[from June 2000 issue]


Is it money? Is it our reputation as a bizarre political black hole? Is it ineptitude at the top? It's probably a little bit of all the above.

But, even so, we wonder why the mayor has a propensity to seek out and, with great fanfare, bring on board to run critical agencies persons who by virtue of their modest professional backgrounds are from the outset almost doomed to fail in the Big City.

We're sure the new fire chief-designate is a decent guy, although his advance notices do include something of a fiscal taint that his hometown grand jury has been looking into. But, what's even more disturbing is that his prior experience really hasn't prepared him to lead and manage a complex, major city fire department, let alone the one that serves the nation's capital and is supposed to be able to save the White House and Capitol and myriad national treasures from destruction.

He comes from being chief for the past two-plus years of the Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia fire department. There he supervised 320 employees and had a $14 million budget and no responsibility for ambulance and EMS services since those were contracted-out. Here in DC he will be called upon to supervise 2,000 employees, manage a $111 million budget and run a seriously dysfunctional ambulance and EMS service.

We believe the man will be in way over his head. Why didn't the mayor seek out someone with real-time, major metropolitan/urban area experience for this job? We think the city council will do everyone--the chief-designate, the residents, tourists, visiting dignitaries, our national leaders--a great service if they buck the mayor on this appointment and not confirm.

That's what the council should have done with the mayor's pick last year to head the public works department. She's in over her head, too. When we learned at the time her appointment was announced that her background was small-time stuff, like having served as public works director of Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago superb, we were amazed that such a person was being brought in to take over such a major enterprise as our own DPW.

And, her performance thus far has borne out our initial skepticism. She, too, has been over her head. Even the simple things can't seem to get done properly. One example:

We have previously commented about the failure to resurface some alleys for which requests had been made over a decade ago while nearby alleys in far better shape were getting resurfaced. Over a year ago, Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the public works committee, had been assured by DPW that some of the $140 million give-back from the federal government's cancelled Barney Circle Freeway project was being allocated for alley paving and rebuilding, especially in the downtown neighborhoods known as Old City I and Old City II. In fact, she had been assured that the project would be completed last fiscal year. It was not even started so far as we have been able to determine.

But then, about two months ago--miracle of miracles--one Tuesday morning all sorts of crews and supervisors showed up in one of the worst alleys, in fact the one that had been promised over 10 years ago was to be "put on the list." What ensued that Tuesday morning was very impressive indeed:

First came several teams of men with shovels and edging tools who carefully scraped back soil and weeds and other stuff that in time had slopped into the right of way. Then they scooped up all of that plus other debris and dumped said detritus into a waiting truck. They were followed by other teams with hand brooms. who carefully swept the small stuff.

But there was more surface prepping to come. As one supervisor explained, it was critical to get the surface as clean and free of debris as possible because this was to be a total paving job--the actual paving, the supervisor assured us, to be carried out before the end of the week while the alley surface was still in proper condition as a result of the work being done that morning.

Shortly after that exchange, down the alley came a mechanical sweeper, followed again by men with brooms--and then, yet again, the mechanical sweeper came back through for a second time. The surface was so clean we could have had a picnic right there and then!

In addition to the actual cleaning work, another crew had come through with jackhammers to prepare the spaces immediately abutting the manhole covers and utility access caps in the pavement, work that was preliminary to the final re-surfacing work that was to be done within about 48 hours.

Guess what?-oh, you've probably guessed--the project was never completed and the good work and obvious expense of the preliminary project stage was squandered. It will have to be repeated once more, assuming the residents don't have to wait forever--which they probably will. A day later we encountered a man who had grown up in that block 50 years ago. He said the alley needed work then and to his knowledge had not been touched since well before World war II.

So much for improving municipal services. If the simple stuff can't get done, well . . . .