[from July 2007 issue]


As this newspaper enters upon its final year of its third decade of continuous publication and this editor thinks back over the past 24 years he has been commenting in this space on the strange world of city government, it seems that now is a good time to share some thoughts.

It is, also, not inappropriate to take a look at some trends we are beginning to discern as a reflection of our new mayor’s style and his growing influence over the entrenched bureaucracy now that his first six months at the helm have transpired.

There seem to be plusses and minuses.

On the plus side is the Mayor’s vigor and obvious enthusiasm for the job and his keen desire to truly make a difference. That is a good thing. Also on the plus side are his apparent efforts to find dynamic underlings to carry out his programs.

On the minus side, however, are some unhappy missteps which we hope will not be seen down the road as having been bellwether signs of real problems. At this point we withhold judgment; nevertheless, we feel compelled to mention some of our misgivings and if taken to heart by the Mayor it will not be too late to make adjustments.

If we are to state the one thing we find most troubling it is that which we fear could seriously undermine the Mayor’s ultimate legacy. We refer to the disturbing tendency to keep things secret and then to spring decisions on everyone outside of a tight inner circle. Already we see how his handling of the new schools chancellor nomination created such bad feelings both among several members of the City Council as well as parents and others across the city simply because he ignored the very statutory provision that he was responsible for drafting, the requirement for submitting names and résumés in advance to a citizen panel for review and comment. His general counsel brushed aside the criticism with the lame excuse that things were moving to fast with the appointment that nobody knew about except the tight group of insiders.

Possibly, in the long run, this won’t matter one bit, but it speaks of executive arrogance and that kind of behavior is guaranteed to turn relationships sour very quickly. Just consider how much of the confirmation hearing was taken up with serious bitching about the failure to follow the agreed upon process and also the fact that the members of the Council were not even provided with a copy of the nominee’s contract in time for their hearing. Several members, the Chairman included, wondered what ever came of the Mayor’s pledge that overseeing the reform of the school system would be a “partnership” between him and the Council.

Well, wonder no more: It was just a blast of hot air.

Then there was that bizarre display of arrogance by some mid-level functionary in the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education who refused to allow citizen gadfly and co-director of DC Watch, Dorothy Brizill, to even know her name when Brizill had gone to that office seeking to obtain the office phone number of a government policy person and was denied the information. The bureaucrat was so outraged that a citizen thought it was her right to know the name of a city employee who was refusing to provide a government agency phone number that she initiated a series of moves culminating in Brizill being arrested and taken to the pokey for some phony, alleged misdeed –- apparently, now demanding the name of a bureaucrat in the Wilson Building is a crime.

Fortunately, cooler heads in the U.S. Attorney’s Office prevailed and the prosecution was “no-papered,” meaning it was dropped. However, the whole incident was truly a travesty. Clearly, given the time lag between the alleged incident and the arrest, consultations within the Mayor’s office were had and the decision was made to proceed. The functionary who started all this was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, “She asked my name, and I said I didn’t have to tell her that.” Can it really be true that DC employees are allowed to hide behind a veil of anonymity whenever they choose? We can understand that there can be many instances when employees are not authorized to respond directly about policy matters to individuals but must refer them on to someone else. But not to reveal their name? That is beyond the pale and there can be no justification to call for the arrest of an individual who simply seeks the name of the person who says “no” to a request for something else.

What we see here is arrogance and it was arrogance emboldened by a developing culture that is seeping down into the next level of offialdom thanks to a developing mayoral style of running the show solo and not believing that it is important to involve other stakeholders in the outcome of his decisions. And now his minions may be taking their cues from him. And that will not be a good thing.

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