Back in the days when District voters had a few democratic rights, they were forced to endure an embarrassing annual ritual: watching their elected leaders squirm and contort under questioning from congressional overseers. After years of interrogation, though, crafty mismanagers like Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and even one-term Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly learned how to hide their deficits, nonperforming cronies, and even potholes while seated before hostile Hill panels.
The old regime’s shadowboxing techniques may come in handy for control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and his underlings, who go before Congress next spring for reappointment to another three-year term. Last week Brimmer launched his unofficial campaign kickoff by announcing that he had “liberated” seven D.C. agencies from Barry’s grip. Whereas the agencies’ directors once reported to Barry, they now answer only to the control board.
Beating up on Barry is an obvious way to win points with the Republican Congress. But Brimmer may not be able to change the subject when Congress takes aim at his own failures as chairman:
•appointing a new school board that has yet to open schools this year.
•seizing control of the Metropolitan Police Department from Barry and presiding over a dramatic drop in closure rates for homicide investigations.
•disbanding the lottery board and placing the lottery under the control of the CFO to halt declining revenuesand then seeing revenues fall another $6 million since the takeover.
•using his new powers to name city agency heads to retain Barry appointees who compiled lackluster records in city government.
•ousting Inspector General Angela Avant last winter because she was too close to Barry, and then leaving the office vacant for six months and counting.
Barry last week moved to fill the IG vacancy by nominating Robert Thomas, who has been acting IG since Avant exited in March. But the control board balked because Thomas had rebuffed its recommendation to hire the accounting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick to perform this year’s D.C. government audit, according to a control board source. Mayoral aides say Thomas favored putting the contract out for bids.
So now the control board is a defender of sole-source contracting, Barry’s homespun recipe for ruining the city.
It’s getting harder for LL to tell the reformers from the sinners.
When the control board last week confirmed the appointments of Cell Bernardino as public works director, David Watts as consumer and regulatory affairs director, and Jearline Williams as human services director, the board once again snubbed its following of reform-hungry citizens. Natural control board allies like activists Phil Mendelson, Westy Byrd, and Dorothy Brizill lined up at a Sept. 8 hearing to voice concerns about keeping on the crew who contributed to the current mess. The control board ignored their concerns.
The board also reinstated Margaret Moore as corrections chief, perhaps because Barry objected so strenuously to keeping her.
“Where is the change they’re going to bring us?” asks Columbia Heights Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gary Imhoff. “You expect a rubber stamp from the city council, but not from the control board.”
Activists like Imhoff are learning to expect old-fashioned management fiascoes from the board. Gen. Julius Becton, the board’s handpicked public schools czar, laid bare the shortcomings of his regime in a series of highly publicized hearings in the courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian. The damage is easily quantifiable: Becton has delayed the opening of schools by three weeks and has incurred over $50,000 in court-ordered fines.
Instead of distancing themselves from Becton, though, Brimmer & Co. have behaved like loyal platoon sergeants. Which means they’ll have to answer some pointed questions about their field marshal when they reach the Capitol Hill hot seat next springa moment Barry will savor.
Congress expects a lot from the control board. As part of its celebrated D.C. rescue package, Congress in July handed the board operational control over nine city agencies that formerly fell under Barry’s guidance. Even though the legislation spells out powers the control board already had, some observers have portrayed it as a power-grab by Brimmer.
But the legislation is actually a carefully worded setup. Congress planted its boot firmly in the control board’s behind to get it moving. It also issued an unrealistic timetable for the board to appoint a quasi-city manager to oversee D.C. government reforms, hire new agency directors, and assemble “strike teams” of consultants. The strike teams will burrow into each city agency and come up with recommendations for making the government actually deliver services.
All the appointing and investigating must be nearing completion by the time board members seek reappointment next April. That already appears doubtful, so control board members can expect to spend much of their spring explaining why they can’t meet the deadlines set by Congress.
Their explanations are unlikely to satisfy D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is already sharpening her knife for Brimmer. When Norton pushed for Brimmer’s appointment in early 1995, she expected him to play a patsy who would heed her call to tread softly on D.C. and carry a small stick. Now Norton blames Brimmer for the control board’s takeover of D.C. schools and other home rule transgressions. And Rep. Charles Taylor, the conservative North Carolina Republican who chairs the House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, is looking for any reason to claim that the control board model for reforming D.C. isn’t working. Taylor faults the control board for not acting aggressively on D.C. government reform and supports appointing a city manager who would report to Congress.
