City Paper is not for tourists
After last week’s control board meeting, LL is beginning to wonder whether D.C.’s elected officials have lost their tenuous grip on reality. Webster’s defines schizophrenia as: “psychotic reactions characterized by withdrawal from reality with highly variable accompanying affective, behavioral and intellectual disturbances.” If that doesn’t sound like the recent behavior of District leaders, LL doesn’t know a schizo when we see one.
The Feb. 7 hearing was the first public meeting of the board attended by Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. since the board’s creation in July. He was joined by D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke. Long at loggerheads, Hizzoner and the chairman have now formed D.C.’s unlikeliest team, partners in dragging feet, pointing fingers, and avoiding responsibility.
Clarke and Barry presented the board with testimony that ranged from the conspiratorial to the delusory. Clarke, for example, implored board members to stop demanding spending cuts and urged them to join the local resistance movement. He called on the board to “unite with us against a common enemy”—i.e., the tight-fisted Congress. He quickly amended that phrase to “a common third force, if you will.”
“You are a part of us, but the struggle is much bigger than us, and we have to join together,” the frenetic Clarke told baffled board members.
While Clarke was encouraging the control board to war against Congress, Barry told board members that he planned to ask that “common enemy” for another $500-million loan to bail the city out. That U.S. Treasury loan would cover some $322 million in unpaid bills from last year, as well as new bills expected to accumulate by Oct. 1, Barry claimed.
Barry is also trying to delay another $100 million in Medicaid bills until fiscal 1997 as a way to avoid cutting more from this year’s budget. This gimmick seemed stillborn when Barry first proposed it in December, but the mayor trotted it out again before the board last week.
“We don’t owe this money,” Barry insisted of the $100 million in unaudited Medicaid claims. He later revised that to, “We don’t owe this money now.”
Barry and Clarke both seemed to be trying to persuade the board that only truckloads of congressional dough can save the city. For some mystifying reason, they seem to believe that they can persuade the board to abandon its responsibility to balance the budget, ignore the deficit, and fight the Hill. The mayor and chairman also cling to the delusion that they can wear the board and Congress down: Eventually, the weary overseers will throw up their hands and say, “Here are the keys to the Treasury. Now please stop bothering us.”
All this suggests that what they really need is some quality time on the psychiatrist’s couch to treat these hallucinations.
The control board, after all, has indicated absolutely no willingness to give the recalcitrant Barry a $500-million handout. Chairman Andrew Brimmer pointed out that the city owes almost $800 million in unpaid bills. So even with a bailout from the Treasury, Hizzoner would be begging for another $300 million before year’s end.
And if the city’s elected officials continue to throw obstacles in the board’s way, the only keys Barry and Clarke will receive are the ones to the retirement home. Unless the board forces the city to slash its budget—and soon—don’t be surprised if the House and Senate vote in a receiver and toss out the mayor and council entirely. Then again, local officials may not be too frightened of a receiver: That solution may get bogged down as badly as the control board has.
(Not that Congress seems too concerned with D.C. at the moment. While demanding that the city slash spending, Congress still hasn’t approved the D.C. budget for fiscal 1996, which began more than four months ago. Last week, Majority Leader Bob Dole said the Senate wouldn’t take up the D.C. budget for three weeks, until after the New Hampshire primary. City leaders are getting frantic because the budget standoff has stalled the remaining $300 million-plus of the federal payment on the Hill. With both the Congress and the D.C. government suffering from acute paralysis, 1996 will very likely be the year when the city finally runs out of cash.)
Barry did score one significant victory over the board at last week’s meeting. The mayor packed the Martin Luther King Memorial Library basement room with hundreds of senior citizens, many of them bused in for the event. Trying to defuse the obvious animosity of the elderly crowd, Brimmer announced that the D.C. Office of Aging would be exempt from spending cuts.
“This authority is not considering any proposal to close the Office of Aging,” Brimmer said. “I would not expect to see us put that on the table.”
His announcement drew the loudest cheers of the meeting, and Brimmer basked in the approval of the pro-Barry crowd. One woman yelled out from the audience: “Mayor Barry, give Dr. Brimmer a kiss for me.”
But the mayor declined to provide the photo op of the day.
Brimmer did not mention that the control board could not close the $19-million office even if it wanted to. Though Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams suggested this cost-saving measure, the aging office is off-limits because much of its mandate and funding comes from the federal government.
Because Brimmer seemed to cave in the face of public opposition, expect Barry to pack future board meetings with crowds of children, disabled people, young mothers, and college students.
RESISTANCE IS USEFUL
While Mayor Barry is feigning cooperation with the board, he seems to be disrupting efforts within his own administration to rein in spending. In what LL considers the only news to come out of last week’s control board hearing (although it was completely overlooked by other media), Williams said only 17 of 56 city agencies have been cooperating with his office.
