Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

LL has always been amazed at District leaders’ determination to spend whatever it takes in time, energy, and taxpayers’ money to ensure that D.C. residents are saddled with the worst possible government.

Consider, for example, the city’s tireless, expensive effort to topple court-appointed receiver Jerry Miller from atop the troubled child welfare and foster care program. When U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan appointed Miller last fall, Miller took over a program on the verge of collapse. Despite years of litigation and court orders, foster care and child welfare were in chaos: Kids were getting lost in the system, records were in disarray, money was being spent negligently. Miller found that there were 625 employees on the payroll of a program that was authorized to have only 414, and that the agency had overspent its $90-million FY 1995 budget by at least $20 million.

But instead of cooperating with the new boss, the city has done almost everything it can to stymie him. The administration of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.—peeved at surrendering power to an outsider—seems to be working overtime to throw obstacles in Miller’s path. The Office of Corporation Counsel has filed six appeals with the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. challenging virtually every move the receiver has attempted. Its latest brief, filed March 4, attempts to abolish the receivership entirely.

Miller, who fought his share of bureaucratic wars as commissioner of youth services in Massachusetts, has been battling the city since Day 1. Soon after starting work last fall, he discovered a new, unused child-care center at his agency’s 645 H St. NE headquarters. It had been locked and empty since its completion in June 1994. But when he tried to open the center to some of the District’s 500 homeless children and their mothers, the city immediately sent inspectors in to try to prevent it.

“It’s the Land of No,” Miller said of the D.C. government in an interview last week. He did manage to open the center as a temporary shelter for eight to 10 homeless families during the January blizzard.

According to D.C. government sources, Barry administration officials resent Miller because they feel Hogan has given him authority and resources that the judge refused to grant when the program was under local control. Miller has also provoked anger by asking the court to exempt his program from budget constraints imposed on other agencies.

The Barry administration has succeeded in blocking Miller from taking command of the agency’s budget, forcing him to petition the control board for help. Miller says he can’t even gain control of the agency’s rent payments—a whopping $27 per square foot for space among the vacant and rundown buildings of H Street. If he could, he says, he would move the agency from its current headquarters into smaller offices throughout the city. Decentralization, he says, would involve the community in child welfare programs.

City officials are also waiting to pounce on any mistake by Miller. Even though no one can recall when the city last bothered to check the books of its foster care program, D.C. auditors are probing Miller’s accounts after only six months on the job. “That’s clearly harassment,” he says. He has hired a local African-American accounting firm—Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio, and Associates—to audit himself and the District’s auditors. “I don’t trust the city’s auditors,” he says.

(That’s a sentiment he may feel about some of his employees, too. Miller has inherited a staff that is paralyzed by bureaucratic turf wars. Many employees are loyal to those who want to get rid of him, and some even spend their time trying to block information from reaching the boss, according to one agency source.)

Meanwhile, Miller is trying to fix a system that seems to spend its money in all the wrong places. Miller notes that D.C. sends 80 percent of the $52 million it spends annually on foster care to suburban parents. The receiver says the agency does not even seek D.C. families to take in the city’s 2,500 foster children, and hasn’t for years. Miller proposes to recruit Washingtonians as foster parents, thereby retrieving for D.C. some of the $40 million going to the suburbs.

It may come as a surprise to school-voucher opponents that the city also spends $3 million-plus annually to pay the tuition of D.C. foster children at suburban public, private, and religious schools. Miller recently told D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Franklin Smith that his agency will stop paying out-of-District tuition for foster children. The receiver also wants to stop housing foster kids in state institutions elsewhere, a practice that costs D.C. $4.5 million annually.

Judge Hogan gave Miller three years to straighten out the child welfare and foster care system, which is twice as long as Miller predicted he would need.

But that was before he encountered all the roadblocks from the administration of a mayor whom Miller claims to admire. And now he may not even get the three years Hogan promised.

On March 4, Corporation Counsel Charles Ruff filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. asking to abolish the receivership. Ruff contends that the decision to appoint a federal receiver was “clearly erroneous and manifestly unjust.”