As the Hill crowd pummels the board for moving slowly on D.C. government reforms, Barry won’t pass up an opportunity to pile on. He’s already blasting Becton and Brimmer for being accessories to “the rape of democracy in D.C.”
Of course, Brimmer has been trained to field attacks from Congress and Hizzoner. He might not be too well prepared, however, for a critical look from D.C. auditor Tony Cooper. Spurred on by a D.C. Council still begging for respect but incapable of earning it, the auditor intends to examine the lucrative contracts being handed out to private consultants by the control board and CFO Tony Williams. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous requested the investigation by the auditor, who is hand-picked by the council and reports to it.
Chavous, chair of the council’s education committee, is so fired up about going after the control board, which now holds many of the powers that once belonged to the council, that he’s actually showing up at his council office for a change.
Turning the lights on at the city’s most powerful body, which has chosen to shroud itself in secrecy, can only prove popular with a public whose faith in the control board has been shaken by its performance over the past two years.
Like a pouting Queen Elizabeth II, the reclusive board has retreated even deeper into its impenetrable tower at 1 Thomas Circle since being handed its new powers last month. Staffers who would occasionally talk to reporters on condition of anonymity now flee when a reporter appears. A staffer recently hired to handle media inquiries departed after a short stint, reportedly for the misstep of actually returning a reporter’s phone call.
Control board communications director Mark Goldstein certainly can’t be accused of that sin.
The quest for secrecy could prove to be fatal to the Magnificent Five, which in addition to Brimmer includes Stephen Harlan, Joyce Ladner, Constance Newman, and Ed Singletary. As long as the board hides its deliberations from public view, it will further alienate D.C.’s vocal crowd of good-government types.
In his invocation of liberation, Brimmer sounds a little like Che Guevara, and we all know his revolution was canceled.
When the mayor’s Business Regulatory Reform Commission released its recommendations two weeks ago, commission chair Doug Patton warned that city leaders had six months to make the needed changes or risk Congress imposing the reforms on the District. Patton was being generous.
Taylor this week began mapping plans to insert the Patton commission’s recommendations whole hog into the city’s FY 1998 budget, currently pending before the House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, which Taylor chairs. The move will trigger an explosion from Norton because the panel recommends phasing out rent controls in the District.
Meanwhile, members of the 12-member commission predict that management consultants currently being hired by the D.C. control board will take the panel’s 122 recommendations, dress them up in a new report, and stick the control board with a six-figure bill for their work. Patton says his commission’s work cost only $30,000 in public and private funds.
•Mayor Barry hired a stenographer for his Sept. 10 weekly news conference and required reporters to pronounceand sometimes spelltheir names before asking questions of Hizzoner. The mayor said he needed the stenographer because the Washington Post had misquoted him the week before regarding his plans for spending the $200-million surplus D.C. expects to reap next year from the federal bailout.
Barry said the cost of the stenographer was worth it to ensure “accuracy in reporting,” but he had no idea what that cost would be.
•When Congress created the financial control board in the winter of 1995, Barry rejected calls to make the mayor one of its five appointees. Barry changed his mind at the 11th hour, but by then Congress had concluded that Barry intended to fight rather than cooperate, and it refused to reserve seats on the board for locally elected officials.
But now the mayor’s office is applauding a campaign by Plymouth Congregational minister the Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler to reserve two of the five seats for the mayor and the council chair when Congress reappoints the control board next April.
•When Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2E recently received a request for the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), ANC chair Fran Goldstein checked with city officials on what to do. But city officials could find no precedent for advising Goldstein because no one had previously sought ANC information under FOIA during the nearly 20 years the city’s ANC system has been in existence.
At an ANC meeting last week, the commissioners voted to turn over the information, despite strong objections from 2E Commissioner Byrd. Last year, Byrd was the target of accusations that she misspent ANC funds in her effort to discourage Georgetown University students from voting in localand ANC 2Eelections. Byrd claims that the request was filed by an agent for Georgetown University, an institution she has battled for years. “It’s Georgetown University trying to get my material, which they’re entitled to,” says Byrd. “But they have to call me.” So far, they haven’t.CP
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