When the mayor’s Business Regulatory Reform Commission first convened in September 1996, it appeared destined for the fate of numerous other city commissions. No one paid attention to the commission’s meetings or its agenda. In the public’s eye, the regulatory reform commission mattered about as much as the commission on screw threads.
That all changed in July, when Congress slipped a provision into the D.C. rescue plan ordering the control board and the D.C. Council to actually consider the commission’s recommendations. The provision signaled Congress’ intention to impose the commission’s recommendations on the District, probably next year, if the control board and the council ignore them.
“Before last month, I always [thought] our report would go right next to the Rivlin report on the shelf,” says one commission member. “I figured that they were going to have no interest whatsoever in doing anything with this.”
After 11 months of idleness, commission members worked ’round the clock during the first two weeks of August to crank out recommendations to make the city more business-friendly. The recommendations were released in a report this week.
Most of the recommendationslike improving the permit process and upping fines on scofflawsare no-brainers that have drawn plaudits from local politicos. But the commission’s proposal to do away with rent controlthe prize display in D.C.’s museum of political untouchablesis ideal fodder for politicians desperate to shore up their home rule credentials.
Commission members looked as though they had spent the night in Dracula’s coffin after they briefed D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on their plan Aug. 20. Upon hearing that the commission proposed to kill the city’s rent control program by Jan. 1, 1999, Norton went off the Richter scale and vowed to inflict terrors of biblical proportions on the reformers unless they relented.
After her high-profile flip-flop on Congress’ rescue planwhich extinguished the smoldering remnants of home ruleNorton couldn’t afford to be linked with any more unpopular causes. So when the reform commission unveiled its intent to kill rent controlwhich would leave New York as the last city in the nation with a strong rent control lawthe delegate unleashed all her fury.
At first, Norton’s wild-woman routine appeared to backfire, as it strengthened the resolve of some of the 12 commission members to stick by their plan to end rent controls after next year. Norton’s rage, they said, was an attempt to strong-arm the commission into backing down.
But commission chairman Doug Patton, after tussling with the unsettling images of Norton’s rage for 24 hours, worried that Norton’s political firestorm would scuttle all of the panel’s proposals. Patton convinced the other panel members to retreat to safer ground, calling for the lifting of rent control on apartments once they become vacant, not the all-out elimination of rent control after next year.
Enacted in 1975, the city’s strict rent control regulations place ceilings on rent hikes both on an annual basis and for vacated apartments. The laws, which were among the first enacted under home rule, also stipulate that renters be accorded the right of first refusal when their building is offered for sale.
Patton’s retrenchment didn’t completely appease Norton, but it calmed her down enough that she has stopped screaming at the commissioners. In years past, Norton would have had to scream even louder to be heard above the throng of politicos denouncing rent control opponents. Times have changed.
When the commission members disclosed their rent control recommendation to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. two weeks ago, Hizzoner reportedly flashed a bemused grin at the commissioners’ willingness to grab hold of this third rail of D.C. politics. “If that’s what you want to do, good luck,” Barry reportedly told them.
Barry learned not to mess with rent control back in 1985, when he was suspected of quietly backing an effort to gut the city’s rent control law as a favor to his political donors. That effort died when then-D.C. Council chairman Dave Clarke rallied the masses to overturn the law passed by his own council in a ballot referendum that narrowly supported keeping stringent controls on rents.
Barry has hoisted the rent control banner ever since.
When the regulatory reform commission briefed council chair Linda Cropp last month, she, like Barry, listened politely but raised no strong objections.
The rent control proposals are tucked away among 120 recommendations in the panel’s report. Although developers are no doubt salivating over rent control’s demise, most local merchants would be happy if the city implemented a less controversial commission recommendation: to set up one office where business owners could go to obtain all necessary licenses and permits. Currently, business owners are forced to run through several city agencies, like rats trapped in a maze, in search of permits. The process can take days, if not weeks, but Patton’s commission is hoping to trim the licensing period to a couple of hours.
Other recommendations include reducing the type of licenses from 129 to 11, eliminating 60 percent of the city’s boards and commissions, slicing the number of street vendors from 2,400 to 1,000, and stiffening fines on the estimated thousands who now ignore the city’s licensing requirements and fees because penalties are minimal.
For instance, the commission found that only some 2,000 of the city’s elevators are currently licensed. If the city shut down all unlicensed elevators, the ensuing gridlock would make downtown look like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And only a couple of hundred vending machine operators currently obtain the necessary permits, even though thousands of vending machines populate office buildings.
