There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Two congressional subcommittees charged with overseeing District affairs asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) last year to prepare a report that would put some numbers to the pervasive unease on the Hill about the true nature of District affairs. At the same time, a mayoral campaign was under way between incumbent Sharon Pratt Kelly, a resurgent Marion Barry, and D.C. Council member John Ray—all three of whom had a significant hand in creating the fiscal mess that was before Congress.
Everyone knew the assessment by the GAO would define the major issue of the campaign; the District held its collective breath while the numbers were crunched and the report was prepared. But when the curtain came up on July 14, 1994, the depth of the District’s deficit and the scope of its mismanagement did not come with a roar; instead, it was told in the temperate voice of a 10-year bureaucrat who offered a portrait of a financially bereft city in massive denial.
The GAO’s John W. Hill Jr. testified for several hours at the Rayburn Office Building before a row of mostly white, clearly upset congressional representatives, the hot lights of the cameras spotlighting his emotionless testimony and the bad news he bore. Hill spoke in a monotone, absent gesticulation or spicy rhetoric, but with the confidence of a man who had a firm grip on the facts. As the director of the GAO’s Audit Support and Analysis, Accounting and Information Management Division, Hill provided the cold, hard reality District politicians had been hiding from for years.
“District budgets have overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses,” Hill said, reflecting his propensity for understatement.
Among a hail of nasty specifics, Hill reported that, “The pension payment the District agreed to make in fiscal 1995 exceeds the cash projected to be available by more than $9 million….District officials stated they had not developed action plans to produce the cash necessary to implement the agreement,” he added.
By the time the hearing concluded, Hill had quietly accused District officials of using accounting gimmicks and lying to keep Congress in the dark. He spoke the truth without raising his voice or pointedly attacking the District’s elected officials. Unlike other bureaucrats who offer testimony on Capitol Hill, the 41-year-old accountant did not return to the sedate world of adding machines and balance books. He and his report became the city’s North Star, setting in motion a dialogue that eventually produced a financial control board for the first time in District history.
At the same time, Hill and his GAO assistants endeared themselves to District residents confused about what was real and what was Memorex in the city’s skimpy budget books. In the process, he unmasked a durable civic fraud—something two mayors and countless members of the council lacked the fortitude to do.
When a financial control board was created to rescue the city from itself, it made sense that Hill’s name was on the short list of potential candidates to oversee the operation. He could be chairman of the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (what has come to be known as the control board); he could be its executive director. Insiders suggested he was well suited for either role. President Clinton settled on economist Andrew Brimmer to head the five-member authority, and the board subsequently selected Hill as its executive director.
The congressional legislation creating the control board gives Hill and his appointed compatriots unobstructed entry into every level of the District government, their reach second only to that of the two congressional subcommittees for District affairs. Barry and the council still have operational control of the city, but with their big stick and the blessings of Congress, Hill and the board can impose significant management changes on city agencies. The board also can set budgets, approve contracts, and oversee labor settlements. In effect, the board is the authoritative “No” the District never had.
The bright-light focus on board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and other members—Joyce Ladner, Constance Newman, Stephen Harlan, and Edward Singletary—is misleading; the real action takes place in the shadows. Because control board members are volunteers, daily interaction with elected officials, business leaders, civic activists, and finance experts is Hill’s domain. He is the board’s sifter, investigator, and in some respects, programmer.
Ronald Henry, who served as executive director of the Philadelphia control board (Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority—PICA) says he and his professional staff were the “middle of the wheel.” He says the directorship of the District’s control board “potentially can be influential.”
Lawrence Guyot, a Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner who vigorously opposes the concept of a control board, says Hill has the juice and knows how to use it.
“It’s clear to me the primary power will be with John Hill,” says Guyot, the District’s Paul Revere since the board’s inception.
“[But] he is smart enough not to carry it beyond what he knows he can get the board to vote on,” Guyot adds.
Hill’s potential power became clearer last month when Barry and the council failed to cut nearly 6,000 positions—about 4,000 vacant and funded, 2,000 currently occupied—from the city’s payroll, as recommended by the control board. In a creative bit of calculus and calculation, Barry decided that 700 workers in the city’s public housing department are not District employees: Because the agency is in court-ordered receivership, Barry reasoned, the workers are not under the jurisdiction of the city government. The council, on the other hand, dumped thousands of positions into an ambiguous category called “privatization.” Neither approach came close to producing the control board’s request of $180 million in total savings. The abdication of responsibility by the council and Barry administration created an environment where the board is empowered to step knee-deep into the city’s business.