The brief argues that “a federal court cannot displace the District of Columbia’s government, instructing its officials what the laws mean, how they are to be implemented and enforced, what they ideally should be, and what resources should be allocated to achieve these ends.”

Never mind that D.C. has demonstrated a pathological inability to allocate resources wisely and to care for children adequately.

Ruff is a highly regarded former U.S. attorney, and his appointment last year was considered a coup for the returning mayor. If even Ruff has joined the desperate defense of D.C.’s dilapidated and snarled government, then D.C. is in more trouble than LL feared.

The federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments May 8 about whether Miller should stay or go.

Miller says he wishes that city officials would stop trying to oust him. “I wish the mayor would say, ‘Take two years and give me back a good agency,’” Miller says. “And I would.”

But that would be admitting that someone other than a locally elected leader can run the government. And that admission, apparently, is an act of treason in D.C.

A footnote: If the showdown between the city and Miller does turns into a public-relations war, the foster care receiver may garner surprising support within the community. Miller, a nationally regarded juvenile justice expert, is the author of Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System, scheduled for release next month by Cambridge University Press. “The book is an attempt to put it all in a racial context, because no one wants to talk about race,” says Miller. That theme may strike a responsive chord with District audiences.

Mayor Barry took his “transformation” show on the road last week to flack his plan to make D.C. government leaner but not meaner. He has scheduled meetings in all eight wards, but if opening night at Ward 8’s Hart Junior High on March 13 was a preview of what’s to come, this dismal production should fold immediately.

The mayor’s show opened an hour late, which means he hasn’t yet transformed himself off Barry Time. The school auditorium was more than half empty. Besides the D.C. government workers and the few reporters on hand, only 30 or so Southeast residents turned out.

The program began with a 10-minute video that was more reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign video, Morning in America, than it was relevant to the current state of D.C. It is filled with sappy symphonic music and shots of federal D.C. that won’t resonate with most District audiences. More snickers than cheers greeted the video, which introduced Barry as the only leader with the vision and courage to guide the District through the ’90s.

Barry draws his strength and energy from his audiences, and the small, unresponsive crowd did not help him. Barry seemed to be merely going through the motions. He said that the transformation plan will cut 10,000 government jobs but still create a friendlier, more efficient government. “It means D.C. employees that do it right the first time,” Barry said. The transformed government, Hizzoner declared, would clean streets, put more cops on the beat, entice businesses back to the city, improve the schools, and care for the needy. He made no mention of cancer cures or world peace, but it was only opening night.

The crowd was unimpressed. Most of the questions and comments ignored Barry’s rosy future and focused on the current reality of D.C. life: unresponsive bureaucrats, lousy police, lack of jobs, and failing government services. Ward 8 political fixture Cardell Shelton, for example, prefaced his remarks by saying, “I don’t come to praise Caesar, I come to damn Caesar.”

After reading LL’s column last week, staffers to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton were relieved that unnamed congressional Republican staffers had supplied most of the criticism of their boss. What they overlooked, though LL pointed it out clearly, is that some D.C. councilmembers and staffers, as well as school board officials, also feel that Norton carried water for the teachers’ unions during the bitter Capitol Hill school-reform fight.

For instance, Jim Ford, staff director for the council’s committee on education, sent a memo to Capitol Hill on Nov. 17 outlining six instances in which Norton’s school-reform amendments were worse for D.C. than GOP proposals. In his memo to the staff of Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), Ford noted that Norton’s proposed amendments to Gunderson’s legislation would have weakened council-approved reforms that authorized independent charter schools, removed teacher and principal evaluations from union contract negotiations, and gave the school system more power to RIF older teachers while protecting younger, more qualified ones. This last proposal is strongly supported by national and local teachers’ unions.

Norton has said her main objective in the school-reform battle has been to protect home rule from further congressional intrusion. But Ford wrote that Norton’s proposals were either “inconsistent” with council legislation or would “diminish Home Rule” and “reduce the role of the locally elected Council.”CP