Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
D.C. councilmembers have known for years that their headquarters, the District Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, is ready to collapse, threatening to bury their sleep-inducing hearings and interminable strategy sessions in a haze of plaster dust and beaux-arts rubble. So when local apartment complex developer T. Conrad Monts offered in early 1995 to restore the city’s seat of government to its original grandeur at no cost to taxpayers, councilmembers hailed him as their knight in shining armor, sallying forth to rescue them from their dungeon.
But now Montswho has seldom met a downtown project he could finish on timehas turned into the dragon keeping the council trapped inside its lair. And disgruntled councilmembers appear ready to slay the dragon by yanking the $65-million District Building renovation project away from him.
“I think Conrad is in over his head, and I think the guy may get the hook,” predicted one frustrated councilmember.
Under Monts’ original unsolicited proposal, the District Building would be vacated for 14 months while Monts’ people altered the exterior, chopped up the interior, added another floor, and narrowed the building’s trademark wide corridors. Monts also pledged to relocate the council to 1 Judiciary Square during the project. That was supposed to be the easy part.
It hasn’t turned out that way. Monts now claims that the only way he can get the council out is by moving the D.C. Department of Administrative Services (DAS) from its current 7th-floor haunts at 1 Judiciary Square to the District Buildinga move that would open up space for the council at 1 Judiciary Square. After attending to the council, Monts vows to renovate another floor at 1 Judiciary Square for DAS to move back in.
DAS director Dallas Evans, however, has refused to make the switch. The proposal, she fears, would sentence her agency to a life term in the city’s most creaky office space.
Monts has been promising councilmembers since last summer that he would soon have them in their new digs just four floors below where Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. hangs outwhere the rats don’t roam free, the walls aren’t crumbling, the toilets aren’t broken, the drinking water isn’t brown, and the air is not rumored to carry as much asbestos as oxygen.
But when acting council chair Charlene Drew Jarvis and four of her colleagues toured the seventh floor of 1 Judiciary Square last month, they were ready to toss Monts into the moat. The developer had planned a small office for each of the 13 councilmembers, but their combined 130 staffers would have to work side by side in a large, open area now being called “the pit”apt symbolism for a council that has thrown taxpayer dollars into a black hole for two decades. But District lawmakers still cling to a loftier image of their stature in local government.
Councilmembers said they deserved more privacy for themselves and their aides, and they set about looking for more suitable office space in a vacant downtown building. Monts, who for months had insisted he could not build larger, private offices for each councilmember at 1 Judiciary Square and stay within the $75,000 budget the council had set for its move, suddenly relented.
Faced with an uprising, Monts assured the council that he could accommodate their needs and stay within their moving budget, with one condition: that DAS move into the District Building right away so he could begin the needed renovations on the council’s future home at 1 Judiciary Square.
Councilmembers, having listened to Monts’ stream of broken promises for the past several months, remain unconvinced.
“Was he lying then? Or is he lying now?” one councilmember said in reference to Monts’ backpedaling on his pledge to outfit each District lawmaker and staff with private offices. “You get the feeling that he’s really trying to cut corners. People really have lost confidence in his ability to do this deal.”
Monts’ most outspoken deserter is Phyllis Jones, the council’s executive secretary, who negotiated last year’s deal with the developer. Jones steadfastly defended his plan to finance the needed renovations by leasing most of the space in the redone city hall to the federal government for 20 yearsa plan that sustained a coordinated attack from local activists who saw it as an invitation to Uncle Sam to colonize another piece of the District.
Jones claimed that the Monts deal was not a sellout and that the financially crippled city could not borrow the money needed to finance renovations. She still clings to that position but now concedes that Monts may not be the guy for the job.
The $52 million Monts raised in January through the sale of bonds to finance the project is sitting securely in a bank account and can be used by another developer of the council’s choosing to finish the project Monts started, according to Jones, Jarvis, and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
Councilmembers believe they have found a trapdoor for Monts. The contract for the renovation permits them to provide Monts with a list of grievances that he must “cure” within 60 days.
The council is preparing a letter to inform Monts that he must “cure” councilmembers’ concerns by completing the move to 1 Judiciary Square before mid-May. If Monts fails to meet that deadline, as many predict, then the council can cast him out and search for another developer.
There’s just one catch: The council and its pampered staffers would have to stick it out in the District Building.
Of course, no controversy over office space at 1 Judiciary Square would be complete without a little interference from Hizzoner. True to form, Barry impeded the council’s move by insisting that he controlled scheduling of the building’s precious auditorium, where the council plans to hold its televised sessions and hearings. Barry’s petty power move raises the prospect that cable TV Channel 13 viewers will see a council session disrupted with the announcement: “The city council will now leave the auditorium so that the Honorable Mayor Barry can conduct a seminar for his constituents on how to eat right, work less, and get more fun out of life.”
