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As Mother Nature buried the hapless city under a record snowfall last week, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. attempted to do the same thing to D.C. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams. Barry didn’t direct the city’s creaky snowplowsat least the few that were workingto dump loads of the icy stuff on the head of his rival. Instead, Hizzoner sought to win the latest fight over control of the District’s purse strings by assigning Williams an avalanche of duties that, the mayor apparently hopes, will keep the CFO buried long after the Blizzard of ’96 has melted.
Williams struck first. Last week, Williams asked the control board to fire Rodney Palmer, Hizzoner’s budget director. According to Williams, Palmer had used cooked numbers, reportedly at Barry’s request, in preparing the city’s revised 1996 budget plan. Then, on Jan. 10, Barry counterattacked. Just moments after the control board took the first step in a process that could have resulted in Palmer’s dismissal, Barry quickly declared victory and launched a strategic retreat.
At a hastily called Jan. 10 news conference, Barry announced that since Williams didn’t feel “comfortable” with Palmer, he was appointing the CFO to replace Palmer as budget director until further notice. Barry also announced that he had put Williams in charge of the city’s troubled Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR), which levies taxes, collects taxes, and oversees city spending.
And, just in case the CFO still hoped to find time for a few winks, Barry then named Williams to lead “a search committee” to find a new permanent budget director.
It was a classic performance by Barry, featuring political maneuvering that he hoped would help him, never mind whether it benefited the city. By giving Williams a second, third, and fourth job, Barry sets up the CFO as the fall guy for future complaints about D.C.’s budget and fiscal policies. “He takes full responsibility,” Barry said of Williams last week.
Now, the rub here is not that Williams doesn’t want these new responsibilities; he does. In fact, he claimed he already possessed them under the law that created his office. But Barry and Williams are squabbling over who is the real boss. Barry insists that Williams can only exercise these new budgetary powers because he, the mayor, delegated them to the CFO. And under Barry’s interpretation, Williams cannot entrust his new assignments to subordinates but must carry them out himself. Only the mayor, according to Barry, can decide who is to run DFR and who is responsible for preparing budgets. And he has decided that Williams should do it all.
But Williams disagrees with Barry’s interpretation. He says he will pick his own person to run DFR and will also assign the budget director’s duties to a subordinate. Williams says he will oversee both of his employees, just as the mayor would do, if he were still in charge.
The fighting between the two men is becoming personal as well as political. Barry has tried (not very hard) to make nice with Williams. At the news conference, Barry sought to portray the friction between him and Williams as a creation of the media. But the mayor also characterized Williams as “unprofessional” for complaining to the control board instead of to him about Palmer.
And the two men performed a weird, kabukilike dance during the news conference that conveyed no closeness at all. Williams stayed at the back of the room, behind a bank of TV cameras, while Barry talked. Reporters finally insisted that he come forward to give his side. Williams and Barry never got within more than a few feet of each other, and never shook hands, as Barry customarily does with city officials during news conferences.
The mayor relinquished the podium to Williams but continued talking to reporters at the side of the room. WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood finally asked Barry to pipe down so that Williams could answer a few questions. Barry clammed up, but hovered nearby. He reclaimed the microphone after a few moments, and Williams retreated immediately.
Williams did have enough time at the podium to dispute Barry’s charge that he complained first to the control board about Palmer. Williams told reporters that he had read the mayor a draft of his Jan. 5 letter to the control board, which asked that Palmer be fired, before sending it. But Williams also admitted that he did not complain about Palmer to Barry before writing the letter because, he claims, the mayor’s staff already knew of the differences between him and the budget director. “I needed to move from a position of complaining to a position of action,” he told reporters.
Barry offered a slightly different account. He said at the press conference that he still did not understand the source of the differences between Williams and Palmer. In a Jan. 8 letter to Williams, Barry depicted the problem as “a personality conflict” rather than a professional disagreement. (Only in Barryland can fudged budget numbers be considered “a personality conflict.”)
Palmer was present at the Jan. 10 press conference, but Barry ignored requests to have the dethroned budget director answer questions.
To forestall Palmer’s firing by the board, Barry appointed him to head the mayor’s Office of Policy. He moved the current head of that office, Enid Simmons, into the slot of general assistant to the mayor to make room for Palmer. And Barry announced that he would find a place for Paul Wright, acting director of DFR, somewhere else in the government, now that Williams is taking command of that department.
If nothing else, Barry last week buttressed his reputation as the city’s best jobs provider.
Barry demonstrated last week that he doesn’t have to flee D.C. in the midst of a snowstorm, as he did in January 1987, to infuriate his constituents. This time, Barry stayed homeand stayed visible on the city’s snow-clogged streetsbut frustrated D.C. residents were angrier than ever.
The mayor and his aides once again promised much more than they could ever delivera timeworn practice in D.C. that contributes mightily to its splattered image. The Barry administration could have admitted at the outset that a city with normally mild winters is not equipped to handle such blizzards and needed federal help immediately. Instead, city officials insulted residents with outlandish promises that could not be kept. The claim that “the check is in the mail,” was replaced by “the snowplow is on its way.”
But it never arrived.
By midblizzard, even Barry, who had been defending the city’s efforts as “Herculean,” and resisting efforts to call out the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was pleading for the feds to come to the rescue.
On Wednesday night, Jan. 10, (Day 4 of the blizzard)the time by which Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Larry King had assured District residents that all of their streets would be plowedBarry asked President Bill Clinton to declare a state of emergency in D.C.
By Day 6, the mayor and his administration were laying the blame for snow hassles on everyone from Williams, for supposedly delaying payments to DPW, to the media for, according to Barry, whipping up frustrations about the scarcity of snowplows, to suburban commuters for not paying taxes here, since that revenue could have prevented half of the city’s 100-plus plows from being idled for repairs, to bad D.C. drivers for getting stuck in snowdrifts and blocking city crews from clearing streets.
By week’s end, Barry and crew had taken to calling D.C. “an unnatural disaster area.” Many Washingtonians have been using that phrase for years to describe their city.
DPW spokesperson Linda Grant wins the award for the most creative explanation of why many residential streets didn’t appear to have been plowed. On Monday, Jan. 15, Day 9, Grant said many residents didn’t realize their blocks had been plowed because early birds, when shoveling out their cars the morning after the plowing, threw snow back into the middle of the street.
The more plausible story is the one told by residents of McKinley Street NW. They leapt from their beds at 4 a.m. on Monday at the welcome sound of a snowplow. They rushed to their windows, and, sure enough, there was a snowplow proceeding down McKinley. The only problem: the plow never lowered its blade. Grant, no doubt, recorded that as a plowed street.
Almost every neighborhood has a story about a city plow rushing in to clear the street and dig out the car of a D.C. official, and then leaving again. Those tales have given rise to speculation that certain neighborhoodsi.e., those that voted for Barrywere receiving favored treatment.
But Ward 4 voted heavily for Barry in 1994, and its streetsexcept for a few blocksreceived the same shabby treatment as everyone else’s. One of the blocks plowed was Sudbury Place NW, home to William Lucy, No. 2 man at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. His neighbors wondered why Lucy’s block was cleared while surrounding streets remained clogged.
LL’s wild guess: It was Lucy’s workers doing the plowing.
Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis says ordeals such as the blizzard “build stronger neighborhoods”: Residents learn they have to depend on each other, not the government, to escape the mess. But, she laments, the blizzard also lowers expectations about city governmentwhich hardly seems possible in D.C.as citizens learn they’re on their own.
And, Jarvis adds, if D.C. residents depend less on their government, then they will begin to ask why they pay such high taxes for so few benefits.
Why, indeed? CP
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