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For months, D.C. residents have been bombarded with depressing tales of how their government runs like a 1963 Corvair: unsafe at any speed. The D.C. government is so broken that it can’t be fixed, the city’s congressional mechanics have determined, and now a financial control board is being set up to design a new model. So in the face of all this “negativity,” as Hizzoner would say, LL is pleased to bring our readers a success story about the D.C. government. This story even has a happy ending—if you’re not a D.C. public-school employee.
But before proceeding, we feel compelled to warn our readers that this tale deals yet another blow to D.C.’s much-maligned public-school system, which already shows more dents and scrapes than the city’s faltering ambulance fleet. When House Republican leaders were putting finishing touches on the control board last week, they determined they could place the independent school system in the hands of the city council and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. Apparently Congress figured that despite Barry’s unsavory national reputation, public opinion would favor such a move. Thus, we have proof that the school board and the schools have managed an amazing feat: They’ve lowered their credibility and respectability below Barry’s.
In 1993, when “four strikes and you’re out” Councilmember John Ray was trying to build support for yet another mayoral bid, he sponsored legislation allowing seasonal, nonteaching school workers to collect unemployment over the summer months. City auditors determined that during the first summer at least 294 employees, mostly food-service workers, thought they could beat the system. After they returned to work in September, these employees continued to file for benefits, some for several weeks, while also collecting regular paychecks. Auditors have concluded that these workers were overpaid an average of $1,500 each.
Bruce Eanet, the city’s director of unemployment compensation, said that his agency so far has uncovered 406 school employees who collected illegal benefits totaling more than a half-million dollars in 1993. Of those cases, Eanet said “294 seemed to be purposeful, 59 were inadvertent, and 53 are still pending.” The double-dipping was uncovered early last year by cross-checking the D.C. payroll against unemployment benefits. Eanet said “strenuous collection” efforts currently are under way to recover theseoverpayments.
The discovery was made in time to deny unemployment benefits last summer to those who had collected illegal benefits the year before. That move alone saved the city $350,000, Eanet claimed.
Eanet’s agency is currently auditing claims paid last year. “I don’t think I’ve got the same problem, though, looking at the numbers,” he said. And the problem may never rear its ugly head again. So far, the council has made no move to renew the unemployment program for this summer.
“If you’re going to write about this, I hope you’ll say that the system does work,” Eanet said during a telephone interview this week.
LL just did.
But we have a few other comments. First, since the scheme spread so quickly during that first year, an attitude of “anything you can get away with” obviously prevails among school employees. “There were so many people involved that people must have been telling others what to do,” said Jim Ford, a top aide to At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason, who chairs the council’s education oversight committee.
Second, no one has yet been fired for their wrongdoing. “That’s not my business to do that,” said Eanet. But when this issue was raised briefly at the daylong hearing on the schools conducted by Mason last Saturday, April 1, school board members and Superintendent Franklin Smith seemed unaware of the situation.
Traditionally, only stepping on the wrong political toes will bring swift retribution upon municipal employees. For years, throughout city government, workers guilty of wrongdoing have been kept on the payroll and even given promotions and bonuses.
Until this practice changes, the anything-you-can-get-away-with attitude is here to stay.
D.C.’S NEW SAVIORS
These days, the most sought-after speaker on the D.C. political circuit is U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). But Davis, chief architect of the city’s new financial control board, declines most invitations to appear before neighborhood and civic groups. His aides say Davis doesn’t want Mayor Barry, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, or voters in Davis’ Fairfax congressional district to think that he has any interest in becoming a spokesman for D.C. on Capitol Hill.
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Still, Davis is garnering kudos for his work in creating a District control board that is seen as a savior rather than a slavemaster. Surprisingly, some of the highest praise is uttered by Norton. In the past, she steadfastly opposed letting the region’s members of Congress lay their hands on D.C.—primarily because of former Northern Virginia Congressman Stan Parris, a notorious District-basher.
Norton is not alone in singing hosannas. “Davis didn’t play the majority game,” said a participant in the control-board negotiations, referring to the fact that the Republican hordes could push through any bill they desired. “He said, “We’re here to help.’ He was an honest broker; he laid all his cards on the table. And he was respectful. We haven’t had that in a long time, not even from the Democrats.”