The control board is not interested in assuming responsibilities that should rightfully rest with elected officials, Hill says. But while the board attempts to find middle ground, the congressional legislation mandates that they produce a District budget for fiscal 1996 by mid-month. Hill and the board will likely reject Barry’s position that it’s impossible to balance the budget in one year. But it’s probable the council’s privatization plan will be accepted with some modification. Last week, Hill spent several days meeting with staff of the council looking for other places cuts could be made. Thursday, he and Brimmer are expected to finalize a proposal with councilmembers that is expected to include some privatization, with additional cuts to other city agencies. Council staffers say the board is treading lightly because some Republicans don’t want it to appear as if they are leading the charge against home rule. (A meeting is scheduled for Saturday, August 12, where the board will unveil its plan.)
Regardless of the outcome, make no mistake: Hill will be the one charting the treacherous course between the city and the control board. True to his nature, Hill offers no brinkmanship in response to the city’s inability to make significant cuts, but makes it clear the board will be about its business.
“Board members are ready to do whatever it takes to get the situation resolved,” he says.
Hill’s response is less of a threat than a promise. City residents have come to embrace the bean-counting technocrat who stepped into their lives more than a year ago and his willingness to get down to business.
“In a gentle way, I think he is going to take Barry on,” says advocate and one-time council candidate Marie Drissel.
The inconspicuous assault Drissel and others hope for may have already begun. Hill’s composed manner of taking care of business stands in direct contrast to the flashy, combative, race-baiting style of Marion Barry. Hill is a part of the new breed of local black leaders—Prince George’s County’s Wayne Curry comes to mind—who have entered the debate armed with loads of competence and zero hoopla. Hill may speak softly, but he has a great disdain for bullshit, even when artfully applied, as in the case of Barry. These new leaders are multicultural as a practical matter, ignoring skin color while focusing on character content, integrity, and the ability to deliver what is promised. Already Hill is being held up as the next generation of politician, the kind of executive the District’s predominantly African-American government sorely needs if it is to survive. As a federal bureaucrat whose specialty is being organized as opposed to organizing, Hill doesn’t have much time for all of the keening and wailing that accompanied the inception of the board.
“I really don’t care what the rhetoric is or the posturing, or the politics are. We’re interested in getting results,” Hill explains.
He isn’t much worried about comments from Barry administration insiders that he and the control board are novices, too unfamiliar with the city to effect any real change. He points out he’s been exploring the District’s byzantine finances since 1992, when he helped develop the formula used by the feds to determine how much money they pay each year in lieu of taxes.
“I believe in the skills I have and what I bring to the table,” he says, momentarily dancing on the fine line between confidence and arrogance. “For someone to attack me will be kind of hard. My own standards are very, very high and I demand a lot of myself. It’s that piece of it that keeps the performance consistent.”
Councilmember Harold Brazil—whom some place alongside Hill as part of that new crop of black leaders—says the former GAO executive could serve as a model for future elected officials in the city. “We need elected officials who can analyze and solve problems in [his] manner,” he adds.
But while the distinguished pasts of the members of the control board are known—Brimmer’s stint as member of the Federal Reserve Board; Newman, undersecretary for the Smithsonian Institution; Harlan, president of his own real estate company; Ladner, sociologist and former interim president of Howard University; Singletary, former member of the District pension board—Hill remains a mystery.
It’s 4 p.m., but it feels like mid-morning bustle at Hill’s 6th-floor suite at the GAO on 4th and G Streets NW. He and control board General Counsel Dan Resnick hole up behind a closed door. Renee Garner, Hill’s secretary, fields telephone calls from Brimmer; staffers of Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Subcommittee on D.C. Appropriations; and a Barry administration official.
Hill finally opens the door. Visibly worn, he still smiles a welcome as he retrieves a stack of phone messages. There are a lot of messages; last week he expanded the voice mail system to accommodate the traffic. After a brief reprieve, Hill returns to his room; he’ll remain squirreled away for yet another 90-minute interview. The airport pace of his office is a testament to the challenge confronting Hill and his position in the middle of it all.
