[from August 2000 issue]


For most of this summer, we have had a terrible sense of déjà vu all over again, a sense of same old-same old, that despite promises, as in the past, nothing can ever be done right by a dysfunctional DC government. After all, that alley we've been writing about for so long still has not been re-paved, even though signs were posted two months ago notifying residents that work was about to start.

To cite a few horrors: DC summer jobs program delayed because proper paperwork couldn't be completed in time--so to hell with the kids. Several hundred summer temp workers, including summer school teachers, summer job kids, welfare-to-work trainees, parks and recreation counselors and summer camp staff not getting their paychecks for weeks on end. Again, to hell with the kids and lots of other people who can't afford to be jerked around. Got so bad with the camp staffers, that they finally walked off the job, leaving the kids in the lurch. We can't really blame them. After all, public employees cannot be expected to work for free; in fact, it is our understanding that federal personnel regulations which are also applicable in DC government, forbid employees to work on an uncompensated basis.

But, there's been more. True to past form and tradition, the upper echelons continue to be staffed with persons not seemingly fit for the positions and when it becomes apparent, the mayor makes all sorts of excuses. Eventually, he may fire them, but by then the damage is done.

A recent example, of course, was the departure of the DPW director who should have never been hired in the first place. As we commented in this space at the beginning of the summer, the mayor's handpicked DPW director from the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois was simply "in over her head." (See, "Why Can't The Mayor Hire Top-Flight Managers?," June 2000, page 2.)

The current Disastrous Political Appointment of the Month is Robert C. Newman, the director of the parks and recreation department. It's not just that he fabricated his résumé (which competent vetting in the mayor's office would have exposed thereby preventing great embarrassment and ridicule), but it's the substantive evidence of his inability to ensure that his department meet its responsibilities and commitments. We have heard from many people around the city who echo our assessment, including the writer of one of this month's Letters to the Editor. Only Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham seems to be giving the man the benefit of the doubt. Why, we don't know.

So it seems as if the ways of our government bureaucracy have still not been reformed. Slow, unimaginative, incompetent, etc. But maybe this is not entirely a true picture. For all our grousing and condemnation of what seems to be dysfunction as usual, there are some impressive developments that augur well for our future.

Most startling, encouraging, and imaginative--extraordinary, actually--is how the mayor actually made something of critical economic and social importance happen with the kind of amazing speed that only an entrepreneur like Ross Perot might pull off: 18 days to decide to accept the $75 million offer from the Freedom Forum to acquire the employment services building site at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue for the new "Newseum."

No ditzing around for umpteen years like we're used to here in DC. The proposal was a no-brainer, but so often decision-makers have such feeble brains that they can't even fathom a no-brainer. But not this time. Mayor Williams clearly understood that he had to grab this absolutely first-rate offer that has the potential of providing incredible benefits to the city over many years.

It's not just the fact that the city won't be spending any of its own money; it's not just the fact that the city will reap far in excess of the property's $44 million assessed valuation; it's not just the fact that this project will provide 200 jobs and will attract thousands of tourists to this museum of journalism and press freedom and provide tax revenues from the restaurants, retail, conference center and 100 condominiums that will also be part of the total project; and it's not just that an additional $25 million will be turned over to the DC government for low- and moderate-income housing in parts of the city where it is badly needed.

With this coup, the mayor has been brilliant. Now, let's just hope that there are no small-minded nit-pickers on the city council, which has to formally ratify this deal as a sole-sources contract, who will start complaining about not being "consulted" (there are times when bold action must be taken with amazing speed, and this was such a time) or that maybe there might be "better" deals out there. In our view--and we have heard that some very high-powered developers agree with us--nothing could be more advantageous to the city than this deal. We trust the council will not throw a monkey wrench into the process.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mayor--congratulations to you and your economic development team!