WARD 6 THROWDOWN
It’s only a matter of time before the scrapping contenders in the Ward 6 special council election ditch their campaign slogans and platitudes about accountability for boxing gloves and climb into the ring. During a March 5 forum hosted by the city’s fledgling Green Party, the youthful John Capozzi agreed to a foot race against breakaway Catholic priest George Stallings after the flamboyant preacher boasted he had more energy and endurance than his rivals.
“It won’t be over water,” Capozzi quipped to the some 70 audience members.
Stallings, claiming he was more committed to the Anacostia River cleanup, also challenged Anacostia resident Howard Croft to measure whose house was closer to the river. If candidate Croft’s house turns out to be closer, Stallings promised to drop out of the race.
“Archbishop” Stallings also vowed to quit if he had more money in his personal bank account than crime dog Sandy McCall, a successful real estate and investment businessman. But when McCall repeated his demand to examine the bank accounts of Stallings’ 11 tax-exempt churches across the country, the minister did not turn the other cheek.
“They are not mine, they are the people’s,” a surly Stallings snapped before suggesting that he and McCall “step outside” to settle the dispute.
But McCall, who had already accepted a challenge from AIDS activist Steve Michael to a one-on-one debate over McCall’s 12-point anti-crime platform, ignored the suggestion. (The debate was set for this past Wednesday, March 12, at the Market Five Gallery in Eastern Market.)
The fiery exchanges at the Greens’ forum finally introduced Ward 6 voters to Stallings’ preacher incarnation. Prior to the event, Stallings had been careful to tone down the rhetoric and theatrics he has displayed in his roof-raising weekly sermons at his Imani Temple on Capitol Hill. The understated approach was an apparent effort to avoid alienating voters distrustful of mixing religion and politics.
Campaign aide Wilbur Marshall said Stallings came into the forum “revved up” from attending two funerals, including one for convicted cop-killer turned role model Terence Johnson the day before.
But the preacher’s enthusiasm may have gotten the better of his judgment.
When Stallings tried to convince the audience that he is a staunch supporter and user of public transportation, Michael reminded Stallings he drives “a beautiful Lincoln.” “I use public transportation because I get sermon material from the conversations,” Stallings quickly amended.
Newcomer Trista Tramposch has nailed down the airhead trophy of the campaign. During a forum sponsored by local gay and lesbian groups, Tramposch said she attended college at Berkeley, “the birthplace of the civil rights movement.” She apparently didn’t major in history, or geography.
While in college, Tramposch told her audience, “I was mistaken for a lesbian. I found that to be a great compliment.”
Candidate Sharon Ambrose is trying to knock Tramposch off the April 29 ballot, which would leave Ambrose as the sole woman among the 10 or so candidates. But Ambrose may be making a mistake: Tramposch makes her look good.
When Anthony Williams took over as the city’s chief financial officer in 1995, he was supposed to show Barry how to run a government designed to deliver services to city residents, not to friends. But judging from his choice of a panel to choose a financial adviser, Williams appears to be picking up some of Hizzoner’s old tricks instead of banishing them.
Last month Williams named six officials to determine which company will help the District balance its books and collect its taxes. There may be little suspense in the panel’s deliberations, though.
Three of the six original members on the selection panel previously worked for Public Financial Management Inc. (PFM), the Philadelphia consultant hired by Williams last year to assist his office in budget planning. One of the panel members, city treasurer Tom Huestis, worked briefly on PFM’s current contract with the city before taking his present post. Huestis recently quit the panel to avoid the appearance of a conflict. But former PFM officials Jalal Greene, now one of Williams’ deputies, and Pam Holton, currently a senior city budget official, remain on the panel.
Greene and Holton belong there, aides to Williams say, because they are deeply involved with the city’s debt management, possess the needed expertise to evaluate potential financial advisers, and will work hand-in-hand with the winning firm. PFM also has experience advising other insolvent cities, including Philadelphia and Miami, Williams aides point out.
“I think it’s important to note we are committed to a procurement process that is of the highest integrity. And we believe that’s what we have,” says Max Brown, general counsel to the CFO.
If the panel listens to the city’s Office of Budget and Planning, PFM could have trouble cashing in on its D.C. connections. A Feb. 21 memo from the office described PFM’s work on the city’s FY 1998 budget as “marginal” and “superficial.”
“Moreover, PFM has also made a decision to use the District of Columbia as a training ground for their junior analysts, who for the most part are learning about local government themselves,” the memo to Greene claims. No word yet on whether the panel is concerned about those drawbacks, which are scarcely grounds for contract denial in the Barry school of management.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.