At first glance, he is the same self-effacing man who told congressional representatives they had been duped; they bought the fiscal equivalent of a bridge in Brooklyn. There isn’t a hint that he is a major player, poised to command an office of more than 35 full-time professionals and a bushel of consultants—or that he will directly control his own operations budget of $3.5 million in fiscal 1996. While control board members, as volunteers, have the luxury of interludes from the city’s fiscal woes, Hill lives the problem every minute of every professional day.
He sits in a baby-blue straight-backed chair, in a standardly furnished bureaucrat’s office dappled here and there with personal touches—black-and-white photographs of winter scenes and a plastic jar of animal crackers. Hill responds to interview questions with his trademark relaxed, unworried, and unhurried verbal gait. He pleads that he not become the story. He dismisses the notion that he has become a major player in the District; ever the trusty staff person, he goes to some lengths to deflect attention to the board he serves.
“I’ve been very careful that I don’t become the story; the story is the authority,” Hill says, shifting to cross his legs, exposing shin-high black socks and well-polished black loafers. He speaks only a decibel above a whisper. “It’s their board; I’m the staff person.”
Hill honeys the board throughout the interview, citing Brimmer’s intuitive grasp of issues and his need for little preparation when appearing before Congress or at a public hearing. He makes no reference, however, to Brimmer’s previous foray in District affairs. Prior to his control board appointment, Brimmer served as behind-the-scenes financial adviser to former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. News reports indicate he suggested, among other things, that she press for a commuter tax, which became the hallmark of her fiscal rescue operation—and her eventual demise. His politically naive counsel proved disastrous for Kelly, leaving some to question his possible effectiveness in his current post. But perhaps Brimmer learned from his gaffe: Early on in board deliberations, he announced he wouldn’t recommend a commuter or reciprocal tax at this time, saying the political environment was not conducive to the concept. While Brimmer’s political-savvy quotient is up, his practical knowledge about government finances is limited. Chiefly an academician, Brimmer rarely dirtied his hands even at the Federal Reserve Board. But Hill has been immersed in the waters of government-financing issues for the last decade. Still, Hill prefers to focus on the board’s collective forthrightness and decency, mentioning that Harlan often calls with an armful of suggestions about what might help the city.
Hill’s early interaction with his bosses convinces him that they have the will and the intellectual horsepower to get the job done, but there are practical shortages of time and money. “The thing that scares me is having enough resources to follow up on all of their ideas,” adds Hill.
“I will play a role in helping to prioritize those ideas,” he continues, “and deciding what are the things we do first, in deciding how to make relationships work—how to coordinate with the executive office of the President, with Congress, the council, the mayor’s office.”
One congressional staffer, speaking on background, laughs at Hill’s understated portrayal of his importance in the city and with the control board. Persons familiar with how government works and how politically appointed boards operate in the nation’s capital know the power often lies with the staff. On Capitol Hill, a congressman’s chief of staff is no outsider: That person often has the ear of the elected official and fills it with positions that have been known to fall from congressional lips.
“He will wield a lot of power and influence,” says the congressional staffer, who doesn’t covet his position. “I wouldn’t have his job; $115,000 a year is not enough for what he is going to have to deal with. The egos—congressional, District elected officials, the five-member board. He is going to have to be a bridge between people who don’t like each other. John has the toughest job.”
Henry—who did the same job in Philadelphia—says that in order to survive, Hill must be in control of as much information as possible, stay in touch with members, and know their special points of interest.
“The job of the staff also is to find common ground [among the members] and to close those private differences before they become public differences,” Henry says. It’s no mean feat.
“The dynamic is fascinating,” he says. “It’s like trying to paint a moving train.”
Whether Hill willingly dons the mantle of power broker, his re-imaging as a player in the District began months ago, even before the board’s official debut on July 13. His flag was hoisted with the first community forum he agreed to attend, hoping to allay residents’ fears and explaining the enabling legislation. Residents fixed on him as the person to answer their questions—the man who could find room in a busy day to hear their complaints and give them clear-cut, no bullshit answers.
