The D.C. financial control board and the post of chief financial officer were created two years ago to impose restraint, order, and professionalism on the free-spending District government. But after the opening round in this summer’s particularly bloody D.C. budget battle on Capitol Hill, the city’s financial saviors look like generals in a Marx Brothers comedy, retreating in panic and accusing each other of mutiny.
The five-member control board dressed down CFO Anthony Williams in a closed-door session June 6 after their trusted ally secretly conspired with Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), the reviled chairman of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, to undermine the board’s funding requests for D.C. schools and police. The Williams-Taylor conspiracy, coincidentally, also would have transferred more powers from the mayor to the CFOa wrinkle that promised to further emasculate the city’s tattered home rule charter.
The Taylor plan put the District’s defenders on the Hill in an odd pickle: If they wanted $31 million in immediate federal aid, they would have to accept another power transfer from Barry to Williams. Led by Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), they gritted their teeth and went for the austerity plan, passing up funds for police pay raises and facility repairs needed to save the schools from another embarrassing round of court-ordered closings this fall.
“I think [Williams] lost a lot of credibility in the city,” says a control board official. “A lot of people don’t trust him anymore. He is politically naivealways has been. That’s one of his Achilles’ heels.”
Taylor and his hard-charging staff believe that assessment fits the control board better than Williams. The control board, in Taylor’s view, has become another agency in the District bureaucracy, and its most significant contribution to date has been dreaming up excuses for receiving more federal dollars.
“[Control board members] always come back with, ‘Why are you interfering? We were set up to do these things,’” notes a Taylor staffer. “Well, why aren’t they doing it? What’s different from two years ago?”
“We get the same quality of information from the control board that we used to get from the mayor’s people, which is poor, and never timely,” the staffer contends.
And Taylor staffers have a simple rebuke for control board types who have pilloried Williams for working with the congressman. Williams, they say, was merely providing Taylor with the data showing where the District could come up with $31 million more for schools and police pay raises within its own $5-billion budget. “The information was requested and he provided it,” says a Taylor aide. “Why should he apologize for doing his job?”
Nor should the CFO be contrite for agreeing to Taylor’s requests, both verbally and in writing, that talks between the two be kept secret, especially from the control board.
Control board Vice Chairman Stephen Harlan first raised the suspicions of Taylor staffers when he assured them that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had written standards for deciding which officers deserved raises. Harlan waited more than two weeks before giving Taylor a copy of the standards, and subcommittee staffers claim they were informed by their own MPD sources that the standards were written after Harlan testified before the panel.
“That’s nonsense,” said Harlan. “We had been working on those standards. Some standards existed, and [Taylor] wanted others.” Harlan reports that he has already passed along some pointed advice to Taylor: “You should either back us or fire us.”
Despite Taylor’s defense, Williams apologized last week for his role in killing the $31-million aid request. His apology appeared to be aimed primarily at getting enraged D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to stop screaming at him. Fat chance. Norton accuses Williams of “insubordination,” orchestrating a “power grab,” and “undermining” her authority, as well as home rule. All the blame from Norton’s office falls on Williams, a ploy that exonerates her colleague Taylor.
Williams regretted failing to urge Taylor to back the $31-million aid request, even though he claimed to have found subcutaneous lard in the budget that could have been rerouted to police and schools. And Williams also said he regretted not standing up for home rule in his secret dealings with Taylor.
Norton and others fear that Williams’ complicity solidified Taylor’s intransigence and may have encouraged him to rewrite the entire D.C. budget over the next four months. Faircloth, who chairs the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee, abandoned the aid request at the urging of Norton and the control board rather than agreeing to the Williams-Taylor plan.
Norton heaped high praise on Faircloth for standing on principle. After all, this is the same senator who earned the moniker “Sen. Loincloth” when he told D.C. residents earlier this year to skip town if they wanted voting rights in Congress. Faircloth, no fan of Hizzoner, opposed using the $31-million spending request to strip the mayor of what little power he has left. Taylor’s staff views Faircloth as the manager of the control board’s Capitol Hill branch office.
Angry control board members last Friday met in the woodshed with Williams to chastise him for breaking ranks. The scolding, moreover, marked the official collapse of the touted Dream Team of Williams, control board Executive Director John Hill, and City Administrator Michael Rogers, who were to work hand in hand to guide the city back to financial health. Instead, the team now looks like the D.C. version of the hapless 1962 New York Mets.
Rogers quit the team some time ago to devote his loyalties to the welfare of his boss, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., who views Williams as his archnemesis. Hill, at least in public, has defended Williams for his backdoor dealings with Taylor. The CFO’s alliance with Taylor, who has become the control board’s harshest critic, will complicate his relations with Hill.
Williams had undercut the control board’s wavering credibility on Capitol Hill by pointing Taylor toward deeper cuts in the D.C. budget after control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer swore there was no more room to cut. But control board officials this week questioned the cuts Williams recommended to Taylor.
