The InTowner
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From the Publisher's Desk...

MAYORAL EFFORTS TO FREEZE OUT CITIZEN STAKEHOLDERS OUGHT ULTIMATELY TO BACKFIRE COME ELECTION TIME

On the same day we were getting ready to go to press and trying to decide what our topic for this space should be this month, we noticed that the Washington Post reporters who write the “District Notebook” feature which appears in the District Weekly section had picked up on an example of a truly bad way of conducting city business by the Office of the Mayor and its various satellites.

Specifically, what these reporters were exposing is what we here refer to as press release by stealth — that is, notices to the press about important matters that are to be publicly announced but not sent out until after business hours, or very late on a Friday or the day before a holiday. To that ruse we can also add the phenomenon of press releases informing of a public announcement event being sent out on the same day just hours before the event, thus ensuring a mad scramble at best but more likely not much in the way of attendance.

The writers cited some examples of bad news or controversial announcements which by having been slipped under the door after offices had closed for the weekend or holiday might go fairly unnoticed. The mayor’s spokesperson countered with some excuses about the need to get all sorts of different entities to sign off or the rush of business, etc. and also stated that, notwithstanding instances of short notice, reporters nevertheless always seem to be on top of things and either do show up or know to call and get what they need.

All of what the Mayor’s person says may or may not be true, but to us that is not the real issue that needs to be addressed. Those of us who work at keeping tabs on city government operations are not the ones as to which this press release by stealth is such an insidious development. It is how this tactic ensures that community leaders and individual citizen activists — and even just folk — who perform yeoman service in the call to keep close watch on the politicians and the bureaucracy (the press can’t do it all) are frozen out is what is so insidious. And that is what the Mayor and his minions are striving to achieve by this tactic.

An excellent case in point surfaced on the very morning that the “District Notebook” column appeared and on this very day we are writing our commentary. We refer to the nearly secret alert by email dispatched from the Office of the Mayor, with the subject line blank (!), at 7:52 a.m. for a 10:45 a.m. of a mayoral press conference in Tenleytown to announce the selection of the “public-private partnership” developer for the very controversial Janney School/Tenley Library site. That was only an advance notice of two hours and 53 minutes, assuming people were actually at their computer screens at that hour.

By putting out that announcement in such a stealthy manner it is clear to us that the intention was to ensure that concerned citizens would have been totally unaware that the public announcement event had been suddenly moved back one full day; everyone had been under the impression that it was to be midday the next day — Friday (bad enough, since right before the start of a summer weekend). Ironically, as it turned out, thanks to one savvy neighbor getting wind of the change and a very effective neighborhood alert system, over 50 residents did show up to the obvious displeasure of the Mayor; almost no press was there, probably because reporters would likely have zapped the incoming email that bore no subject matter line.

Not only have Ward 3 school and library activists been up in arms about how they see the city administration going about the process to build a new school and new library as part of a residential and commercial complex, but so have ordinary residents.

(Not unlike what’s going down in Tenleytown, a similar deal for the West End Branch Library so outraged Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom residents about how that process was unfolding that they ultimately prevailed and the deal imploded. Both the West End and Tenleytown library controversies were the subject of an extensive report in this newspaper last year. See, “West End Library Site Transfer to EastBanc Controversy Now Part of Larger Issue About District’s Embrace of Public-Private Deals,” InTowner, September 2007, page 1.)

Shortly after the mayoral “dog and pony show” in Tenleytown the chair of the area’s Advisory neighborhood Commission (ANC 3E), Amy McVey, joined by Commissioner Anne Sullivan, issued a blistering condemnation in a well-articulated document titled, “Community Outraged at Fenty’s Announcement of Public-Private Redevelopment Project at Tenleytown Site.” The full text is to be posted on the Commission’s website, www.anc3e.org, and we urge our readers to see it there. The concluding paragraph, especially, so mirrors our own views that we have taken the liberty of sharing it with our readership, as follows:

“The complaints voiced today in Tenleytown — about both the process and the substance of the Fenty Administration’s public land deals — echo concerns that have been expressed throughout the city, most notably in response to the subsequently overturned emergency legislation regarding public property in the West End last summer and the school closures. Groups like EmpowerDC are pushing for legislative reform and stepped up Council oversight to ensure that public land serves public needs rather than functions as a source of patronage to be bestowed on favored developers. The Fenty Administration’s lawless approach to the disposition of public land has got to stop. The city is making decisions about the use of public land that are neither rational nor democratic. By law, the Council needs to surplus public land before it is offered for private development and ANCs are to be accorded “great weight” in decisions regarding local public facilities needs.”