The move toward a control board actually began last July, before Davis was even elected to Congress, when Democratic and Republican House staffers began meeting to discuss the board’s creation. Norton, angry and convinced that former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke had “lied” when they assured her the city’s budget was balanced, made sure her staffers attended those meetings. Norton learned a valuable lesson in these early discussions: Never believe what D.C. officials tell 0you in an election year.
At a Capitol Hill meeting in October, three weeks before the mayoral and congressional elections, it became clear to Norton that there was no turning back on the creation of the board. On Nov. 8, 1994, when Davis unseated incumbent U.S. Rep. Leslie Byrne (D-Va.), he became the logical choice to chair the new D.C. subcommittee. And he hired some of the staffers who’d participated in those early discussions.
Davis quickly realized that all parties had much to gain from creation of the board, and much to lose if the board proved unworkable or too punitive toward the District. Barry needed the board to make the tough decisions he refused to make for obvious political reasons, and to give the city borrowing power after its credit rating sank to junk-bond level. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) needed a board that preserved home rule powers, lest his party stand accused of racism for seizing control of the District.
Davis successfully maneuvered between hard-line D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-N.Y.) on one side and Norton on the other, and came up with a bill that met the needs of all players. “If it had simply been Walsh and Norton [negotiating], it would have been a disaster for everyone,” said a staff member of Davis’ subcommittee.
Although the process of setting up this board may have demeaned some D.C. officials, nearly everyone is looking to the new entity to craft a more workable form of District self-governance. Davis says that’s one of the goals, but first the city, with the help of the board, must get its house in order. Norton said the board is necessary to answer even the most basic questions—like how many people work for the D.C. government, and what do they do—because D.C. officials seem unable to provide straight answers.
The board, in effect, will take the power to micromanage the city away from the D.C. congressional oversight and appropriations subcommittees. Democrats, when they dominated these panels, didn’t have the stomach to scrutinize the District closely—nor do the Republicans now in charge. With some relief, Congress is handing over these responsibilities until the city can balance its budget for four years running and has paid back all loans borrowed during the board’s existence.
Now the big question is: Can President Bill Clinton, notorious for his slow appointments, appoint to the control board five members with D.C. residency or business ties in time to help the city? “Will his vetting process finally work?” quipped a Republican congressional staffer. “Or will he really appoint Charles Keating to head up the board?”
Those appointments, along with selection of the board’s executive director, are causing some anxiety within the District. Here again, the city will put its faith in Davis, since Congress’ recommendations for appointments will result from the same kind of negotiations that led to the board’s creation. Clinton will likely accede to congressional wishes.
The legislation leaves room for the executive director to be all-powerful—a supermayor, whose influence exceeds Barry’s—or to serve as a co-mayor, consulting closely with Barry. The board members’ terms will expire in 1998, during the next presidential term. By then, a Republican could occupy the White House—a prospect that has also has stirred concern.
But opposition to the board so far has come mostly from community activist Lawrence Guyot, who predicts racial polarization over the diminution of home rule; Ward 8 council candidate Malik Shabazz, who has declared “war on my oppressors on Capitol Hill”; union members, who fear the board’s power to negotiate new labor contracts; and some die-hard statehooders, who claim the city has a constitutional right to a home-grown government that wears its incompetency, inefficiency, and corruption like a badge of honor.
In most parts of the city, however, arrival of the board has stirred few passions. Norton’s office reports that phone calls and letters from both black and white D.C. residents overwhelmingly favor the city’s being run by a strong board or a financial receiver.
Some board opponents, such as Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith and a few candidates in the crowded Ward 8 race, claim that the board is a conspiracy to punish the city for electing Barry last fall. That argument seems shaky: Barry retains much of his power under the new system, and he basks in praise from congressional Republicans for helping negotiate the board’s creation.
“Barry in private had a very good command of the situation,” said a Republican staffer, “and we were smart enough to realize that.” House members also weren’t fazed by the defiant tone Barry took in public utterances. “There isn’t a single member of Congress who doesn’t go home and say things to his constituents that he would die if they appeared on the front page of the Washington Post,” this staffer added. “But that is a luxury that Barry didn’t have.”
Let that be a lesson to all of us: Don’t put too much stock in what politicians say in public.
While Barry is lauded, Council Chairman Clarke has reaped nothing but scorn from Norton on down. Last week, an angry Norton said Clarke should stop “huffing and puffing” over his supposed loss of power to the board, and start acting like “a grown-up public official.”
