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D.C. politicians find it mystifying—and annoying—that local government watchers interpret official goings-on by charting who gets appointed to jobs, boards and commissions. Politicians, of course, prefer to be judged by what they say rather than what they do. That way, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. can return for a fourth term proclaiming “the dawn of a new day” when he’s still hanging around with his ’80s cronies. Or At-Large Councilmember John Ray can build a career on legislation designed to appease specific groups, yet claim with a straight face that such moves have nothing to do with his perpetual campaign for mayor.
But the people behind the politicians usually provide the best clues to what is really happening in D.C. politics. Take the recent rapprochement between Barry and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. The mayor and Evans have spent much of this year trash-talking like two NBA superstars going at it in the playoffs. Barry has singled out Evans whenever he criticizes his council opposition, and Evans has regularly slammed the mayor’s budget proposals. So it’s no surprise that when Evans tried to push through emergency legislation giving the mayor new power to remove the head of the city’s notorious property tax appeals board, rumors started flying. Evans’ wife of eight months, Noel Evans, is a real estate broker with Pardoe Real Estate Inc., and the councilmember concedes that his spouse would like to be appointed to the appeals board.
The selection of Noel Evans would continue a long District tradition of mayors’ currying favor and winning votes by appointing relatives of councilmembers. The most obvious example was former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly‘s choice of Romaine Thomas, wife of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, to serve on the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board. Thomas sometimes was Kelly’s lone vote on the council, and he unabashedly admitted to his colleagues that he sided with the mayor to protect his wife’s nomination.
Besides his wife’s career, Evans might have other reasons to back the appeals board bill. For starters, he owes the mayor a favor. Hizzoner recently nominated both the councilmember’s former top aide, Linda Greenan, and his close friend and lookalike, Bill Hall, to the city’s new sports authority. The mayor wanted to appoint Greenan, but convincing him to pick Hall too took some doing.
And on top of all those motivations to back the bill, by doing so, Evans lends a hand to his fund-raiser, Kerry Pearson, the only noticeable lobbyist for the legislation. Pearson said this week that he personally asked Evans to introduce the bill.
Whatever the backroom politics, now seems an opportune time to change the law and grant Barry the power to remove the chairman “at the mayor’s pleasure,” which is what Evans’ bill would have done. The board’s current chairman, mortgage banker George Clarke, has been under fire for charging the city nearly $25,000 for his services during last year’s three-month tax appeals season. Most board watchers could not believe Clarke’s fees—nearly twice the amount previous chairmen collected. And unlike past chairmen, he did not hear any appeals himself but merely supervised the work of other members. Soon after Barry took office, he asked Clarke to step down as chairman. Clarke refused. His three-year term on the board expires this July.
Evans claims he pushed the legislation simply because he viewed it as good policy, and had been told that Barry wanted it. “The mayor has that power for virtually every board under his control,” Evans said this week.
It’s also a power that Barry had during his first three terms. The mayor possessed the authority to remove the appeals board chair until 1993, when late Council Chairman John Wilson rewrote the law to strip then-Mayor Kelly of the power. The council passed Wilson’s revision in the wake of his suicide two years ago this month, and after scandals involving the board.
The board, known officially as the Board of Real Property Assessment and Appeals, is one of the city’s most critical agencies, and one of its most controversial. The board has final say over the property tax bills for homeowners and businesses. But for the past decade, the board has been the target of criticism that its members have gotten too cozy with commercial landlords and their lobbyists. The board, say its detractors, has unjustly rolled back the city’s assessments on downtown properties, costing D.C. millions in lost tax revenues each year. During Kelly’s lone term in office, the board handed out tax reductions totaling $18 million more than she had predicted, throwing her budget for fiscal ’94 badly out of balance.
For the past five years, the Justice for Janitors campaign of Service Employees International Union Local 82 has fought downtown landlords and developers to get a ballot initia tive before D.C. voters that would open up the board’s secretive appeals process to public scrutiny. But so far, the landlords’ lawyers have kept the proposal tied up in court battles, and off the ballot.
Evans’ bill failed on a 6-6 vote. “I was surprised councilmembers did not support it,” he admitted afterward. At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot and Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis argued forcefully against the measure, saying it would unnecessarily politicize the board and disrupt this year’s appeals.