“I am constantly, favorably impressed with John Hill,” says Dorothy Brizill, who retains a reputation as a brash activist, impatient with government incompetence. “When I called him to ask him to come to our meeting, he called me back right away. Then he said, “Here’s my number. It’s the number to the phone right on my desk; call anytime.’ ”
That kind of access mightily impresses most District residents, who can rarely get a city underling to return their call, let alone someone in a position to actually do something about their problem. Hill’s availability for community meetings, combined with his smooth, nonconfrontational performance once he gets there, defuses many fears surrounding the creation of the control board.
The July 11 meeting at the swank University Club on 16th Street NW provides a clear view of Hill’s assets. He is there at the invitation of a citizen-created organization that pledges to watch every move the board makes. The group, chaired by Brizill, hasn’t decided whether the board is good or bad for the city; only that it will need citizen input if it’s going to make a difference.
Hill’s nondescript suit and striped tie seem ill-fitted for the club’s impressive library—a room caressed by red drapes and filled with a richness born of hardwood floors, Chinese rugs, and gilded-framed paintings of old white men. Harlan, a short man who makes every effort to blend into the walls, board General Counsel Resnick, and Ed Stephenson, an assistant GAO director on loan to the control board accompany Hill to the gathering. For a few minutes prior to the meeting, Hill schmoozes, but his glad-handing doesn’t have the plastic feel common to these settings. He smiles and laughs a lot—though not loudly.
Before he accepts questions from the audience, he presents an overview of the control board’s coming out party in two days, where it will float its first round of recommendations. But the assembled parties are impatient; they can’t bear to sit through Hill’s elaborate presentation, which is replete with charts and a summary of the board’s enabling legislation. Five minutes into his talk, questions intrude. Someone wants to know if the views of advisory neighborhood commissions will be given “great weight” in control board decisions as required by the District government under the city’s home rule charter. Hill stops. He is puzzled by this “great weight stuff ”; his brow erupts in furrows, as it does whenever he is baffled. He looks for counsel and Resnick jumps in, offering a legal opinion that the board is not guided by ANCs’ influence as outlined in the home rule charter. Hill’s mental tuning fork picks up the audience’s budding agitation. “Of course,” he says, residents’ comments always will be considered by the board. He reminds the audience that more than 400 people have sent testimony or asked to speak at the July 13 public meeting. Those who aren’t allowed to speak because of time limitations will be asked to comment at future meetings, which will occur nearly every other week. But as Hill successfully dodges one flash point, another quickly appears.
“Does the board know every union contract is up for renegotiation?” someone asks. Yes, Hill says, adding that he is keenly aware that the board must review all contracts. Another person wants to know about payments to vendors who already have provided services to the District. Hill patiently explains that the board isn’t allowed by the legislation to take any action on the fiscal 1995 city budget; it must wait to the first control year, which is 1996. (The questioner continues to be disgruntled, but after the meeting, Hill tells him that contracts and other bills from fiscal 1995 will be liabilities carried over to the next year; at that time, the board will have a stab at them.) Another person asks about the board’s own budget for the last three months of fiscal 1995, which has been reported at $950,000.
“The authority does not want to have its budget questioned,” Hill says, leaning into the podium, as if to close the distance between him and the questioner. “We want to give as much information and assistance as possible to justify our resources.”
Hill deals with the string of questions without breaking a sweat; he doesn’t fidget, as bureaucrats and politicians under pressure sometimes do. Instead, he seems buoyed by the exchanges, becoming more and more comfortable with each question. If his true feelings are at odds with his words, the conflict is not reflected in his facial expressions. He seems to have mastered the art of the flat face: the one that doesn’t hint of displeasure, even when it is in pain.
Finally, Jerry Phillips, a talk-show host and District resident, puts into words the accumulated rage and frustrations of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers: “Taxpayers in this town have been raped, and we are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We need help.”
Applause greets Phillips’ comments. The audience’s response signals that there is strong underlying support among District residents for the controversial decisions that are undoubtedly in the offing.
“The expectation is that this authority is about more than finances in the District of Columbia,” Hill says emphatically, punching the air with his fist for emphasis. Hill’s body language stands in direct contrast to his calm facial expressions. Here—and perhaps only here—does the dichotomy within Hill reveal itself. Hill’s fists roll before him like boulders threatening to demolish uncooperative bureaucrats and stagnant elected officials.
“There is a clear understanding things have to get better,” he says stridently, though not belligerently.
