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Close watchers of the D.C. Council—yes, this strange breed does exist—should have called the men in white coats last week to cart away At-Large Councilmember John Ray and Chairman Dave Clarke, who both unleashed verbal outbursts about the endless arena/lease controversy. (Yes, the O.J. Simpson trial may be over, but the lease drama continues.)
The explosions will surely reinforce the widely held notion that the council is cracking under the pressure from the new financial control board and the Republican-led Congress. But council staffers insist that the tirades have less to do with budget strain than they do with people “carrying water” for Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and his cronies.
Ray erupted on Sept. 28, when the council met to vote on a new lease that would provide office space for some city employees being displaced by the downtown arena. The four-term councilmember, who is stepping down in January 1997 to concentrate on his law practice, appeared to be carrying water for scorned developer R. Donahue “Don” Peebles. Peebles is a crony of both Ray and Barry. He was a major fund-raiser for Ray’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign last year, and he is a longtime protégé of Hizzoner.
At the council meeting, Ray blasted the city’s real estate community, saying that “racism and bigotry played a big part” in public opposition to Peebles’ lease offer. The reaction forced Barry to withdraw Peebles’ $48-million lease deal last month before the council voted on it.
But Ray bristles at suggestions that Peebles’ past political support prompted his annoyance last week. Instead Ray, like Barry, blames the lease fiasco on developer John “Chip” Akridge, who is white. The mayor rejected Akridge’s $38-million lease offer in favor of the proposal from Peebles, who is African-American. Then Akridge officials lobbied hard behind the scenes to scuttle the Peebles deal as a financial disaster for the city. (The control board also criticized the Peebles lease.)
“I’m not talking about whether the Peebles lease was good for the city,” Ray said in an interview this week. “I’m talking about the way this thing was handled, and the way this unbelievable campaign was carried on in the news media, and the trickery that was used.”
“The fact that some people don’t see that speaks volumes,” said a still-angry Ray.
During last week’s council session, Ray referred to a newspaper article quoting Jeff Neal, an official of the John Akridge Cos., as saying that his firm was competing with Peebles to buy the building at 801 North Capitol St. that Peebles was trying to lease to the city. Peebles has charged that the rival developer was trying to knock him out of competition for the leases by buying the building out from under him.
After Ray blew up at the council meeting, Neal buttonholed him in the corridor of the Wilson/District Building and attempted to explain his company’s actions. The Akridge firm has stated that it tried to buy 801 North Capitol St. because it is a valuable location. Akridge claims that he intended to tear down the existing building—the one Peebles had offered to lease to the city—and erect a new one.
But the fuming councilmember was in no mood for explanations when Neal approached him last week. He ordered Neal to “get out of my face.” Then, upon momentary reflection, Ray decided that wasn’t enough, and he ordered Neal out of the Wilson/District Building.
Ray and Akridge met this week to resolve their differences. They didn’t settle the dispute, so the councilmember could still order the developer and his employees out of the city, off the planet, and out of the universe.
Akridge, a major downtown developer, is plenty worried about the fallout from the lease fight. According to a council source, Barry has stated that “Chip Akridge had better not ask for anything more” from Hizzoner’s administration.
Clarke’s verbal explosion occurred three days before Ray’s, and also stemmed from the arena/lease controversy. Barry had accused the council of “playing politics” with the Peebles lease. The criticism got under Clarke’s skin, and he counterattacked with a hastily called press conference on Sept. 25. Clarke’s staff, aware of his long-standing troubles with the media, tried to dissuade the chairman from meeting with reporters that day, but he went ahead with it anyway.
Clarke was calm at the outset of his session with reporters, until WRC-TV Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood pressed him about the council’s indecisiveness on the lease issue. During his days at the Washington Post, Sherwood was known as one of the few reporters around town who could talk to Clarke and not get exasperated or confused. That is true no more.
Clarke quickly grew irate and accused Sherwood of taking the mayor’s side. Sherwood, his voice rising, pressed Clarke even harder.
But no one can compete with Clarke when it comes to temper tantrums, and the ensuing eye-bulging tirade was captured on camera and broadcast in an unusually long, unedited segment on Channel 4 that same evening. The exchange with Sherwood also produced the photo of the deranged-looking Clarke that appeared in the Post on Monday, Oct. 2.
Clarke staffers complain that Sherwood goaded their boss into an outburst. They say that the newsman—whom Barry had considered hiring as his press secretary earlier this year—was “carrying the mayor’s water.” (With all this water-carrying going on, perhaps the city should sell off Blue Plains, as the GOP suggests, and trust Sherwood and Ray to supply the HO.)
Sherwood this week bristled at the suggestion he was doing the mayor’s work during Clarke’s news conference.
