City Paper is not for tourists
Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, who seems to have launched his 1998 mayoral campaign already, looked like a politician caught with his position down at last Saturday’s vigil outside D.C. General Hospital. More than 50 angry Capitol Hill residents and grieving Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers gathered at the hospital to demand more support for the rapidly thinning blue line of D.C. law enforcement. Inside the hospital, MPD officer Scott Lewis feebly clung to life. He had been shot in the head 36 hours earlier by a passing motorist as he assisted a deaf-mute crime victim on nearby H Street NE. Lewis died on Monday.
Furious at recent police budget cuts, organizers had specifically excluded politicians from the vigil, and the demonstrators took the opportunity to blast city officials. “STOP playing politics with our lives as Officer Lewis fights for his,” demanded a “statement of frustration” circulated at the vigil.
“Any more blood spilled in this city is on their hands,” said the statement, which the crowd read in unison. “We are prisoners in our own community, with few rights, surrounded by a public safety disaster. Our leaders have compromised and abandoned us for their own power and greed.”
Despite the specific dis-invitation, Brazil showed up anyway—no doubt because the demonstration was taking place in his ward. Brazil was permitted to speak to the Lewis family, his constituents, and the TV cameras, but the two-term councilmember spoke in a barely audible voice and looked as uncomfortable as a divorced man at his ex-wife’s family reunion.
“Well, this is a very tragic event, and I don’t know what one can say except that our prayers go out to officer Lewis and his family,” Brazil meekly offered, skirting the public safety issue on the mind of his audience.
But Brazil said enough—and stayed just long enough—to make the Saturday evening TV news.
Then, he was gone.
When Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. got wind of the planned demonstration, his staff contacted organizers to say the mayor wanted to attend and speak. But organizer Sally Byington said no. According to Byington, the request particularly upset the Lewis family because Hizzoner had not bothered to visit the gravely injured officer or even call to inquire about his condition. Barry tried to visit Lewis Sunday night, but Lewis’ mother refused him entry. Although Barry’s request was rejected, the mayor dispatched an aide in a Lincoln Town Car to check out the demonstration.
The keen interest of Hizzoner and Councilmember Brazil in the afternoon vigil illustrates the volatility of the public safety issue. Cops and citizens are pointing fingers at Barry for the city’s reluctance to continue federal/local crime task forces, the District’s most effective anti-crime ventures in recent years. Barry’s distrust of the feds is understandable, since it was an FBI/MPD task force that nabbed him smoking crack at the Vista Hotel in January 1990.
The mayor and the council have also been squirming because of the pay cut they imposed on cops earlier this year. That move has caused department morale to plummet, and MPD officers are quitting the force even faster than middle-class Washingtonians are fleeing the city. According to the Washington Post, about 600 officers, many of them senior, have resigned recently because they fear a continued deterioration in pay, equipment, and working conditions. MPD could shrink to 3,000 officers by year’s end.
The goal of a 5,000-member force, embraced by every politician in the city just five years ago, now seems as remote as honest, efficient city government.
D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also was a target of last weekend’s demonstration for her resistance to a proposal by Rep. Fred Heineman (R-N.C.) to add $45 million to the D.C. police budget this year. Norton has argued that the $45 million is “smoke and mirrors.” The money, she says, would come with too many strings attached—Congress, not city officials, would decide how it would be spent—and would be deducted from the city’s $660-million annual federal payment. Heineman refuses to give local officials control of the money for fear they will spend it elsewhere. But an aide to Heineman insists the $45 million would be added to the federal payment, not deducted from it.
Brazil, meanwhile, has been acting like a drum major who can’t keep in front of the public safety parade. Three years ago, Byington and other Capitol Hill residents lashed him when crime escalated in their neighborhood. He defused the issue by setting up a Ward 6 public safety task force. But that group encountered resistance from then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and top police officials, who felt that publicizing the Hill’s crime problem would only serve to embarrass them. The task force is no longer active.
Now Brazil is annoying some Ward 6 residents with his wavering about the Heineman plan. He was an early advocate of the Heineman proposal, testifying at a July congressional hearing in favor of many of Heineman’s ideas. But when Norton launched her forceful opposition to $45-million plan, Brazil ducked out of the public debate. At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot has been the only elected official brave enough to support the Heineman proposal vigorously.
When Brazil attended the Oct. 3 meeting of the First District Citizens Advisory Council (which counsels the police department), residents demanded to know why he had been missing in action in the fight to pass the Heineman initiative.
According to those present, a miffed Brazil retorted, “Well, if you’re going to talk to me that way, maybe I should just quit and go home.”
Instead, he went to last weekend’s demonstration, perhaps more concerned with his political safety than D.C.’s public safety.