Hill speaks both from the launch pad of a congressional mandate and from personal self-interest: He and the five-member board are District residents. He currently lives in Ward 3, but once called Wards 4 and 8 home—a broad residential history that provides intimate understanding of the contrasting quality of service delivery in different parts of the city. If he and the board he serves pull it off, it will allow him to look his neighbors in the eye. Eye contact is a big deal to Hill.
“When people are asking questions, I want to be responsive to what they say,” Hill says, propping his forehead on his hand as it rests against the side of his chair. “I need that eye contact. I really do believe people are the most important thing in the world. And plus, it’s respect. I have a lot of respect for people; I try to show that.”
After the meeting, the valet comes up the club’s driveway with Hill’s car—a Honda Accord. Annette Samuels stops on her way out to tell Hill that by the time it is all over his head of hair will be fully gray.
Hill laughs heartily. “That’s all right. I wouldn’t care if I’m completely bald as long as things are significantly improved.”
The arc of a leader’s rise can be measured in the opinions of both friends and enemies. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a natural ally, took time last month during the subcommittee meeting on the status of the board to compliment Hill “for tirelessly making himself available to my constituents and to elected officials.
“John has been everywhere in the city and has done the authority much good, using patience and explanation and information to reduce the natural anxiety in the community,” she added.
But there are others who are not moved to spout laurels by the Hill-dazzle: A few GAO officials who worked with Hill on several projects offer a portrait of a manipulator, someone “not to be trusted.”
“He’s not an honest shooter,” says one GAO employee. “I know a con man when I see one; they’re smooth, wonderful, and seductive.”
Although Guyot and his Coalition for Political and Financial Accountability (CPFA) view Hill as an enforcer of an illegal occupation they also regard him as a “professional’s professional.”
“He has been the most honest agent in this whole dialogue,” adds Guyot. Despite the accolades, CPFA believes the board is its chief nemesis. The group shows up at every public forum to protest the heavy-handed intrusion into District affairs and pledges to file a lawsuit seeking the dismantling of the board. After the board’s debut, the group held its own public meeting. More than 200 people attended—some responding to a call from the Mayor’s Office of Constituency Services that seemed to give CPFA attendance stats a boost.
Finding Waldo is easier than uncovering the real John W. Hill Jr. His bio, released on request, offers only the sketchiest of details about the District’s designated cleanup man. On the record, he is a very careful interview. He discusses his work with the control board, but refuses to offer his personal opinion about the District and its leaders: “Any opinion I have about the District government is born out of the work I’ve done and is therefore professional.” He talks about his three children, who live in Columbia, Md., with his former wife, but declines to offer information about his current marital status. Still, there are clues from his past and conversations about his family that provide glimpses of Hill’s interior.
His bureaucratic face breaks free and his eyes light up when the dialogue turns to his three children. His lean frame relaxes momentarily and slides down a little in the chair—as if he is in his own living room about to pass around the latest batch of family photos.
“Recently, I went to look for a guitar with my 18-year-old son,” Hill confesses, adding that the boy will soon enter Berklee College of Music. He plays the guitar and piano and loves jazz, which Hill has yet to develop an appreciation for.
“We spent the day going around the store,” he continues. “It opened up a whole new world for me. Suddenly, I realized I could learn a lot from my son.”
A race to see who will get a driver’s license first is currently on between his son and his only daughter, who is 16: “At first he wasn’t interested, but when she got her learner’s permit, he wanted his license,” Hill says with amusement.
His daughter has taken ballet lessons most of her life and is “a very, very beautiful person,” by her doting father’s account. She may be a bit financially naive, however. Consider the deal she struck with Hill: If she won a full four-year scholarship, he would buy her a new car. Hill chuckles in recollection. “Of course I agreed,” he says, knowing he’ll get the sweeter part of the arrangement: “I wouldn’t even mind throwing in a house. But I didn’t tell her that.”
With his 13-year-old son, it’s all fun. The teen-ager is a baseball freak; Hill and other family members call him a “rascal.”
Although he is working extraordinary hours, Hill manages to spend most Sundays with his children: “It’s an important part of my sanity,” he adds.
The relaxed mood shifts markedly when his current marital status becomes the focus of the discussion. Some GAO employees say it is common knowledge at the agency that he is gay: “His mate moved to California,” says one employee, who declined to provide the mate’s name. “John was going to move to California too, until this thing with the control board came up.”
