[from December 2006 issue]


A couple of days before we went to press, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher had a wrenching story in that newspaper’s December 5, 2006 edition titled “The District Bureaucracy Bears Down on a Dream.” While that was certainly an apt title, after reading the report, we would not have disagreed with the headline writer had it actually read, “The District Bureaucracy Once Again Proves Itself to be Cruel and Heartless.”

Now, this was not a report about the usual kind of bureaucratic heavy-handiness that so regularly makes it almost impossible to do business in the city, whether one be a merchant or just a lowly taxpayer attempting to unscramble situations that invariably escalate into disasters.

What Fisher was reporting was about an incredibly rigid approach to applying a provision of a health department regulation that was deemed to apply to a group home that is certified for occupancy by only five disabled persons. In this case, a sixth person was about to be evicted by the city even though the circumstance surrounding both the unique situation of the putative evictee and the reality of his occupancy screamed for not only some kind of humanistic approach to the case but also an admission that some of the presumed “facts” about the living conditions were simply wrong.

What we learned from Fisher’s report is that the 75-year-old man the bureaucrats are rushing to evict from the first little apartment he ever had of his very own after having “spent nearly half a century of his life confined to Forest Haven, the city's now-shuttered snake pit for the retarded,” is for the first time in his life independent and not a ward of the city. To summarily take that away from him because of an adverse action based on clearly inaccurate facts is a travesty.

To help the man remain in what to him is a little piece of personal paradise after so many years of misery at the hands of the city should be something the bureaucracy would be geared up to encourage and to ensure its continuation. Yet, because of a technical complaint by the city’s health department that he is the sixth resident in an Adams Morgan group home that is certified for only five, the fire department now insists he must go.

The operator of that facility, apparently highly regarded in the 16 states where it maintains these homes in fine condition, many months ago had applied for permission to raise the cap but never even heard back on the application. If the house can indeed accommodate one more person in light of there being several unused rooms at present without creating danger, why cannot the city allow it? Why would the bureaucrats not even respond to the request of a reputable operator?

A spokesman for the DC fire department, coming to the defense of bureaucrats in another agency, claimed, so Fisher reports, that this action is necessary for the man’s protection since, according to the fire department’s spokesman, the man “had mobility issues -- he’s in a wheelchair -- and he’s on the top floor.” Problem with this statement of presumed “fact,” apparently, is that (a) he is not confined to a wheelchair and has no mobility issues nor (b) does he live on the top floor; on the contrary, his little apartment is on the first floor yet the bureaucrats don’t want to know this.

It is, of course, not unreasonable for us taxpayers to want the city’s regulatory agencies to be vigilant in watching out for the health, safety and welfare of our less capable citizens. Further, we do recognize that there are sloppy or even unscrupulous operators of facilities of this kind. But where the bureaucracy goes astray is that it seems incapable of recognizing distinctions between the responsible operators and the irresponsible. When dealing with a known operator of stellar reputation, the bureaucrats must exercise discretion so that innocent third parties -- usually the most vulnerable and not able to take on the bureaucrats alone -- should not be made to suffer even more than they have.

And especially in this case where the operator, L’Arche, which Fisher tells us is a “worldwide charity that operates what many in the mental disabilities field consider some of the planet's best and most humane group homes.”

Ahh -- pardon our cynicism -- maybe that’s the rub: humane. Our DC bureaucracy has for too many years now operated within a culture that has discarded the concept of humane. It has taken on the “bean counter” mentality of our outgoing mayor who has seemed to us to be more of a bricks and mortar man -- which, of course the mega out-of-state developers and others lusting after private land to be grabbed through eminent domain which our city council refuses to remedy simply love. But we digress.

All we can hope for now is that the incoming regime will restore balance to the way city agencies respond to individual needs on a case-by-case basis and scrap what seems to have become an all-pervasive philosophy of one regulatory size fits all and that’s that, go away.

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