Get our free newsletter
Firing government workers, even incompetent ones, is as rare in D.C. as safe schools, streets without potholes, and councilmembers who actually do oversight instead of just talking about it.
So when CFO Anthony Williams booted four officials from the city’s mismanaged property assessment division six weeks ago, he made banner headlines. Last week, after he fired another 38 workers from city agencies responsible for spending and tax collection, Williams got police protection, reportedly at the urging of Police Chief Larry Soulsby.
Those bodyguards were yanked this week as a result of complaints to the chief, apparently engineered by Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and his allies, that Williams was acting like “a prima donna.” The security detail, they griped, was assigned in response to an imagined threat to Williams.
Last Friday, as speculation soared that Williams was about to send more city employees packing, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of 1 Judiciary Square. Police swept the building but didn’t find a bomb. Police spokesmen refuse to comment on the phone call that emptied city hall.
One Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR) employee recently described her workplace as “a post office atmosphere” where workers fear that a disgruntled, dismissed colleague could walk in at any moment and open fire.
“There’s a lot of tension,” another DFR employee observed, “and when there’s tension, nobody can produce 100 percent.” But then again, D.C. workers never put out 100 percent, regardless of the tension level.
Williams currently oversees some 1,200 employees in DFR and the offices of the controller, the treasurer, budget, grants, and financial information services. He didn’t win any friends when he testified at a spring D.C. Council hearing that about a third of those workers perform their jobs well, another third need substantial help and retraining, and the other third just can’t cut it, even with more training.
Last April, Congress granted the CFO new powers to enforce his own personnel procedures and performance standards for agencies under his command. The change circumvented the city’s cumbersome personnel and civil service practices, which have been the refuge of endangered city workers, keeping them on the job long after supervisors want them gone. Congress’ decision to give Williams the power to write his own rules has city workers sweating.
“I think you can have a performance-based system and still protect individual employees’ rights,” the CFO said in a recent interview with LL.
Barry backers within the Williams-controlled agencies, including some the mayor put in jobs created specifically for them, have been carefully circulating an unsigned memo questioning the CFO’s recent actions. The memo, titled “Questions on the Legal Powers of the Chief Financial Officer,” challenged Williams’ right to fire anyone, claiming that power belongs to the mayor and the control board.
The memo also labeled as “shocking” the suspension of D.C.’s Personnel Manual and the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act for workers under Williams’ control. “Are we to assume that the basic rights acquired by years of qualified service (performance ratings of Satisfactory or higher) are no longer valid at all?” the memo inquires.
Barry is like the Redskins’ highly paid second-string quarterback, Heath Shuler—demoted to the sidelines but eager to find a way to get back in the game. After all, Hizzoner saw some action this spring when he booted out longtime ally Joe Yeldell as director of the Department of Employment Services. Still, the scorecard only credits Barry with an assist on that one: First Lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry spearheaded the move after a set-to with Yeldell.
Even Williams’ supporters in the financial agencies question whether he is firing too many low-level staffers and not enough of the supervisors who have mismanaged their minions. They also wonder whether he is kowtowing to the media by canning workers who have caught the glare of negative news coverage. “We don’t hear about anything he’s going to do until we read it in the newspaper,” says one DFR employee. “He’s been good for the Post’s circulation.”
Williams’ dismissal of assessor Michael Selden, who was cited in numerous news reports as the main culprit in the city’s property-assessment foul-ups this year, suggests a media-driven agenda, say the critics.
And Williams’ promotion of Carla Carter, a DFR controller, to serve as DFR’s acting director has raised questions about his ability to judge his personnel. After only 10 weeks on the job, Carter has proved that she’s in way over her head. Her appearance before the council last month—when she had trouble explaining even the basic functions of her critical agency—had councilmembers scratching their heads in bewilderment.
Yet it is refreshing to witness a city official who speaks candidly and acts instead of just talking. LL can understand why the CFO’s conduct has city employees so apprehensive.
They’ve never seen this kind of animal before.
BARRY’S SECRET WARD 4PLAN
The hot issue in Ward 4 right now is the talk of a new shopping center for upper Georgia Avenue that carries the scent of another secret Barry deal in the works. The issue caught D.C. Council candidates completely off guard when it reared its head at recent Ward 4 candidate forums.
At-large candidates, including Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil and former Barry administration official Yeldell, a Ward 4 resident, showed no awareness of the plan, which would turn city-owned Emery Playground, near Georgia and Madison Street NW, into a privately owned shopping center. But ignorance didn’t stop Brazil and Yeldell from pledging to back “the community” in this budding NIMBY debate—an empty pledge considering that neither candidate had any idea which side the community was on.
Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis assured the Aug. 7 forum at the old Rabaut Junior High School (now closed but fully occupied by the school system’s top-heavy administrative staff) that plans for a shopping center are a fantasy—just like the promises by President Bill Clinton and Barry to revive the decaying strip. “I have contacted the mayor’s office,” Jarvis informed the 75 or so Ward 4 residents on hand, “and I was told there is no plan, proposal, or request for a shopping mall at Emery Playground.”
“As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing before us,” said Jarvis, who chairs the council committee on economic development.
Outside the auditorium, Betsy Tibbs, the mayor’s longtime ally and Ward 4 constituent services coordinator, implored residents to “support the shopping mall! It will mean more tax dollars, more jobs. There’s big money coming in, and it’s all private.”