“You can’t imagine how I feel after having broken my butt to get things in here, and he comes up here, looks for the camera, and says, “Hey, all our powers are being taken away,’ ” Norton said March 31 on WAMU’s Derek McGinty/Mark Plotkin show. “It was a lie, and I didn’t like it.”
Clarke, who acted as the council’s negotiator with the Hill, wanted Congress to enhance the council’s powers. But instead of begging others for power, he should be studying the era of his predecessor, John Wilson, who knew how to wield the authority the council already possesses.
During a Feb. 22 House hearing leading to the creation of the board, U.S. Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Ca.) became so frustrated with Clarke that he appeared ready to jump off the dais and strangle the council chairman.
Now members of Congress know how most of us feel after talking to Clarke.
WARD 8 COUNCIL FIGHT
The defining moment in the hotly contested Ward 8 council race to fill Marion Barry’s unexpired term may have come last week at a packed candidate forum in Anacostia. Ward 8 resident Robert Yeldell, in one of those set-up questions from the audience designed to flush out impostors, asked the “real president” of the Frederick Douglass Center Community Advisory Board to stand up. Both Sandy Allen and Eydie Whittington, considered the front-runners in the contest, have been claiming this position in their campaign literature. And both stood up, to cheers and jeers from the crowd of nearly 200.
In the exchange that followed, Allen seemed to gain the upper hand. Allen said that when the board’s former President Calvin Lockridge was preparing to go to jail in late 1993, he “authorized” her to take the presidency of the organization. Turning toward Whittington, who stood next to her, Allen noted that her rival was first vice president of the organization, “but she left because she didn’t have time to stay.”
Whittington countered that since there hasn’t been an election to pick a successor to Lockridge, she automatically ascends to the position as first vice president. And so, she said, “I am president.” That comment brought a cheer from Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, who was coaching her candidate from the front of the basement room at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Mrs. Barry is serving as campaign manager for Hizzoner’s handpicked choice to take his seat on the council.
If this race turns on who was, or is, the real president of the Frederick Douglass Center board, then perhaps the dispute can be settled next week, when Lockridge gets out of prison. The former D.C. school board member, completing a 10-month federal sentence for theft of funds and attempted tax evasion, will be freed in time to help his cousin, candidate William Lockridge, in the final three weeks of the campaign.
If Barry can pull off elevating neophyte Whittington to the city council, the feat will stand as one of his greatest achievements. Whittington is clearly a work in progress. LL suspects that if she wins the May 2 election, Lady MacBarry will have a new way to spend her days: coaching her protégée on how to be a public official.
Whittington comes across as inexperienced and uninformed. At the March 28 forum sponsored by Arrington Dixon and the Anacostia Coordinating Council, she was unable to answer a question about how many city-run clinics were in Ward 8, and how many had closed. But the Barry organization had packed the forum with supporters. Whenever Whittington appeared stumped or trumped, they chanted, “Up for the job! Up for the job!”
LL must point out that a word is missing from that slogan. It really should be “put up for the job”—as in put up by Barry, so he’ll have a council vote he can count on.
The amount of time Hizzoner is spending to get Whittington elected attests to her vulnerability. Barry, with Whittington at his side, has been greeting morning Metro riders at the Anacostia Metro station. Councilmembers say they are being flooded with invitations to Whittington fundraisers. And Whittington left a March 29 candidate forum, hosted by four of the city’s gay and lesbian political groups, after delivering only an opening statement; she had to head across town to the Watergate complex, where the mayor was hosting a fundraiser for her.
Barry’s active support for Whittington may be creating a backlash that could benefit Allen, the sentimental favorite in the race. Many Ward 8 voters believe that Barry snubbed Allen by endorsing Whittington. Allen had worked untiringly for Hizzoner in the 1992 Ward 8 council race, and in last fall’s mayoral contest.
Allen is improving on the stump. She is dressing better and more aggressively spelling out her extensive record of involvement in Ward 8 politics and community organizations—as last week’s exchange with Whittington demonstrated. She also appears to have assembled a campaign organization that can rival Barry’s.
The task for the other 19 candidates is to emerge from the pack and catch fire in a contest where turnout will be low. Lafayette Barnes, son-in-law of former Ward 8 Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark, who Barry unseated in 1992, demonstrated an impressive grasp of the issues raised in the forum hosted by gay political organizations.
During that same forum, Malik Shabazz was forced to admit that he is not a member of the Nation of Islam, even though he conveys the image of a follower of Minister Louis Farrakhan.