D.C.’S SQUEAKY WHEELS
If you don’t believe that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, consider the following anecdotes.
On Monday, Oct. 2, Capitol Hill resident Beckie Erickson realized that she had not received her new car registration and license tag stickers, for which she had mailed in the paperwork and check on Sept. 6. Her registration had expired at midnight Sept. 30, and now she was running the risk of a ticket. So she dialed the D.C. Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, and waited. While on hold that Monday morning, Erickson says, “I ate my breakfast, did my dishes, and had a couple more cups of coffee.” Finally, she gave up without speaking to a live person.
That afternoon, after being put on hold again by the recorded voice that greets callers to most D.C. government agencies, Erickson hung up and called the mayor’s office. She immediately was given a phone number at the bureau that would be answered by someone with a pulse.
(Squeaky Wheel Lesson No. 1: Don’t waste your time calling the agency numbers listed in the book. Call the mayor’s office and demand the secret numbers that actually get answered.)
After a few transfers, Erickson finally reached the right person. She says that the bureau employee told her that no mail to the registration office had been opened since Sept. 11 because of the lack of manpower to process the mail. “Yours is probably in that pile” of unopened mail, Erickson says she was told. The motor vehicle bureau official who took her call wrote down Erickson’s name and address and sent her a registration extension good through the end of October.
A baffled Erickson asked why the bureau could send her a temporary registration but couldn’t process her renewal. Simple, she was told: The department had 2,000 unopened registration renewals, but had fielded only 200 phone calls complaining about delays in receiving new registrations. So bureau officials had chosen to respond to the complaints rather than spend time opening the mail.
(Squeaky Wheel Lesson No. 2: When you get that secret number from Hizzoner, complain right away.)
But complaining didn’t help Mark Bucher of McLean Gardens one bit. After he was ticketed $100 for an expired registration, Bucher called the motor vehicle bureau, canceled registration renewal check in hand, to gripe. He claims he was told the department didn’t have the money to print up the registrations, and was waiting until more revenues came in. When he received a second $100 ticket within a week from the same officer, Bucher was furious and showed the ticket-writer his canceled check.
The officer’s response, Bucher says, was this unsympathetic advice: “It’s not my problem. That’s your problem. You should move out of the District like I have.”
Lloyd Parker, acting chief of the bureau, denies that there is a pile of 2,000 unopened letters at his agency. Parker says registration renewals are sent to Signet Bank, which has the city contract to process them. The bank processes the renewals within 48 hours and sends his office a computer tape of motorists due new registration cards.
But Parker does confirm that the city ran out of cards to mail registrants in mid-September. Parker says he ordered new cards in May or June, but his request took months to navigate the bureaucratic maze. A new batch of registration cards arrived on Oct. 3, and Parker claims his office now has enough cards to handle renewals at least through January.
Parker adds that the city’s ticket-writers had been urged to be “lax” in issuing tickets for expired registrations. And he offered to help “adjudicate” Bucher’s two tickets.
The Post knows the Squeaky Wheel lessons by heart. When the mayor’s office fell several thousand dollars in arrears on the 60 copies of the paper delivered to 1 Judiciary Square each day, the Post canceled Hizzoner’s subscriptions. You’d think that the mayor, who bashes the Post in every stump speech, wouldn’t mind losing his copy of Kay Graham’s newspaper. But after just a few days, the city paid the overdue bill in full, and delivery began again.
Other vendors owed huge sums by the city should take a cue from that incident.
D.C. Jail culinary chief Ricardo Stith resorted to a different tactic when the jail ran out of vegetables for its 1,674 inmates—including a half-dozen or so vegetarians—two weeks ago. Stith called nearly every newspaper, TV station, and radio station in town to alert them to the vegetable crisis. The jail’s diet calls for vegetables, and Stith’s earlier warnings that he would run out of greens before the end of September had gone unheeded by his superiors.
“I called the mayor, the council, but no one has called back,” Stith told LL at the height of the crisis. “I’m beginning to feel that nobody really cares what is fed to these inmates around here, and I have real concerns for that.”
That’s a pretty heavy charge to make against a mayor who campaigned for votes last year by promising to be more sympathetic to the incarcerated and encouraging inmates to get their family members to go to the polls for him.
The vegetable crisis abated Oct. 3 when a new shipment of canned and frozen peas, carrots, beets, and other veggies arrived. But last Friday, Stith ran out of desserts, and he expects the vegetable crisis to return before the end of this month.
The problem, he explains, is that the city budgets only $155,682 per month to feed prisoners at the D.C. Jail, but the meal plan costs more than $200,000 per month. The vendors supplying vegetables had not been paid, so they stopped deliveries, Stith says.
That’s the story of the D.C. government in 1995, lurching from vegetable crisis to dessert crisis to vegetable crisis.