Hill deftly skirts the discussion: “Sexual orientation is irrelevant unless I’m going to have sex.” He reaches for a sip of water, dousing both his annoyance with the question and the questioner.
Hill’s own childhood seems starkly different from that of his children: He and his two brothers and one sister lived with his parents in a small two-bedroom apartment in Southeast—when the area now known as “East of the River” was still integrated and boasted a pristine image. His mother was a dietitian at St. Elizabeths Hospital while his father worked as a mechanic with the privately operated D.C. transit company.
“My mother will kill me for saying this, but I think we were evicted,” Hill confesses, with a tinge of nostalgia. “My mom and dad had one bedroom, and all four of the children were in the other bedroom. I think what happened was they said you can’t have this many kids in one apartment. They had to find a bigger place.
“I don’t remember feeling overcrowded,” he adds.
D.C. Public School officials report that John W. Hill Jr. left Stanton Elementary in the third grade. Later, he enrolled in Beaver Heights. He recalls the transience that often visited large families in and around the District. Finding an apartment for a family of four or more was always next to impossible. Hill says the brood moved from rented house to rented house.
After Beaver Heights Elementary, he enrolled in Bethune Junior High, and later Suitland Junior High and Suitland High School. He always has been interested in sports; these days he plays racquetball and often pumps weights at the GAO fitness center. His pecs, on this jacketless afternoon, peek through his shirt, attesting to his discipline.
His nascent years in Southeast sound idyllic, with none of the echoes of gunfire and violence the neighborhood’s kids are forced to contend with now: “My sister and I were in a singing group; every Christmas we’d go over to St Elizabeths. I felt that we were children involved in the community of adults—going out and helping elderly people,” he says dreamily, as if seeing his lean body walking down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to the wrought-iron gates of the city’s only mental hospital.
“It is a very important memory to me,” he adds.
Hill doesn’t have the naivete or conceit to believe he can return the District to yesteryear. But he does believe it’s not unreasonable for District residents to expect a functional government. And he wants city workers to have enough of the fundamentals to adequately serve District residents.
“There are many people in the District government who really want to do a good job. But there is a shortage of resources….The [workers] really don’t have the tools they need,” he says. “I have a friend who works for the District and he called me,” Hill continues. “He wanted to leave a message. But he said to me, “I don’t have a Touch-Tone phone, so I can’t press 0 and get your operator.’ That made a real impression on me.
“I am very hopeful that when we give people the tools they need—resources, training, systems information—things will change,” he adds.
Talk of tools and systems betrays Hill’s professional past. A lifetime number cruncher, he directed the Financial Management Policy and Issues Group within the GAO’s Accounting and Information Management Division—the group also assisted with creation and implementation of the Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act. (The CFO experience lends great credibility to Hill’s involvement in the selection of a new finance person for the Barry administration. The city’s CFO will have expansive powers not granted to his or her predecessor, according to the congressional legislation.) Hill also worked closely with government inspector generals in setting up audit standards and methodology. He was associate director for food and agriculture issues, and later, transportation issues. In 1994, he received the Frank L. Greathouse Distinguished Leadership Award from the Association of Government Accountants.
But Hill is more than a federale; he also served as director of corporate internal audit for Marriott Corporation’s hotel business segment, senior audit manager for Coopers & Lybrand, and audit manager with Price Waterhouse. A graduate of the University of Maryland, Hill has been a certified public accountant since 1977.
He has an accountant’s penchant for facts over opinions. Hill’s reluctance to insert his own opinion in testimony before Congress agitated one lawmaker, who urged him to provide more specific instruction about what should be done for the District. Hill says the limited role he played as GAO executive is very different from the one he intends to perform as control board staff.
“I took this job because I wanted to go to the next step,” he explains patiently. “It’s one thing to sit at congressional hearings and say the District is this or that; it’s another thing to say I’m going to help to bring about change.”
But the intransigent District government is more than a notion, even for someone as determined as Hill. A river called denial runs through the heart of Washington. Barry and the council swim in it daily. Last week at Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s town meeting, it became apparent some residents are finding it difficult to find the river’s shoreline. Many citizens fear that the board’s creation and the interest in city affairs of Newt and his Republican cohorts spell the end of their hard-won home rule.
