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For the past 23 years, the home rule charter has served as the Magna Carta for the District’s hapless attempt at self-government. When the D.C. Council eventually gets around to approving President Bill Clinton’s plan to save the city, the charter will be supplanted by a bureaucratic document known as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
The MOUwhich is the sound a cow makes when it’s stuck in the mudis still being hammered out between the bean counters at the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and turf-conscious D.C. councilmembers. It ditches lofty rhetoric about democratic ideals and the right to self-governmenta staple of chartering documentsand outlines which parts of local government the city is willing to give up in exchange for more federal aid.
The White House initiative got sidetracked this week when supporters couldn’t muster the six votes needed to gain the council’s stamp of approval. Acting council chair Charlene Drew Jarvis had hoped to pen her name on the historic document as her last official act before handing over the gavel to chair-in-waiting Linda Cropp on Tuesday. But Jarvis was forced to yank the MOU from the council agenda after counting votes and realizing she was one short.
Supporters viewed the setback as temporary, but the White House will have to make some additional concessions to pick up the needed vote.
The centerpiece of the document is a new $300-million “superagency”now referred to as the D.C. Economic Development Corp. (EDC)that will expedite much-talked-about-but-seldom-seen economic development throughout the city by sweeping aside cumbersome barriers to developmentlike local zoning and historic-preservation laws, as well as community opposition. The prospect of eliminating D.C. government hurdles that normally take years to clear has area businessmen mulling new deals and land grabs that wouldn’t even reach the proposal stage in today’s regulatory environment. The sound of clinking glasses at the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and the Federal City Council could soon drown out the roar of rush-hour traffic.
The authority and makeup of EDC were primary sticking points this week in the MOU negotiations between the council and OMB. Councilmembers insisted upon curbing EDC’s powers of eminent domain over idle city properties and lobbied for greater District representation on the EDC governing board. The council’s pressure brought dividends: The White House agreed to give city leaders three seats on the nine-member board, instead of the original proposal of two. The occupant of the White House still gets to pick six of the nine board members, but the president may have to give up another after the council’s Tuesday standoff. Two, three, or four, the only thing that matters on a nine-member board is a five-person majority, and all the council kvetching in the world isn’t going to change that math.
The Clinton administration certainly isn’t going to let Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. get control of EDC, considering that he’s mostly responsible for the conditionsa city hemorrhaging residents and businessesthat EDC was created to reverse. Redemption notwithstanding, a politician like Barry doesn’t deserve endless opportunities to screw up the city. (Barry can, however, count on keeping his duties as the city’s chief trash collector and pothole fixerat least until the control board and congressional Republicans find a more efficient way to perform them.)
Although the MOU between the White House and local officials will serve as the city’s guiding government blueprint well into the next millennium, local activists and residents are not rushing the District Building to get their hands on the historic document. The reason is that the final version will metamorphose once D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and House District subcommittee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) get their hands on it.
Norton and Davis view the MOU negotiations as a meaningless formality prolonged by unrealistic councilmembers. A lowly staffer on Davis’ subcommittee, after all, can undo all the council’s work with one keystroke, because Congress holds the ultimate power to rewrite the document to its liking. But the negotiations have given the council a rare opportunity to at least feel like a major player at a turning point for the city.
Even if the deal gets altered beyond recognition on Capitol Hill, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans insists, “At least we maintained the intellectual integrity of the process.”
Whatever that means.
Evans, chair of the council’s Judiciary Committee, has been a key negotiator in the nettlesome struggle to get the federal government to pay for the District’s costly corrections program and shield D.C. prisoners from stiffer federal drug sentences. He is hoping to ride the fatted MOU to the mayor’s office next year.
One of his chief rivals, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, is hoping to blaze a trail to the same office by butchering the same animal. Brazil, the darling of the downtown business community and developers who would benefit from the MOU’s underlying tenets, has been railing against the president’s plan since it was unveiled Jan. 14. Tuesday’s inaction was a clear victory for him, although you can bet he will come around when push comes to shove.
In a blatant attempt to attract good-government types who resent federal intrusion into local affairs, Brazil has been waving the home rule flag in his protestations on the MOU. Brazil, who never met a microphone he could resist, is advocating never-ending negotiations with OMB to “preserve the District’s fiscal viability and its autonomy under home rule.”
“We have leaped at bad deals in the past,” Brazil cautioned in a press release rushed out by his office this past Sunday, of all days, as the council and OMB appeared near agreement on the MOU.
Brazil has also used the council dais to aim unfriendly fire at the architects of the president’s plan. “I don’t know why we should be following people who led us down the wrong path before,” he said at a council meeting in March.
