same fix: crying wolf with no one listening. LL can understand if skeptical District residents feel the need to remind the Magnificent Five that we’ve seen these PR tricks before.
STEALTH COUNCIL RACE
With fewer than six weeks to go before D.C. voters go to the polls for the third time this year to fill a D.C. Council seat, there are few signs indicating a spirited council campaign is under way. Some sections of the city are adorned with campaign posters for Ward 5 Democrat James Chappelle, who spent good money for his posters but never got around to filing his candidacy for the at-large vacancy. But Chappelle left his posters up anyway, which should confuse the meager number of voters expected to turn out on election day.
The Dec. 2 election, which voters must register for by Nov. 3, will fill the vacancy created when Linda Cropp moved over to the chairman’s seat in the July 22 election to fill the unexpired term of late chairman Dave Clarke. Former council chair Arrington Dixon was picked by the D.C. Democratic State Committee in August to fill Cropp’s seat until the December election is held.
Dixon is one of four contenders on the ballot, but he is the only one with citywide name recognition. And Dixon is acting like an entrenched incumbent who can afford to sleepwalk through this election against political novices. At the few forums and campaign events held to date, he has handed out bumper stickers and encouraged voters to check out his web site (http://metro-dc.com/adfordc/index.htm), which contains little more than Dixon’s bio.
During a Sept. 29 forum in Foggy Bottom, Dixon spent much of the evening eating pieces of fruit from a plastic bag, explaining that he had skipped lunch that day. Last week, Everett Jennings of the Human Rights Campaign Fund gay and lesbian political action committee was hired to run the campaign. Jennings’ last political work included organizing Louisiana’s gay voters to back Mary Landrieu in that state’s 1996 Senate race, which she won.
Dixon is seeking to become the first at-large councilmember elected from east of the Anacostia River. During their joint appearances, newcomer David Catania has pounded away at Dixon’s record during eight years on the council. At the Foggy Bottom forum, Catania challenged Dixon to pay back the $25,000 in transition funds he received, amid controversy, in 1983 when he left the council involuntarily. Dixon denied having received the money until Catania produced the news articles.
“This election is not about east-of-the-river vs. west-of-the-river,” says Catania, a gay Republican and chair of the Sheridan-Kalorama ANC. “It is not about white against black, man against woman, gay against straight. It is about holding those people accountable who have squandered home rule.”
The other challengers are Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin, who plans to save D.C. by ending the trade embargo against Cuba, and Philip Heinrich, who moved to D.C. only last year and kicked off his campaign this past Tuesday.
Dixon has also been sparring with Dorothy Brizill, publisher of the web site D.C. Watch (http://www.dcwatch.com), who has blasted him for holding onto his seat on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) after winning the State Committee election to the council two months ago. Dixon was appointed by Barry as “a citizen representative,” and Brizill points out that his refusal to relinquish the seat effectively gives the D.C. Council two votes on NCPC, when it is entitled by law to only one. Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis is the council’s official NCPC representative.
“On NCPC, I am there as a citizen to represent east of the river,” he says. “As a councilmember, I represent the whole city.”
On her web site, Brizill argues Dixon’s action denies the community its allotted voice on NCPC. But Dixon says he will continue to serve until Barry asks him to step down.
Dixon sells himself as a return to the competence and accountability of D.C.’s golden era, but this sounds more like the same ol’ stuff to LL.
•This just in: Jack Evans will make his mayoral aspirations official on Friday, Oct. 31, by filing his candidacy. What with Friday being both Halloween and his birthday, Evans has apparently decided that a mayoral costume is just the thing to spook his potential opponents.CP
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