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Led by former D.C. Council attorney Larry Mirel, a small band of return-D.C.-to-Maryland advocates met quietly for much of 1995 to map out plans for reuniting the District with “the Free State.” Now the retrocessionists have gone public. The “Committee for a Capital City” elected officers in January; it has also published a brochure: “Washington, Maryland. A Capital City for a Capital State.” The cover displays the group’s logo: the Capitol dome imposed over the Maryland state flag. The land on which the District sits belonged to Maryland until 1791, when Congress carved out the city to create the national capital.

Ironically, the retrocessionists are making many of the same arguments as D.C. statehood activists. “Designed to run a city, the District of Columbia Government has been given all the responsibilities of a state, with virtually none of a state’s resources. No other mayor and city council are responsible for running a welfare system, a prison system, a state university,” the brochure says.

But the committee, which includes lawyers, lobbyists, and businesspeople, considers statehood both impossible and undesirable.

During the group’s Jan. 26 organizational meeting in the K Street NW offices of Arthur Anderson LLP, newly installed committee President Mirel said any solution to the city’s current governance crisis must meet two criteria: “It must make fiscal sense…and it must give full political rights to the citizens of this city.”

“We’re not against anything,” he added. “But right now, we think this is the only plan that meets those criteria.”

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) seems to agree. Last year he suggested that Washingtonians be allowed to vote in Maryland’s congressional elections.

Mirel and company must persuade not only Congress and headstrong D.C. residents, but also Marylanders. That will be no easy task. Although then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer once embraced the idea of taking D.C. back as a way of raising Maryland’s profile, retrocession has otherwise received a hostile reception from state officials.

But Mirel thinks that a little education can change Free Staters’ minds. He’s enlisted a pair of Maryland allies: Clay Mitchell, son of former Maryland House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, and A. Gray Staples, an official of Maryland’s unemployment compensation commission. The trio met last month with Maryland Secretary for Economic Development Jim Brady.

“He started out being skeptical,” Mirel related, “and the more we talked, the more he warmed up to it. We thought he was quite responsive.”

Any retrocession deal would include a sweetener for Maryland. Congress would undoubtedly pay the state a huge “transition cost” for taking in weak-sister Washington.

The committee hopes to raise $500,000 during the next two years to finance economic analyses of various D.C. governance plans that have been floated (LL’s nomination for the looniest idea: a plan that would annex D.C. to West Virginia via the C&O Canal). In the end, Mirel predicts, reunification with Maryland will win out as the only feasible alternative.

Of course, if Maryland waits too long, there won’t be anyone left to take back: At the current rate of exodus, D.C.’s entire population will have fled to the Free State by 2040.

D.C.’S HISTORIC HISTRIONICS

The District achieved a historic first last week, but hardly anyone noticed. Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., the city’s no-excuses-barred leader, isn’t beating his breast about this one, but LL feels compelled to keep our readers informed of the historic unraveling of the D.C. government.

On Thursday, Jan. 25, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) failed to hold its monthly meeting for the first time in its 13-year history. The reason for the cancellation: The board, which is supposed to have 11 members, has only five—one short of a quorum.

The terms of the other six members—including the chairman—expired last July, and in seven months Hizzoner couldn’t decide whom he wanted to appoint in their places. Since city law allows members to serve for six months after their terms end, Barry had until mid-January to pick new members. But the blizzard diverted the mayor (and, apparently, all of his aides), and the 180-day grace period passed with no nominees.

To paraphrase a frequent Barry boast: Now that’s leadership.

The Barry administration, which seems to operate by lurching from crisis to crisis, finally noticed the HPRB screw-up after the cancellation of last week’s meeting. But even if the mayor finally makes up his mind this week and chooses six nominees as expected, HPRB’s next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 22, may still be in jeopardy: The council won’t be able to confirm Barry’s appointees before March.

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All six board members with expired terms—retired architect and Chairman Charles Cassell, Ward 8 representative Gloria Ward-Ravenell, Ward 3 representative Concha Johnson, archaeologist Bob Sonderman, and Smithsonian architectural historian Charles Robertson—want to be reappointed. But Barry reportedly has been monitoring their views about his beloved downtown arena to determine if they deserve another term.

Cassell’s chances for reappointment, for example, are considered as dead as one of the city’s snowplows: He openly criticized the arena plan at an HPRB meeting last summer. Board member Ward-Ravenell also opposed arena plans, contending that they violate the city’s historic design.

