The InTowner
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From the Publisher's Desk...

FENTY ADMINISTRATION GOVERNANCE TOO MUCH A “SEAT OF THE PANTS” OPERATION

 It’s been a year now since our new mayor took over. Those who enthusiastically supported him had great expectations; those who did not for the most part were wishing him well, giving him the benefit of the doubt and hoping for the best. At this desk, for example, while we had endorsed Marie Johns (and if she had not been a candidate we would have endorsed Linda Cropp), we had nothing negative to say about Adrian Fenty. We simply believed Marie Johns would have made a superb mayor. But that was then and this is now and we won’t dwell on the what-ifs.So when Adrian Fenty took over, we were on the lookout for positives. And, at first we were feeling very good; he seemed to be off to an excellent start with some fine appointments and what seemed then to be a sensibly articulated notion of how to govern so as to fulfill the voters’ expectations.

In those early months we thought it was refreshing that he was dashing about the city, getting down in the trenches with the “little people”; but after awhile we began to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t be spending a bit more time at his desk overseeing the big picture instead of popping up here and there to often find out, after the fact, that his off-the-cuff pronouncements about how he was going to solve some crime or what have you was at odds with the facts or even legal processes.

Our mayor doesn’t seem to have much patience with proceeding in an orderly fashion to solve problems — it’s kind of like “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes!” Well, that might work in the heat of war, but governing the city shouldn’t be war-like.

Yet, it’s beginning to feel like there is a war of sorts going on.

In this space in January we wondered, “Is it institutional venality, misguided priorities, incompetence, or just a culture of meanness pervading DC government from the top down?” Our comment had been brought about, as we stated, by “reports . . . describing the most astonishing and despicable things about how citizens are being treated by their own public servants.”

But it’s looking like there are more layers here than we were fully aware of at the time. Maybe contributing to the treatment of citizens that we described is a breakdown in morale among the rank and file workers throughout the bureaucracy. We wonder if they are not getting a message from the mayor and his inner circle that they are all expendable?

Something goes seriously wrong with how an agency handles a problem — the Benita Jacks case and the failure of the Child and Family Services Agency comes to mind — and the gut response is to fire anyone in sight. We don’t doubt, of course, that there are many line workers who are not capable workers and maybe should not be on the payroll. But, maybe there are also other factors at work which would lead to a different conclusion, such as that maybe it’s the managers who are to blame.

In the Benita Jacks case, as we all know, the mother was clearly dysfunctional and ended up killing her young children and then kept their bodies in the house for weeks until discovered. There was no apparent supervision or follow through visits from the agency people as there should have been. So the case workers are fired. But we also know that the agency’s managers pile on vastly more cases than any single worker can possibly handle; these are the kind of cases that require substantial amounts of caseworker time for each case, yet they have so many it is impossible to devote any meaningful attention to each case — and their performance is negatively judged if they spend “too much” time on any one case. So, the culture of the agency is to shove things through the hopper.

Whose fault is that? Not the workers; more likely the managers. On the other hand, the managers are constrained by their inadequate budgets. So, maybe it’s the fault of the mayor for not forcing the issue with the city council to insist on properly funding the agency (or maybe it’s the fault of the managers for not pushing hard on the mayor’s people or maybe it’s the fault of the council’s oversight committees for not honing in on these problems — or maybe the fault of all parties.)

Then you have the business with the way employees in the school system’s central administration are being booted. Yes, that has been a notoriously unresponsive operation over the years and reform is needed. But, to go in and shove people out like criminals with just 20-minutes notice is more than extreme. It’s barbaric. To fire employees willy-nilly without even being told the reasons is beyond the pale. How do we know if the fired workers were the incompetent or lazy ones or just in offices that the schools chancellor decided needed to be paired down?

Of course, since the council enacted legislation giving the chancellor power to fire “at will,” no administrative due process is required. But that doesn’t make thing right. The council is at fault for not including a provision that would ensure at least some degree of due process, if not to preserve some dignity for the affected workers and to avoid sending morale into the toilet, then to ensure that useful workers are not arbitrarily swept into the dustbin to the later regret of the very bureaucrats who might after-the-fact discover that they tossed out people with important skills. The approach being taken here is the classic “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” — a stupid way to attempt to bring about reform.

So, no wonder it seems like there’s a war going on and we innocent taxpayers are the ultimate casualties (along with, of course, any number of employees who may not have deserved summary execution by arrogant generals).