Also making that argument were board watchdogs Marie Drissel and Judy Rosenfeld. They pointed out that five current board members are hearing appeals this year without having been confirmed by the council: Barry named them too late for confirmation hearings to take place before the start of the appeals process. If Evans’ bill had passed, Drissel and Rosenfeld warned, the mayor could remove a chairman he disliked, then wait until the last minute each spring to nominate a replacement. That person would then oversee appeals involving hundreds of millions of dollars without any public input or council oversight. “This is no way to run a board, or, for that matter, anything else,” said Rosenfeld.
The board has been in disarray since December, when the D.C. Council voted to end compensation for the appeals board, as well as nearly every other city board and commission. Legal restrictions had already made it difficult to fill the board—the law requires that one-third of the 18-member board be qualified real estate appraisers, and that another third be lawyers—and in the wake of the council’s cost-cutting many members resigned or threatened to resign. Barry recently restored compensation for appeals board members, but the board still has four vacancies and four other members have said they do not have time to hear appeals. The three-month tax appeals season started in April with only 10 active members to conduct the hearings.
Perhaps the best solution for the appeals board’s woes is one that House Speaker Newt Gingrich has tossed out in his never-ending stream of ideas to revitalize the financially troubled city. Gingrich suggested freezing local property taxes for four years or so to give local taxpayers a break and stem the flight of residents and businesses.
Because Gingrich proposed the idea, local politicians will automatically dismiss it. But a freeze might give the city, and the new control board, time to fashion a tax appeals process that would work for the public’s benefit.
ARENA’S CONFLICT COURSE
When the downtown sports arena comes before the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board for approval later this month, arena supporters may have to win only three votes to triumph—a highly unusual situation, since the board normally seats 11 members. But at the moment, there’s one vacancy on the board, and five (count ’em: five) of the remaining members may be prevented from voting on the proposed 20,000-seat arena because of conflicts of interest.
Thus, the arena supporters may need to get only three of the five remaining votes to clear a major hurdle. If the board disapproves plans for the arena, concluding that this would disrupt the city’s historic plan, that action would seriously slow, and possibly kill, the fast-moving project.
First, let’s review the possible conflicts of interest. Board member Jim Kane works for the Sherman R. Smoot Corp., which has already signed a contract to help build the arena; thus, Kane’s effectively disqualified from the board’s decision. Board member Concha Johnson served last year on the National Capital Development Corp., a private group created to promote the arena—another obvious conflict. And board member Desa Sealy-Ruffin works for the Columbia Heights Community Development Corp., headed by Robert Moore, Mayor Barry’s chief negotiator on the arena deal. Scratch Sealy-Ruffin, too.
But wait, we’re not finished. Robert Sonderman, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, has reportedly been advised by lawyers for the U.S. Department of the Interior that he should remove himself from the arena case. It seems that the project must also undergo federal review by the Interior Department, which is the Park Service’s parent agency. Finally, Charles Robertson, an architectural historian for the Smithsonian, works at the National Portrait Gallery. That gallery, you’ll recall, sits across the street from the proposed arena site at 7th and G Streets NW. The proximity may mean that Robertson, too, will have to excuse himself.
Of the other five board members, Chairman Charles Cassell, a retired architect, has already announced his opposition to building the arena on the site. The remaining board members appear to hold neither conflicts of interest concerning the arena, nor public opinions on the matter. They are: Romaine Thomas, a D.C. public school principal and wife of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas; Ward 2 peace activist and international relations expert Greg McCarthy; Howard University architecture professor Edward Dunson; and U.S. General Services Administration employee Gloria Ward-Ravanell. The issue is on the board’s May 24 agenda.
Historic considerations could pose a substantial hurdle for the arena, since the current plan calls for closing G Street NW between 6th and 7th Streets to make more room for the basketball and hockey complex. That plan disrupts L’Enfant‘s original design for the city, and destroys some of the downtown vistas.
Once again, the District is rushing headlong into another major project without the benefit of planning, a nicety that normal cities like Baltimore routinely observe, and that results in edifices such as the much-praised Camden Yards.
Instead of Baltimore, D.C. has chosen a less wholesome role model. The District is following the lead of Cleveland’s $146-million Gund Arena, which was rushed into existence as part of that city’s new downtown sports complex. Notably, Cleveland taxpayers are unhappy about the project’s $22-million cost overruns, many of which resulted from the hurry to build.
To the Historical Preservation Review Board goes the choice: Will we build in such a way that sports lovers marvel and rave? Or will we, once again, build something that provokes only the lamentation, “only the fools in D.C. could build something this awful”?
Which will it be?