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The buzz around the District Building last week came from the sound of a District Council that was actually doing something for a change. No, LL is not talking about the early Christmas presents for MCI, H.H. Leonards, Tony Cooper, the Bureau of National Affairs, and opponents of the proposed Barney Circle Freeway on Capitol Hill, all of whom got what they wanted from the final council session.

Not at all.

District Building denizens were buzzing over a Friday-morning working session that paved the way for last Saturday’s “historic”—as some dubbed it—council action recommending layoffs of 1,000 city workers, instead of the usual pay cuts, to meet an $85-million budget shortfall.

At the Friday session, the councilmembers met (the meeting lasted only two hours), they agreed on a plan, and everyone was pleasant to one another. The reason everything went so smoothly, the participants observed afterwards, was because council Chairman Dave Clarke did not attend.

“It was a fairly productive meeting, and the chairman was not present,” noted Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, one of the key participants. “I think the speed with which the meeting moved had something to do with who was there and who wasn’t.”

Last week’s deliberations, moreover, highlighted an emerging fissure on the council between groups of so-called “obstructionists” and “realists.” The “obstructionists” consist of Clarke, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason, and occasionally, Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil. The “realists,” most of the nine other councilmembers, tout themselves as willing to make the changes needed to save the city from ruin, regardless of the political consequences.

The obstructionist-realist conflict overlays another division long portrayed in the local media: the Young Turks, reformers who have pushed for tax cuts, a smaller work force, and government reforms, and the Old Guard, graying councilmembers who have stood pat for D.C. workers and big government.

The Clarkeless Friday morning meeting included Patterson, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, outgoing At-Large Councilmember John Ray, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp, and for the last half-hour, Brazil. Thomas and Mason wandered in around two hours late, prompting adjournment.

Clarke reconvened the group that afternoon to rehash decisions made that morning, but participants scattered before everything fell apart. “It was all beginning to unravel,” Evans said later.

After the council voted overwhelmingly in favor of layoffs instead of pay cuts at its special Saturday session, Clarke told reporters, “We realized that someone had to take the lead.” Someone, that is, other than the chairman. “The council has put itself out there,” Clarke boasted.

Clarke’s rhetoric reflected the jitters of an embattled chairman who hears the footsteps of the omnipotent control board, which is just now turning its sights on new targets after its bloodless school-board putsch. “We are a part of the process and will speak to the issues,” he said.

But Clarke’s undying devotion to process, allies and critics concur, often mires the council in time-consuming procedures and threatens to sink its credibility to the depths occupied by the emasculated D.C. school board.

The chairman’s shortcomings took center stage on Dec. 3, the council’s last scheduled legislative session of the year. Clarke opened the daylong session with a harangue against the Washington Post for its coverage of his controversial nomination of Cooper, son of the chairman’s longtime and well-regarded political ally Jerry Cooper, to be the new city auditor.

Clarke insisted that the Post got it wrong when it reported that the council would vote on Cooper’s nomination at last week’s meeting, because the chairman said he only scheduled the vote the day before. So Clarke demanded to know how the Post could report, several days earlier, that the vote would take place Dec. 3. No one else on the council shared his concern.

And, Clarke noted, the Post also got it wrong when it reported that the nomination would be the first item on the agenda. The chairman conveniently brought up a few meaningless ceremonial resolutions for action before turning to the Cooper nomination. So there.

Despite pleas from his colleagues to “move on,” Clarke wouldn’t let the matter drop. “We don’t need this kind of Loose Lips-type journalism on the front page of the Washington Post,” said the chairman.

Brazil chimed in, “We don’t need Loose Lips,” he amended. “The Post is OK.”

LL knew we did the right thing when we didn’t endorse that guy.

Clarke bristles at the suggestion that the nomination was a political favor. To defend his selection, the chairman was forced to malign the two previous city auditors, Russell Smith and Otis Troupe, claiming that neither had had auditing experience when he was appointed.

Clarke was engaging in just the sort of misrepresentation he attributed to the Post. Smith had considerable auditing experience—in D.C., Essex County, N.J., and Berkeley, Calif.—before taking the D.C. post. And Troupe had been an auditor of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. in New York and a bank examiner with the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency.

Cooper, who gets high marks for his stint as legislative director at the Washington Board of Trade, and who has the distinction of lasting longer at the D.C. Lottery than any other director, has no prior experience as an auditor.

Clarke had a choice: promote acting city auditor Deborah Nichols, who has performed well since Smith moved over to the financial control board last summer, or bring in a stellar outsider to send a message that the council means business. Instead, he chose Cooper.

“The credibility of the council is pretty low. I’m not sure we can take many more blows,” laments Evans, who voted against the Cooper nomination.

In his quest for the auditor’s post, Cooper, according to Clarke, boasts a distinction that would qualify as a credential only in D.C.: He has been the subject of city audits while at the lottery board. That’s like saying Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. is qualified to be federal judge because he has been tried in U.S. District Court.

The chairman’s timing of the nomination was certainly political. He brought it up at a time when councilmembers are eagerly awaiting his decisions on chairmanships for the next council session. Had Clarke delayed until after he announced his selections, he might have lost his leverage, and votes.