Back inside, Ward 4 challenger Diane Miller, who supports a shopping center for the area but opposes supplanting the playground, thought Jarvis knew more than she was admitting.
“I think it’s one of her ploys,” Miller, a former council aide to Jarvis, said afterwards. “They may not have had formal discussions, but she knows about the plan for the development.”
Miller can base her suspicions on history if nothing else. Eight years ago, when a huge office, residential, and retail complex was slated for the intersection of Georgia and Eastern Avenues NW, Jarvis was exposed as one of the project’s early backers. Fierce opposition from Shepherd Park residents eventually blocked the development.
The mayor’s office, as usual, is keeping mum about the details, even though the proposal first surfaced last month at Barry’s Ward 4 town meeting, when Hizzoner casually floated a trial balloon to test public reaction. Barry last month also staged a press conference on Georgia Avenue proposing another development initiative for the corridor, which has been worn to the bone as much by broken promises as by drugs, crime, and business flight.
The area in question is the same stretch of Georgia Avenue Clinton walked in November 1992, promising to revive such blighted urban blocks once he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. But Clinton’s first term, and Jarvis’ 17 years on the council, have failed to stem the downturn of Georgia Avenue’s once-prosperous business community.
But the playground vs. shopping center debate is not even the No. 1 issue in the campaign—the incumbent is.
“Had Enough?” asks the attention-grabbing campaign posters of challenger Pat Kidd, effectively focusing the debate on Jarvis. But Kidd doesn’t seem to know what to say to disgruntled Ward 4 voters after she has gotten their attention.
At the Aug. 7 forum, she came across as uninformed on the issues and had to fend off criticism that her campaign had nailed posters to trees and put them in other places they did not legally belong.
“When a politician is wrong, you admit you’re wrong. That’s the beginning of responsible leadership,” said a contrite Kidd. She is campaigning largely on the “courageous leadership” she displayed in successfully suing her former boss, the D.C. government, for sexual harassment.
On the campaign trail Jarvis is buffeted by barbs that she singles out certain neighborhoods and residents for favored treatment in providing bulk trash pickup, snow removal, and other constituent services. Jarvis responds with a guilty-by-reason-of-compassion plea: “Yes, there were special people” who were sick or in need of her help in other ways, and she gave them a hand.
“I am a councilmember that makes things happen,” is the refrain that Jarvis crams into every speech and statement in this campaign.
Miller appears to have the best chance of the three challengers (the third, Dwight Singleton, has failed to show at forums so far), although she still seems a long shot at this point. Still, Miller has been picking up backing from the unions, and she seems to have a good grasp of the issues and the ward’s frustrations with Jarvis after four terms in office.
“You won’t have to be a special person to get services when I’m your councilmember,” Miller pledges.
The unions, longtime foes of Jarvis, also have an added incentive to work for her ouster. Jarvis seems to be allied with Brazil, organized labor’s target in the Democratic primary for an at-large council seat.
After completing his portion of the Aug. 7 forum, Brazil stayed to watch Jarvis perform. Council observers speculate that Jarvis may have cut a deal to back Brazil in the at-large race in return for support for her bid to become council chairman, in the event the increasingly unstable Dave Clarke decides to give up that post in two years.
Jarvis has also accepted the post of president of D.C.’s Southeastern University, a move that has challengers accusing her of no longer wanting to be a full-time councilmember.
D.C. motorist Enid Doggett was seeing red July 30 after a D.C. ambulance struck her car at the three-way intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, C, and 19th Streets SE, near D.C. General Hospital. But Doggett didn’t know exactly what she was seeing when out of the ambulance stepped Cynthiana Lightfoot, wife of outgoing At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, one of the city’s most successful personal-injury attorneys.
Mrs. Lightfoot, who has emergency medical training but is not licensed to assist ambulance crews, is frequently a “passenger,” (that’s how the police report on the accident identified her) on city ambulance runs, according to fire and ambulance officials.
“She likes to ride around in ambulances just to observe, and her husband is a personal-injury attorney,” Doggett said in disbelief.
Why go ambulance chasing when you’re sitting in the front seat?
Doggett contends the ambulance was not on a run, did not turn on its lights and sirens until it got to the intersection, was driving too fast, and struck her as she tried to pull over to get out of the way. She is appealing the ticket she got for failure to yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle.
Fire department officials insist the ambulance was on an emergency run, even though the police report lists only the driver and Mrs. Lightfoot—and no medic—on board…
Homeowners still fuming over the way city assessors overvalued and overtaxed their residences this year may be in for another shock. The 1997 D.C. appropriations bill pending before Congress contains a provision that would let the city levy taxes on either the assessed value of a home, as determined by D.C.’s numerically challenged assessors, or the sale price, whichever is higher.
Thus, city assessors would have an incentive to overvalue properties and haul in more tax dollars than the actual market price would justify.
The local real estate industry has foisted an intense lobbying campaign on the Senate D.C. Appropriations subcommittee to get this provision removed before final passage of the bill next month. Realtors fear the change would discourage would-be home buyers.
City officials claim they only sought the change to apply to houses sold at foreclosure, which often sell well below their value, depriving the city of its fair share of the property taxes. They say they have no idea how this provision got changed to apply to all properties when the House marked up the appropriations bill last month.
Sure. And this is the same government that once claimed there’s no problem at all with the drinking water. CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day.