This is not the first time the HPRB has teetered on the brink of total collapse. The historic review process nearly imploded last fall when the U.S. Park Service threatened to pull a half-million dollars in federal funds for D.C. preservation (See “Loose Lips,” 11/10/95). The feds were annoyed because the city, for more than four years, had failed to comply with federal law requiring that six of the 11 board members be architects, historians, or other professionals trained in historic preservation.

Barry fended off the park service by quickly naming architect Melvin Mitchell to an emergency, 90-day appointment, filling a vacancy that had existed since 1991. (Former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly had tried to fill that vacancy during her first months in office, but At-Large Councilmember John Ray blocked her nominee, and Kelly turned her attention to other matters, like coming up with catchy slogans: “Yes we can! Yes we will! Drag this city down the hill.”)

Mitchell’s interim appointment expired this week, but the council is expected to approve him for a full four-year term at its Feb. 6 session. Barry must still find someone to serve as HPRB chairman; Mitchell reportedly turned down that post when Hizzoner offered it. HPRB sources speculate that Barry will bring back Jim Speight, who chaired HPRB during the ’80s, to head the board again.

Historic preservationists are alarmed over this deterioration of the HPRB, but the city’s real estate moguls aren’t crying themselves to sleep at night. Developers, in fact, may rush to file building permits in hopes that the city doesn’t straighten out the mess for several months. By law, the board has only 120 days to act on permits after they are filed.

Downtown developer Oliver Carr Jr., for instance, might want to submit plans to demolish the old Garfinckel’s building at 14th and F Streets NW and see if Barry really cares enough to react. (Who knows—the HPRB chaos might even be Barry’s way of repaying the business community for its 1994 support.)

Barry doesn’t deserve all the blame for HPRB’s woes. The council could have pressured the mayor to fill the empty seats by holding oversight hearings. When historic preservation advocates approached councilmembers about the problem, however, they were told, “we already have too much on our plates.”

But the council did find time last week to hold a pointless session on the financial control board’s $3.5-million budget. The council has no power to approve or disapprove spending by the control board, so the hearing was merely an exercise in public posturing. Councilmembers grabbed the mikes to take shots at the control board. Chairman Dave Clarke melodramatically held his nose while he cast his meaningless vote “approving” the budget.

That session aptly demonstrated not only why the city has a financial control board, but why it so desperately needs one.

SPOOKY ELECTION YEAR

Soon after his fourth mayoral primary defeat in 1994, Councilmember John Ray announced that he would not seek re-election in 1996. Normally, an open council seat would have attracted a massive crowd of candidates by now, but so far only one contender has taken the field. John Capozzi, D.C.’s elected statehood lobbyist to the House of Representatives, is the lone candidate actively campaigning to replace Ray. (At the moment, Capozzi is trying to figure out how to turn his April wedding into a campaign event.)

LL wonders whether this could be the year when D.C. holds an election and no one runs. The unusual quiet has spooked incumbents; they keep looking over their shoulders for challengers that aren’t there.

“It’s weird,” concedes Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, whose seat is among the six council posts up for grabs this fall. “Usually by now you know who’s after you.”

This year would seem like an opportune time for the kind of debate on the city’s future that political campaigns can offer. But perhaps in this year A.C.B. 1 (Anno Control Board 1) political wannabes no longer consider the council or the school board worth the effort. (Although the $70,000-plus council salary is enough to make LL think about running our own campaign.)

Not that there are no political rumblings. Alexis Roberson, who narrowly lost to Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis four years ago, says she is weighing another run for Jarvis’ seat. She too notes that “nobody is as interested in the government as they were four years ago.”

Roberson says she is also considering a bid for Ray’s seat as long as she doesn’t have to face Dave Clarke. The council chairman may run for an at-large seat as a way to escape his current job. The chairman is banned from earning outside income, a restriction that does not apply to other councilmembers.

Former Jarvis staffer Diane Miller, who served as Mayor Kelly’s Ward 4 constituent services director, is also laying the foundation for a challenge to Jarvis. In Ward 8, newcomer Ray Bell jumped into the rematch between Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington and Sandy Allen with his low-key Jan. 21 announcement.

As election day approaches, other candidates will undoubtedly enter the fray, but LL suspects they won’t be as numerous or as talented as those in recent years. CP