After approving Cooper’s nomination, the council:

-overwhelmingly rejected the mayor’s construction contract for the Barney Circle Freeway near RFK stadium;

-finally passed Ray’s bill regulating HMOs (the District is one of the last areas in the country to bring HMOs under controls) in the 17-year councilmember’s farewell session;

-set up a new Department of Insurance and Securities Regulation but excluded banking to appease Jarvis, who heads the committee that oversees the banking industry;

-granted a 10-year property-tax deferral to the Bureau of National Affairs to keep it from moving its headquarters (and several hundred jobs) out of D.C.;

-hiked recording fees on real estate deeds to pay for automating the Recorder of Deeds office and bringing it into the 20th century before it ends;

-granted tax breaks to MCI and other telecommunications firms.

-cut welfare benefits by 5 percent to bring them closer to what surrounding jurisdictions pay and thus discourage poor people from moving into the District.

-gave final approval to a bill clearing the way for Leonards’ Mansion to get a permanent liquor license. The council rejected a Patterson amendment that would have required 51-percent approval of nearby Dupont Circle residents, a requirement that some liquor-license holders must meet.

-passed Brazil’s procurement-reform bill after exempting real estate leases from the jurisdiction of the new chief procurement officer at the insistence of the mayor. Evans said he “smelled a rat” in Barry’s desire to keep control over real estate leases but has not identified any pet projects Hizzoner is trying to protect. “I’m sure there are some,” said a top Barry administration official.

In spite of the council’s great leap, some remained unimpressed. “It was like watching a ship slowly sinking,” Dupont Circle activist Marilyn Groves observed after sitting though much of the council’s daylong swan song for 1996.

SCHOOL BOARD’S LAST CHANCE

If control board members were wondering whether they did the right thing last month in deposing the D.C. school board, they got their answer last week. Faced with a racially charged crisis at the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School, the D.C. school board issued its classic reflex-response: duck.

The spat arose on Dec. 3, when Washington Times reporter Susan Ferecchio entered the school without permission from principal Mary A.T. Anigbo. Under circumstances that remain in dispute, Ferecchio and Anigbo met in a hallway and ended up in a struggle over a note pad. With the help of a few students, Anigbo then forcibly threw Ferecchio out of the school. Police investigators later searched the school for the vaunted note pad, of which both Ferecchio and Anigbo claim ownership, and the case is now under investigation by a grand jury.

Among the questions raised by the dispute is whether Anigbo violated her charter in her treatment of Ferecchio.

School board President Karen Shook, in her usual misguided refrain, said she didn’t know whether she and her colleagues had the power to oversee Marcus Garvey, which it chartered last summer and funds with D.C. tax dollars.

But Shook expressed no doubt that the school board should be back in federal court this week trying to reclaim the powers it wants to possess but not use. Those powers were transferred by the control board last month to a newly appointed board of trustees that has vowed to use its powers and act decisively to improve public education in D.C.

The reason the city is currently faced with the Marcus Garvey furor is that the elected school board did not exercise its authority in the first place.

The congressional law creating charter schools in D.C. clearly spells out the school board’s responsibilities on issuing charters: It must examine the school’s financial backing, its ability to lease a building, and the qualifications of its staff and board of trustees. The board also had the power to review Marcus Garvey’s curriculum and question whether its Afrocentric teachings adequately prepare students to live in an increasingly multicultural and multiracial society.

But the elected school board members did none of these things before granting the Marcus Garvey charter last August.

If the board had investigated, it would have unearthed Anigbo’s history of confrontation, the school’s lack of start-up funds, and its problems finding a building for the school. All would have been valid grounds for delaying or denying the Marcus Garvey charter.

At-large school board member Jay Silberman said the bitter racial divisions within the 11-member school board prevented him from opposing the school’s charter.

So now the board’s failure to resolve its own racial conflicts has spawned a new racial conflagration threatening to divide the entire city, not just 11 petty board members.

Still, it’s not too late for the school board to reverse its disastrous reign over D.C. schools with a rare bold stroke. The law clearly gives the school board the power to convene a hearing within the next 60 days to get to the bottom of the Marcus Garvey mess. But board members seem to be hoping that U.S. Attorney Eric Holder will get them off the hot seat by bringing charges against Anigbo or students at the school.

LL can understand the school board’s reluctance to convene a hearing that is likely to get ugly. Anigbo threw down the gauntlet with her Dec. 6 news conference, in which she appeared to retreat from or contradict earlier accounts of what happened at the school.

Surrounded by Unity Nation leader Malik Shabazz, fiery Union Temple Baptist minister Willie Wilson, and others experienced in infusing race into community conflicts, Anigbo put the city on warning: If the school board acts, expect racial warfare.

If the school board backs down, it loses its last remnants of credibility. With as many as 100 government agencies, nonprofits, trade associations, education groups, and community organizations expressing an interest in operating charter schools in D.C., the school board has a responsibility to ensure that these schools improve educational opportunities and not further fragment an already fragile community.

The school board has to act now or stop whining and get out of the way of others who will.