The CFO told the board last week that he has released funds to just 17 agencies because only they have provided him the detailed information his office needs to manage spending and cash flow. Another eight agencies were in the process of supplying this information, the CFO said, but 31 agencies, nearly two-thirds of the government, had not supplied anything. So the CFO has withheld some FY 1996 money from those 39 agencies until he receives the necessary information.
This is now the main source of friction between Williams and the mayor. Barry has told Williams not to talk directly to his agency heads. Instead, the CFO is supposed to contact City Administrator Michael Rogers when he needs information about the inner workings of city government. Barry has also told reporters that Williams has no need to talk directly to agency officials because he can obtain all the information he needs from D.C. Controller Robert Reid. But Williams considers that information inadequate to stem overspending; after all, D.C. agency heads have a consistently awful record of spending more than they’re budgeted.
(Speaking of which, Hizzoner’s vocabulary no longer includes the word “overspend.” Rather, he has taken to saying that city agencies are “underbudgeted.”)
Barry tried to force an end to the CFO’s prying last week. On the eve of the Feb. 7 control board hearing, Barry sent him a stern memo that blamed Williams’ inaction for the delays in releasing funds to city agencies. The mayor then faxed a copy of his memo to the five control board members.
But board members seemed more concerned about the lack of cooperation between Barry and the CFO than about any supposed inaction by Williams. A control board staffer points out that Barry may be worried about what Williams will uncover when he personally inspects city agencies.
“I’d be pretty nervous, too, if my CFO was going to agencies for information that I didn’t have,” observes the staffer.
Recently deposed city budget director Rodney Palmer gets the Testosterone Award of the week for showing up at last week’s control board meeting and sitting at the right elbow of Hizzoner. In early January Williams asked the board to fire Palmer for using phony budget numbers—apparently at the mayor’s request—to prepare the supplemental FY 1996 budget. Barry spared Palmer from the board’s ax by moving him to a new job as head of the Office of Policy.
Palmer seemed to be at the meeting at the mayor’s request, not of his own volition. He looked about as comfortable as O. J. Simpson at a Brown family reunion.
Barry wasn’t the only one playing politics with chairs. When Clarke testified, Harry Black, his chief budget aide, sat beside him. The former staffer to City Administrator Rogers, Black was forced to resign by Barry and Rogers after Williams tried to hire him. Black subsequently landed a job with the council. A council source says that Black wrote Clarke’s prepared statement to the board, which may explain why it was one of the most coherent speeches the chairman has given in years.
Not to be outdone, Williams chose Ron Lewis to sit next to him. Lewis is the city budget official Williams picked to replace Palmer.
Now, if you’ve managed to follow all those seating permutations, perhaps you can explain Whitewater to LL.
After listening to city officials sound off last week, the control board withstood more than an hour of mostly hostile testimony from D.C. residents. Among the witnesses was government watchdog Marie Drissel, who urged the board to support a federal tax break of up to $15,000 annually for D.C. families to keep middle-class taxpayers in the city.
According to Drissel, her tax proposal would provide more than double the tax break of the progressive flat tax being pushed by Delegate Eleanor Homes Norton. Norton’s rebate would not be enough to stem middle-class flight from the city, Drissel predicted….
The campaign to convince Congress to wrest the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) from Barry’s grasp, which LL first wrote about last year (see LL, 12/15/95), resurfaced this week with a front-page article in Wednesday’s Washington Post. A group of D.C. residents headed by Carl Rowan Jr. has arranged a Feb. 29 meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to trot out community support for a three-member congressionally appointed commission to run the department. If Rowan and Co. can convince Hatch, Senate hearings will follow, possibly as early as next month. The senator’s aides have been studying the proposal for several weeks.
Former MPD Chief Fred Thomas has spurned the effort and won’t attend the meeting with Hatch. Thomas, currently public safety commissioner for Prince George’s County, was considered to be a leading candidate for a spot on the commission, but he has told members of Rowan’s group that he would not serve on it.
Some MPD observers think U.S. Attorney Eric Holder may be pushing behind the scenes for a federal takeover. Holder has published two editorials in the last two weeks detailing the deterioration of the department. Opponents of Rowan’s effort dismiss Holder’s opinions by claiming that the U.S. Attorney is simply trying to position himself to run for mayor in 1998….
LL is sad to report that the “financial wizard” is dead. During his appearance on WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour on Feb. 9, Barry asked reporters to stop calling him the “financial wizard,” a title Barry gave himself during the 1994 mayoral campaign. Hizzoner said he coined the phrase as part of “the rhetoric of a political campaign.” “I am not a financial wizard,” Barry conceded during the broadcast.
Say Amen! CP