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When the D.C. financial control board rode into Thomas Circle two years ago, it was seen as the new sheriff, sent in to bring order to a town taken over by financial misfits. The District’s Magnificent Five were viewed as much more powerful than the bunch that straightened out freewheeling New York City two decades ago, and much tougher than the control board that tamed brawling Philadelphia this decade.
But the five-member D.C. board, entering the final year of its three-year term without a major notch on its financial-reform gun belt, now looks more like the Three Stooges, joined by Laverne & Shirley, than a 1990s version of the Earp Brothers-Doc Holiday Wild West reformers.
After two years as uberboss of District government, the control board hasn’t made real headway in what is an admittedly difficult mission. The District’s financial sheriffs deserve some credit for the removal of embattled school superintendent Franklin Smith and the ineffectual elected school board, but they were pushed into it by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the bully of Capitol Hill. The board’s early attempts to rein in the bureaucracy netted little more than howls of protest from affected employees. And the much vaunted overhaul of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) seems to be producing little more than angry constituents.
But none of those stumbles is in the same league as the board’s self-imposed quagmire of the past few weeks. The control board, which seemed all-powerful at birth, has succumbed to the kind of political infighting and finger-pointing that is all too familiar to even casual observers of District history. U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), who chairs the House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, got the fun started by suggesting that the board has been weak and ineffective in wresting control of the city from devious Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
Last month, Taylor killed the board’s request for $31 million in additional federal aid to pay for school repairs and a salary hike for police officers. The congressman, following the lead of the White House, said the city has enough money in its current $5.1-billion budget to meet those needs. And Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams’ breathtaking decision to side with Taylor left the board feeling as isolated and under attack as, well, Marion Barry.
The public break between board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and Williams has been the talk of the Hill and the District Building. It was the second such set-to in a month between the board and its chief deputy in the drive to clean up D.C., the nation’s financial Dodge City.
The first public feud erupted June 6, after the CFO provided information to Taylor showing that school repairs and police pay raises could be paid for out of current D.C. funds. Williams was taken to the woodshed by the control board in a tense, closed-door meeting. And Brimmer rang the bell for round 2 last week, saying he was “extremely disappointed” because the CFO had provided “inaccurate information” to the control board. Brimmer relied on those numbers to convince the D.C. Council to reallocate money in the city’s budget for the 10-percent pay raise for police officers. After several missteps, the council and the control board approved the pay raise July 2.
Brimmer’s public chastisement of the board’s main ally within D.C. government alarmed the anti-Barry crowd at the Washington Post, and prompted a July 5 editorial telling Brimmer and Williams to air their dirty linen in private in the future. The Post surveyed the disarray and concluded, “The mayor has got to be loving this.”
Indeed he was. The rift provided a veritable midsummer feast for Barry, who knocked Brimmer for mishandling the pay-raise issue and Williams for providing unreliable information.
The clash demonstrated that the control board, having managed to create resentment in all circles of D.C. government, has almost no one willing to stand up for it in a jam. Board members had to notice that when push came to shove, congressional staffers sided with Williams, not Brimmer. Williams has also found plenty of defenders in the District Building.
“I am not aware of any inaccurate information on this issue from the CFO,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
On Capitol Hill, Brimmer’s slap at Williams was viewed as an attempt by the chairman to save face after being told by Republicans in Congress and Democrats in the White House to stop running to Congress for more money. Even before Taylor killed the board’s $31-million request, Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines told Brimmer to find the money in the city’s current budget instead of asking for additional federal aid.
“I think Brimmer is just trying to throw up a smoke screen,” observes a congressional staffer. “He is embarrassed and trying to shift the blame to Williams. The one thing the city has going for it is Tony Williams.”
The control board’s non-grasp of the numbers has long been a source of chatter on the Hill. One congressional source said the board sent Congress 10 different calculations of the District’s FY 1996 budget two years ago. Congressional staffers are currently going over the board’s calculations of the city’s budget for next year to see if the figures add up. And if they don’t, the board’s credibility gap will no doubt grow.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who criticized the analysis provided by Williams’ office, declared that the public tussle between Brimmer and Williams was “a public relations disaster” for the control board. Brimmer, sensing that he is being outpoliticked at every turn, has made some very political moves of late. The control board sent an open letter to all D.C. advisory neighborhood commission members soliciting feedback in what was a rare burst of communication from the fortresslike agency. And when the money for the police pay raise was finally uncovered, the control board sent out a press release before the council had even acted.
“I think the control board, the staff, issued that press release too hastily,” observed Evans. “It was inaccurate, and it made them look political.”
That kind of criticism cuts deep in a board that prides itself on being above D.C. politics.
This week, Brimmer and Williams were still conferring to sort out whether the CFO had provided the board with faulty information, or whether Brimmer just misunderstood the complicated financial shell game that went on to secure the pay increase.
Barry’s role is even harder to pin down. Police officers got their raise, retroactive to July 1, despite a last-minute budgetary sleight of hand by Barry.