“The chairman called the news conference to say the mayor was jerking the council around on the leases. It was perfectly true,” Sherwood says. “But he did not want to say what he was going to do. I kept asking him because I wanted to know, “Are you going to stand up to the mayor? Are you going to take action?’ ”
“After Clarke had gotten mad three or four times, I said, “This guy is biting the head off of everybody who asks a question he doesn’t want to answer. This ought to be shown on TV.’
“And I [showed it]. And I would again.”
Clarke’s staffers and council colleagues say the chairman has remained unshaken despite the recent barrage of negative media reports about him. But because of the 1993 suicide of Clarke’s predecessor, the late John Wilson, the health and well-being of the chairman now raises more than a passing concern.
Despite last week’s pyrotechnics, the ’90s still can’t match the rowdy early days of the council. Back in the ’70s, recall veteran council staffers, At-Large Councilmember Julius Hobson Sr. feuded with everyone, and At-Large Councilmember Doug Moore bit a tow-truck driver in the back when his car was hauled away from the District Building.
THE COUNCIL AND HAMLET
Lately, council hearings have resembled a kind of interminable version of Hamlet, as directed by D.C. sports czar Abe Pollin. To lease or not to lease, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to move city workers out of the path of the sports arena and into far-flung, city-owned buildings? Or to submit to the slings and arrows of Marion Barry and approve lucrative leases that reward his political cronies?
OK, hold it. LL can already hear our readers groaning: Can’t we find anything to write about except these damn arena leases?
But there’s a good reason for that. The significance of the lease controversy, which has been lost on many, is enormous. Councilmembers, perhaps for the first time, are being forced to act like responsible lawmakers and public servants. And they don’t like it one bit. A few years ago, the council went to court in order to win the power to approve all $1-million-plus deals negotiated by the mayor. Now that they have that authority, councilmembers are squirming and twisting for months instead of exercising it.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” smirks Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who led opposition to Barry’s lease deals.
At long last, the city does seem to have hammered out an acceptable lease. The latest scheme, which is expected to win approval this week, calls for the city to rent $7.3 million worth of new space for city workers and to renew an existing city lease for three years. Barry tried in vain to get the council to approve the deal last Saturday, one day before the financial control board’s power over city leases took effect. But the move failed, despite support from Clarke.
Evans also insisted that the city’s real estate broker, “President” Fred Ezra, reduce his commission on the lease deals from 3 percent to 1 percent. This move saved the city another $300,000 by cutting the commission to a mere $155,000.
“Now I’m going to send my bill in for 3 percent and get my $1.2-million commission,” Evans jokes, calculating his 3 percent commission on the $41 million-plus he and other councilmembers say they saved the city by not taking Peebles’ lease.
But Evans is not sitting too comfortably these days, despite his apparent good humor. Just as the Akridge firm is worrying about damage to its commercial future, Evans, who is running for re-election next year, might need to worry about political payback from a certain scorned developer and a certain irate broker.
As he left the council session after his commission was whittled to a measly 1 percent, an angry “President” Ezra appeared bent on revenge against Evans.
LL has taken to referring to “President” Ezra because the broker told Post reporter Vernon Loeb last week that he would not return Loeb’s phone calls until the Post stopped referring to him as a crony of the mayor’s. Instead, he wants to be identified as the president of a commercial real estate firm that employs more than 50 workers.
If the Post won’t grant Ezra his request, LL is happy to oblige. “President” Ezra won’t return LL’s phone calls either, but we hope he’ll change his mind after he reads this.
When former D.C. fire Chief Ray Alfred took a job two weeks ago as the new fire chief in Jacksonville, Fla., At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot lost his first choice to succeed him when he steps down from the council next year. Lightfoot wants his successor on the council to live east of the Anacostia River. But so far, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous and former D.C. police Chiefs Fred Thomas and Isaac Fulwood, residents of Ward 7, have rejected Lightfoot’s entreaties.
D.C. has never elected an at-large councilmember from east of the river, and Lightfoot, who lives in Takoma Park, is still searching for a suitable easterner to succeed him. But he appears to be wavering slightly about his decision to step down after two terms and spend more time with his family.
“I haven’t ruled it out, but I’m probably not going to run,” Lightfoot said last week….
Ward 4 supporters of an 1892 statute banning D.C. youth from playing jacks, basketball, football, baseball, and other games on public streets, alleys, and sidewalks have found a 20th-century case upholding the law. In the 1943 case Batenan vs. Crim, a D.C. jury awarded an 84-year-old woman $1,200 after she was knocked down and severely injured by two 12-year-olds playing football on the sidewalk.
The 52-year-old decision noted that there were no parks or playgrounds in the neighborhood where the accident occurred.
The issue has arisen again because some residents of the 16th Street Heights neighborhood are irate about noisy alley basketball games (see “Loose Lips,” 9/22). Their recent complaints have prompted Metropolitan Police Department officers to start enforcing the 103-year-old law, which carries a maximum fine of $5.