Guyot, whose ragtag band of protesters marched outside Eastern High School in Northeast, where the meeting was held, focused on the racial division among the city’s residents over the board. “White people want it and black people don’t,” he said during an interview with News Channel 8.
He says the creation of the board was “the Uncle Tom thing to do” and calls the board’s enabling legislation the “slave bill.” Guyot and the people who are riding with him are certain that the control board is the endgame of “The Plan.” Many African-Americans in the city have long contended there is a plan designed by the white establishment to regain control of the District of Columbia.
“Who were the people in charge of the plan? The Washington Post, the board of trade, the Federal City Council. And, who are the people pushing this control board? The Washington Post, the board of trade, the Federal City Council,” continues Guyot. “Unless we can build a broad-based coalition to fight this, when it’s all over, we will have a white mayor and a white-majority city council. Ten years from now the Washington we know will be just as beautiful, but the “we’ will be totally redefined.”
But Guyot’s focus on race with respect to the control board is laughable. The District long has been divided along racial lines; the last mayoral election served to exacerbate the polarization. The idea for a financial recovery board first was floated by former council Chairman John Wilson. Later Councilmembers Kevin Chavous and Harold Brazil offered some modified version of a fiscal authority—District-created—given similar responsibilities as those of the current board. All except one member of the congressionally mandated control board are African-Americans. Residents like Brizill, though not endorsing the board, say it is necessary for the District’s recovery. No one can deny that it was the fiscal mismanagement of the city’s black elected leaders that opened the door to outside intervention.
“We are the reason they’re here,” admits Brazil, who earlier this month unsuccessfully floated before the council his own proposal to cut the 2,000 funded and filled positions the control board wanted eliminated.
“They are the medicine,” he adds.
Hill admits the race talk bothers him. And that the city’s racial polarization is baffling: “I have found the things people in Ward 3 are interested in are the same others around the city want—safe streets, trash collections, good schools,” he says. “Those are not black, white, Hispanic or Asian issues,” he continues. “They’re people issues.”
The control board’s ability to negotiate the divisions in the city—in the political arena and the neighborhoods—will be as important as its skill in bringing a new math to District budgeting. Disunity could derail the District’s recovery wagon, sending a team of eager Republicans rolling into town with a truckload of untried quick fixes. Norton sensed a potential eruption between the mayor, council, and the board over the fiscal 1996 budget: She urged the board, in a letter to Brimmer, to meet with the city’s elected officials to find acceptable middle ground.
“The present stalemate or overriding action by the Authority later this month would signal an unnecessary failure for the Authority as well as for the District,” Norton wrote. “It would indicate a reluctance to exhaust the negotiations and technical assistance process that worked so well in Philadelphia and New York City to keep their control boards from having to use their ultimate authority.”
Philadelphia’s Mayor Edward G. Rendell, writing in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, raves about the cooperation that characterized the effort to return his city to solvency. He reports that in less than 18 months, under a control board with less power than the District’s, Philadelphia eradicated a $450-million deficit “without raising taxes one penny.”
Philadelphia renegotiated union contracts, reducing the number of paid holidays and altering benefits packages. Moreover, it privatized some of its city services—without subsidies from the Philadelphia government and without mandatory salary levels for its workers. Here in the District, Barry administration officials have proposed underwriting some of the privatization and have imposed regulations that would require comparable salaries for former city workers picked up by contractors. (Such a requirement would almost assure that few businesses would answer the city’s call for bids.)
Undoubtedly, achieving similar unity in the District will be slippery. Already the police unions have traipsed up to Capitol Hill, finding support among their congressional friends to overturn the 12-percent pay cut the council forced earlier this year. There are signs that other special interest groups, some of whom advocate home rule, will high-tail it to Congress if necessary to undo any damage caused by control board decisions. Guyot and the CPFA are likely to cause a little chaos of their own if they actually follow through with their threat to file a lawsuit. It’s unclear where Norton will draw the line in her support for the board she helped to create. Her letter suggests she may shift allegiances if the board uses its congressionally mandated powers to force change down the District government’s throat. Despite the danger signs along the river, Hill is optimistic. He thinks there are people in and out of city government who will serve as “change agents.”
“Cooperation has got to be there,” he says. “If not, it won’t work.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.