Stepping onto Mayor Barry’s Mobile City Hall—a 34-foot converted recreational vehicle intended to maintain a governmental presence at community events—you’re struck by an immediate contradiction. The vehicle, which is supposed to be a rolling exemplar of D.C. government, is a gleaming model of efficiency, fully equipped and in excellent repair.
The exterior shows off a 1-year-old shiny white paint job and clearly visible identification (“Mayor Barry’s Mobile City Hall 202/727-6161”), the hubs are shiny, the tires like new, the doors open and close, and the engine runs. Inside, the AC frosts a humid summer day down to 67 degrees, two personal computers (relatively current 486 models) are positioned at workstations, a refrigerator cools sodas, two cell-phones await action, and a microwave oven idles at head level, ready for Hizzoner to strut in with a still-frozen bean ’n’ beef burrito from a nearby 7-Eleven. There’s even a working smoke detector, just in case Rasheeda Moore decides to drop in.
Having made an appointment to visit the mobile unit before it began official duties at Georgia Avenue Day, I was ready for a spare-tire-sportin’, wiper-blade-missin’, bumper-tied-on, unpainted crusty jalopy, listing heavily to starboard in some forgotten urban gutter. But there it was, shining in the sun, gassed up, staffed, and fully choreographed to play its politician-support role at another fair-size D.C. celebration. The only indication of a problem came right before the chariot rolled into action, when a member of Charlene Drew Jarvis’ campaign team approached.
“Hey Charlie, you got a bathroom in there?”
“Ain’t working!” a staffer shouted back.
The despondent campaigner reported back to his corps, “He says it ain’t working. Gotta call the control board, get a purchase order. Get some toilet paper from the control board.”
The 1987 Bounder Fleetwood was bought brand new for $39,000, and another $10,000 was spent on the retrofit during another Barry era. (You gotta assume that some serious partying went down in that puppy before Marion was transformed.) Officially, the original objectives of the mobile city hall included delivering information about the services the District offered, giving citizens a place to drop off complaints, and, quoting from a report when the RV was christened, “give the perception of state-of-the-art technology being used by the District.”
Since 1987, D.C. has spent on average $2,137 per year maintaining the ride, but has budgeted $7,000 annually for the next two years for upkeep. Strange, for a vehicle with only 19,268 miles on its odometer. “The vehicle is coming up on being 10 years old, and it is high-maintenance equipment,” said Zachary Smith, of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. While the RV doesn’t log a lot of street miles, it is frequently in use (with AC cranking) while parked at city events. When not in use, the unit rests at a Department of Public Works lot at 5th and Bryant Streets NE, in the same lot as the mayor’s car. Both are guarded ’round the clock.
Funding for the unit comes from the Department of Human Services, because initially the van was going to be used for citywide health screenings. But the city has designated another vehicle for on-site clinic services, so the mayor’s unit is free for all the glamorous gigs. Before its Georgia Avenue Day assignment, the van was most recently seen at the Stone Soul picnic at Kenilworth Park, the Latino Festival on Pennsylvania Avenue, Olympic Soccer at RFK Stadium, and July 4 on the Mall.
Henry Williams, who has been the vehicle’s primary driver since it was bought, said the Bounder performs well—despite a lack of pickup—and that the behemoth has never been tagged with a ticket. “Who would you make it out to?” he asks, grinning.
Williams says people seem to like the concept of a city hall on wheels, a lot.
“One thing that does happen a lot is tourists line up to get their picture taken in front of it. We get that all the time.” What about the mayor? Is he prone to back-seat driving? “Oh, he’s fine,” Williams says. “A little more relaxed than you usually see him ’cause he doesn’t have all those people in his face.”
The unit’s use and location at events are decided by the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the mayor’s office. Private groups and citizens may not borrow the van, but “responsible neighborhood and civic organizations or special event sponsors can request that the van be present at pre-approved activities.” So if you’ve got something to say to Mr. Barry, form a group, prove your responsibility, and invite the van over. Another line from the 1987 christening language promises, “The Mayor will travel on the vehicle regularly. He wants to interact with the citizens and hear their complaints firsthand.”—John Briley