There’s not a
politico in town who wouldn’t back the commission’s plan to streamline licensing and fee collection. So commissioners are busy honing their pleas for the controversial part of their package.
Abundant housing and market competition, argues one commissioner, have pushed rents below the controlled level in every part of the city except affluent Ward 3, an area where residents can afford to live without rent controls. “The irony of the whole thing is that, when you look at the merits, the idea of having rent control in a city that’s losing population is ludicrous,” says the commissioner. “It is the height of stupidity to keep it.” But even this commissioner voted for the compromise in an effort to quell Norton’s fury.
Patton’s commission gauged the political sensitivity of rent control even before Norton’s outburst. Commission member Abraham Greenstein, an attorney who has built a lucrative practice representing landlords, headed the commission’s subcommittee that recommended evicting rent controls by 1999. His subcommittee also proposed to wipe out the city’s restrictions on condo conversions and to strip tenants of their right of first refusal.
When Greenstein presented these proposals last month to the entire commission, which is dominated by lawyers and business types, he delivered a lengthy speech stressing that these were the recommendations of his entire subcommittee, and not an effort to represent his clients.
Now all Greenstein and Co. have to do is keep Norton from reprising her wild-woman routine.
D.C. voters may be longing for the emergence of Candidate X, that new face who can inspire and lead, but LL doubts controversial former Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR) chief Sharon Morrow qualifies. Morrow, who headed the city’s tax and revenue collection agency under former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, is purported to be considering a return to D.C. to run for the D.C. Council next year.
That news had government watchdog Marie Drissel digging through her closet last week in search of her red high-heels. During her troubled tenure at the old DFR, Morrow issued a directive to her employees on what they could and couldn’t wear to work. At the top of her list of taboos were red high-heeled shoes, which she confessed to loathing.
Upon learning that, Drissel, a critic of Morrow who kept close watch on the agency back then, promptly went out and purchased the forbidden footwear. She showcased them at every council hearing where Morrow testified. But Drissel never wore them outside the council chambers because they were too uncomfortable.
“I just couldn’t walk in them,” she admitted.
However, she still has them, and will bring them out of the closet if Morrow has the audacity to run for public office next year.
“I am just floored,” Drissel said in disbelief upon hearing the speculation.
During her four-year tenure as DFR chief, Morrow spent more than $5 million to computerize city property-tax records. But the department was still in a shambles when Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams took control of it last year.
•In the midst of last month’s heated campaign among Democratic State Committee members to pick an interim at-large councilmember for the seat Linda Cropp vacated, contender Paula Nickens chastised the two DSC representatives from D.C. Young Democrats for skipping out to attend a national convention in Miami. Nickens told Kim Lockett and Willie Flowers they should remain in D.C. for the historic meeting at which the 70-member DSC chose Cropp’s successor.
Nickens also criticized fund-raising efforts by D.C. Young Democrats to pay travel expenses for Lockett and Flowers.
But former council chair Arrington Dixon, who snared the State Committee’s selection on the fifth ballot, took a more conciliatory approach. Dixon paid to fly Lockett and Flowers back to D.C. in time to cast their ballots for him, and then flew them back to Miami so they wouldn’t miss the convention.
Dixon, who is attempting to become the first at-large councilmember elected from east of the Anacostia River, has already earned a distinction that eluded Ward 7 activist Paul Savage when he made a similar bid last year: Dixon has picked up an endorsement from Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous.
•Newcomer Councilmembers Sandy Allen and Sharon Ambrose have their eyes set on the chairmanship of the council’s Human Services Committee, which Cropp vacated when she moved up to the council chairmanship in late July. But Ward 8’s Allen and Ward 6’s Ambrose want to carve up the committee, with Allen taking control of the city’s huge human services budget and Ambrose getting power over health care agencies and programs.
No one is even mentioning At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason as a possible chair of either committee, even though she’s the council’s senior member. Mason was stripped of the chairmanship of the education committee by her colleagues last year, and they don’t seem inclined to give the frail octogenarian another panel to lead.
•D.C. school board president Don Reeves recently signed a petition to recall Mayor Barry, joining colleague Tonya Kinlow as the only school board members who have dared to sign. Among the 13 councilmembers, only Ambrose and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil have penned their signatures to petitions seeking Barry’s recall before his current term ends next year.
The willingness of other D.C. politicos to sign on to the recall campaign will only subside. After all, it’s hard to get worked up about how poorly Hizzoner manages the libraries and the parks.CP
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