The CFO suggested cutting millions from his own campaign to install new management practices and computer systems at out-of-control D.C. agencies. And he favored cutting $10 million from the city’s street-repair budget at a time when Barry was launching another “blitz” to fill 5,000 potholes over eight weekends. Perhaps Williams feared this blitz would be no different from the last one, which wound up in a ditch.
Williams’ public humiliation had Barry grinning from ear to ear last Sunday afternoon as he threw out the first pitch for a neighborhood softball game at Georgetown’s Volta Park Recreation Center. Surrounded by his four bodyguards, Barry stood out in Georgetown like a visiting foreign dignitary. The self-proclaimed champion of the people, who vanquished predecessor Sharon Pratt Kelly three years ago by criticizing her security detail and boasting he was unafraid to go anywhere in the city unescorted, now won’t even enter serene Georgetown without his bodyguards.
The empty campaign rhetoric affirms Abraham Lincoln’s adage, “You can fool all the people some of the time.”
As he traipsed among ceremonial events last week, though, Barry was pleasantly mum about Williams’ contribution to the $31-million fiasco. He was perfectly willing to leave that topic to the press, for a change.
However, Hizzoner did pause to remind reporters that his beef with Williams is not about the turf he has lost to the CFO. The issue, says Barry, is Williams’ penchant for secrecy. The mayor has repeatedly panned Williams for buttoning his lip during meetings and saving his thoughts and complaints for the media, Congress, and the control board. Williams has acknowledged that he often keeps his silence, contending that his views are well known to Barry and his staff, and that he doesn’t want to appear quarrelsome. LL supposes Williams prefers stealth to confrontation.
Barry’s depiction of Williams as backstabber is shared by some D.C. councilmembers. Williams offered sound advice and analysis this spring when the council rewrote Barry’s budget for next year to impose spending restraints and meet concerns of the control board, say the councilmembers. The CFO’s analysis included 14 recommended cuts that the control board later dismissed as financial gimmickry. Once the control board threw out the recommendations, Williams walked away from any association with this part of the council’s budget, councilmembers claim.
“I asked that the CFO’s office provide some options for the council to review in analyzing the budget,” says Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, choosing her words carefully. Jarvis was serving as acting council chair at the time. “He did that, and gave the council some very good advice. I think Tony’s response with respect to the revenues was not as analytical.”
Despite the heat he has taken over last week’s $31-million failure, Williams’ hand may have been strengthened by his alliance with Taylor. The $31-million request, after all, did not have the backing of the Clinton administration, which, like Taylor, urged the control board to find the money within the District’s current budget.
And Taylor is expected to be the strongman in the looming congressional battles over the District’s 1998 budget. The control board, not Williams, is the one currently on the hot seat to prove that it’s equal to the task it was created to do.
When Barry ran into Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans at a neighborhood picnic in Georgetown last Sunday, Barry boasted, “I’m going to carry Ward 2.” Hizzoner wants to keep everyone, especially journalists, guessing about his intentions next year, so he keeps dropping subtle hints while publicly denying that he has decided to run for a fifth term.
Evans has not been so subtle about his plans to challenge Barry for the city’s top political office in 1998. Despite lagging dead last in a recent poll, Evans is banking on his fund-raising abilities.
Meanwhile, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, currently the leading Democratic contender for Barry’s job, sounds more and more like Barry as he tries to position himself as the anti-Barry candidate. Brazil last week cast a scathing vote against the council’s budget plan, which ignored his attempts to fund programslike summer jobs for city youththat would appeal to Barry’s core constituency.
Although Brazil had supported virtually the same budget in an earlier vote, he claimed that the final version didn’t cut deeply enough into other municipal programs. But when Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson asked Brazil where he would like the cuts to fall, the blustery former Pepco executive warned her to back off or risk “starting a shouting match.”
To the dismay of other councilmembers, Patterson backed down. The vaunted shouting match, though, would not have lasted long, because Brazil lacks enough knowledge of the city budget to go throat-to-throat with Patterson.
When newcomer Sharon Ambrose, Brazil’s successor in the Ward 6 seat, pointed out that he had missed key sessions where the council’s budget had been fashioned, the notoriously tardy Brazil hotly accused her of being “an attendance taker.”
Last week Brazil introduced emergency legislation that the council quickly passed June 3 to block police Chief Larry Soulsby from redrawing police patrol beats throughout the city. Soulsby’s plan has stirred passions within communities that fear losing their beat officers to other districts. Only Evans voted against Brazil’s bill, while At-Large GOP Councilmember Carol Schwartz abstained.
But Evans said the concerned councilmembers were calmed by a meeting last Friday with Soulsby and Harlan. Everyone on the councilexcept Brazil, that isattended the session. CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.