According to a step-by-step account provided by Brimmer, Barry and acting council chair Linda Cropp agreed on June 24 to the control board’s proposal to use $3.7 million left over in the fire department’s 1996 capital budget for the police pay raise. Williams had told the control board that overall, $20 million in unspent 1996 capital funds was available.
But late in the afternoon of June 30on the eve of the council’s July 1 meeting to approve the pay raiseBarry called Brimmer and told him that all the money from the 1996 capital budget had been pledged to other projects, including the $3.7 million the control board wanted for police raises. Barry was in a position to know, because he recently reprogrammed that money to compensate for overspending in other city agencies for the current fiscal year.
Brimmer refused to speculate on why the mayor hadn’t revealed the lack of funds on June 24, when they discussed the issue.
The chairman and control board Executive Director John Hill immediately rushed over to the mayor’s office to try to salvage the police pay raise. After hearing from Barry that there was no money left over from 1996, the trio agreed to reprogram money from the 1997 capital budget to pay for the salary increase. But Barry also wanted the control board to approve his plan to spend an additional $17 million from the 1997 capital budget for pet economic-development projects.
Brimmer refused, but promised that the control board would act on Barry’s request in a week or so. The next day, July 1, the mayor failed to send the pay-request plan to the council, and the council tabled the pay-raise issue, at Barry’s suggestion. When Brimmer learned of this, he was furious, and called the mayor for an explanation.
“He said it was a mistake,” Brimmer related in an interview this week. “I didn’t ask, ‘Did you leave it out?’ The key point is it was not sent over.”
After phoning the mayor, Brimmer called Cropp and got a special council session scheduled for the next afternoon, July 2. He also scheduled a control board meeting for 3 that afternoon. The implication of his move was clear: If Barry refused to send the pay request to the council, Brimmer would have the control board usurp the mayor’s role and send the pay package to the council itself.
But the showdown with Barry was averted when the CFO’s office called Brimmer on the morning of July 2 to reveal that $3.7 million, earmarked in the 1997 capital budget for equipment purchases by the fire department, could be transferred to the police department for pay raises. The CFO’s staff informed Brimmer that the fire department wouldn’t be shortchanged, because the $3.7 million was also in the department’s operating budget to cover the purchase of new equipment.
According to the CFO’s office, such “double counting” is standard procedure in municipal governments when money from the capital budget, financed through yearly bond sales, is going to be used to reimburse an agency for expenditures from its operating budget. The revelation derailed the confrontation with Barry, and shifted Brimmer’s wrath from the mayor to Williams for not discovering sooner that there was indeed money available.
Back when they were getting along, the control board had been using the CFO as its scout in preparing various attacks on the mayor’s pet pockets of patronage. Now that the board doesn’t trust Williams or the information he provides, it will be even less effective in ferreting out waste and corruption in the Barry administration.
The chronic squabbling has created an ideal situation for the ultimate situationist. Barry doesn’t even have to divide to conquer. The control board and Williams have done all the dirty work themselves.
Ward 1 activist Marie Drissel was collecting signatures on a petition to recall Mayor Barry during the annual July 4 Palisades community parade along MacArthur Boulevard when a 13-year-old rode up on a bicycle and asked if he could sign. An amused Drissel asked why the youngster wanted to sign the petition. “If I, as a young person, had a criminal record, I couldn’t get a job,” the youth replied. “How can he get a job as mayor?”
Perhaps the voting age should be lowered to 13 to improve the caliber of the electorate in D.C.
Barry rode at the front of the parade, to occasional jeers and heckles from the crowd along the route, while a contingent of cabdrivers leading the recall effort brought up the rear and was greeted with cheers. Despite his unpopularity in Ward 3, Hizzoner has been spending a lot of time there of late to defuse voter hostility. His most recent ploy was a pledge to save the community’s beloved MacArthur Theater from the clutches of the CVS pharmacy chain by having the lobby of the closed moviehouse declared a historic landmark…
The police department has come up with a new crime-fighting plan, and a use for its broken-down autos. MPD plans to tow its junked police cars into neighborhoods and park them at the curb to feign a police presence in the community. The scarecrow cop car plan had its debut on Capitol Hill recently.
This move appears to be the illogical extension of an earlier crime-fighting method in Capitol Hill’s 1st Police District, which put police cruisers at the Potomac and Eastern Market Metro stops during evening rush hours, with lights flashing. Police officials hoped the cars would deter muggers preying on commuters on their way home.
The next step would be full-size cardboard cutouts of D.C. Police Chief Larry Soulsby on every street corner, like the old cutouts of Clint Eastwood that adorned sidewalks in front of movie theaters during the premieres of Dirty Harry flicks. Eventually, MPD could construct an entire replica of the District in the Maryland or Virginia countryside to fool criminals into practicing their illegal trade there instead of in the community.
LL sees endless possibilities here.CP
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