The plan is the work of three ex-D.C. bureaucrats: OMB Director Franklin Raines, a former Barry adviser, White House D.C. liaison Carol Thompson Cole, city administrator during Barry’s third term, and Jim Gibson, city planning director during Barry’s first term. Gibson, head of the Federal City Council-funded D.C. Agenda Project, authored the proposal for the new superagency that will strip the city of its power over economic development.
During his tenure as Barry’s representative on the National Capital Planning Commission in the early 1980s, Gibson frequently railed against the kind of intrusion into local development decisions that he is now promoting with the creation of his superagency. But he justifies his change of heart by his “disappointment” with the performance of the city’s elected leaders, and “the low expectations” of D.C. residents, which has contributed to the “mediocrity” of the District’s political class.
Brazil has slighted Gibson for being knee-deep in the quagmire back in the bad old dayscharges that Gibson vehemently rebuffs. “That is such a crock,” he said of the Brazil allegation. “I wasn’t even around when the city went into its demise.”
And Gibson insists EDC is “far more pro-neighborhood than it is pro-business.” Gibson said the agency will use its $250 million in federal tax incentives and subsidies to move development out of the downtown area and into hard-pressed neighborhoods.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who is also considering a run for mayor next year, had been absent on the MOU issue until this week, when he finally declared that he would have voted against the MOU had he gotten the chance. Chavous seems to have a thing about keeping his options open above all elsea tactic that may in fact diminish his options in the long run.
At least one member of the D.C. financial control board doesn’t believe that the mayor’s job has been diminished to a ceremonial sinecure by the control board, Congress, and the White House rescue plan. Control board member Constance Newman has been quietly pondering a run for mayor in 1998, according to a source familiar with the discussions going on in Newman’s inner circle.
She has at least one fan in board Vice Chair Stephen Harlan. “I think she would make a great mayor,” Harlan said recently.
But Newman has been warned by her supporters that she has to overcome her fear of Barry if she’s going to take him on. LL doubts that she will be able to do that in the short time remaining before the 1998 mayoral race begins in earnest…
Meanwhile, Barry has been holding regular news conferences staged to float feel-good proposals for transforming the city. The idea behind the conferences, though, is to keep Hizzoner’s face on the TV screens and to divert attention from his shrinking powers and his 31-man security detail. Last Thursday, May 1, he called a news conference to announce that D.C. would compete for the 2008 Olympics, but that didn’t stop reporters from peppering him with questions about the size of his bodyguard squad.
The next day, Barry summoned the press to 1 Judiciary Square again to unveil his request for pay raises for top officials of his administrationtwo days after the council had passed the 1998 budget.
During the May Day news conference, Barry snarled at WTOP reporter Kate Ryan for asking why a tourist from Iowa should feel safe visiting the nation’s capital when the mayor needs 31 bodyguards. Barry acted insulted and angry that Ryan would compare him “to a farmer from I-o-way.”
Now residents of Iowa, where only 10 percent of the population are farmers, are acting insulted by the mayor’s stereotype. Now there’s a bunch that knows a good, solid moo when they hear one…
Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Larry Soulsby caught everyone by surprise last week when he appeared to defend Barry on the security-detail flap. Soulsby asked the council to wait 45 days before slashing the mayor’s detail to 15 police officers so that he and the U.S. Secret Service could determine just how many bodyguards the mayor needs.
Soulsby, who has been winning accolades for his efforts to break Barry’s grip on MPD and depoliticize the department, had been expected to back the council’s action. But Soulsby is apparently not the bumptious, independent chief that he sought to portray in March, when the control board gave him new powers that once belonged to Barry. When Hizzoner makes a direct request, Soulsby is still quick to salute and click his heels.
Evans, sponsor of the move to halve the mayor’s security squad, said the reduction will still leave Barry with more bodyguards than any other mayor in the country. But Evans might be forced to back down if Soulsby ends up siding with Barry.
Barry seems to believe that 31 bodyguards may not be enough. And his aides have gotten really creative in attempting to justify the protection.
“The mayor is an extremely controversial and highly visible public figure,” Barry chief of staff Barry Campbell wrote Evans last month. “The more the security of the president, White House, Capitol, and other federal buildings is strengthened, the more local officials and buildings become susceptible to domestic or international acts of terrorism.”…
The U.S. General Services Administration has objected to a proposal by Davis to put Lorton on the market almost immediately after the prison is closed. The Davis proposal is expected to be included in the MOU implementing the president’s plan, once it reaches Congress.
Under longstanding procedures for disposing of federal property, the Lorton site would be offered to other government agencies before it is put on the market. But Davis, who is banking his Senate hopes on closing Lorton and offering the land to Virginia developers, doesn’t want to take the chance that another agency might want the District’s prison…
At the end of the school day April 29 at Miner Elementary in Ward 6, the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker to remind departing students: “If you were absent today, make sure you bring in a note from your parents tomorrow.”CP
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