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DCRA “Customers” Say Bad Service Continues Even After Decades of Promised Relief; Officials Say No

Accompanying images can be viewed in the January 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.
–18th century German scientist Georg C. Lichtenberg

 Four former mayors — Marion Barry, Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray — all declared the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) as the most ineffective agency in the city and, moreover, the most vital to the city’s economic development.

DCRA employees regulate food and beverage outlets, issue professional and occupational licenses, approve construction and inspect new buildings.

Barry believed that the District’s regulatory functions were so mismanaged that he re-organized them into DCRA, but — ultimately — to no avail.

One business owner interviewed by The InTowner related this recent episode: “I arrived at DCRA at 8:30. There was a long line at 9:00 a.m. with no one being helped; there was [still] a long line at 10 a.m. with no one being helped. [With people] tired of waiting, the line was dissipating at 11 a.m. — with still no one being assisted.”

Another business owner declared,Yes, DCRA has improved from being very corrupt to corrupt. [Employees there] seem to have the attitude that ‘I have it and you want it. What are you going to do for me.’”

And another blames the issues on the employees: “They don’t seem to understand or comprehend the forms and paperwork. All of the declarations of the mayors and DCRA directors are not reaching [them].”

Yet another we interviewed said, “It took us four months to get our permits approved. There seem to be no timelines. It is like a roller coaster ride.” (He is correct; the average time in the U.S. is 51 days, not the 120 in DC.)

Finally, another business owner interviewed reported thatDCRA noted five problems with my application but they noted these five different times consuming five different mornings. There was no comprehensive approach.”

So, based on what we heard from  these independent neighborhood business owners, the question seems to be, what should the District’s elected representatives do with DCRA?

1983 might be a good place to start. Former Mayor Marion Barry declared that DC’s economic regulatory agencies were chaotic and ineffective. That assessment is what brought about Barry creating DCRA — a one-stop place to take care of business. Regrettably, the chaos and ineptitude continued.

DCRA was only one reason for Congress to appoint the DC Financial Control Board in 1995 to rescue the city from the brink of bankruptcy. The Board discovered that DCRA had created an unquantifiable amount of taxpayer ill will as a result of the department’s reputation for incompetence and indifference.

Control Board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer demanded that  DCRA provide “more courteous “services. Did Brimmer capture the real issue; what about services generally?

At that time, business owners were wandering about the 11-story 614 H Street, NW headquarters building looking for DCRA employees and any service. Then acting DCRA David Watts supported Brimmer by telling 150 DCRA employees that “bad service will not be tolerated.”

Did Watts capture the problem; what about service? What about corruption; what about the requests for “lunch” DCRA inspectors were known to ask of business persons? What about the half-dozen employees checking over a permit to build a fence; did it really require so many for a fence?

Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris’ August 27, 1997 story wrote of the dark mood among employees following control having been stripped from the mayor by the Congress with this quote from a 25-year city inspector: “There is an attitude of terror here. . . . Everybody in my office is afraid of losing their job.”

DCRA’s Interim Director Lloyd J. Jordan summed it up accurately in his July 29/1998 testimony to the DC Council Committee of the Whole:

“The success of DCRA affects the District more than any other department in the District of Columbia government. Delays and inefficiency at DCRA cause businesses and residents to conclude that the District is not the place to do business, live, work and raise families. In turn, this perception can contribute to the overall downturn in residential and commercial populations.”

Further, he stated that some people decide to disobey the regulations rather than be caught in the DCRA runaround. He wanted the department to develop strategic directions and performance measures for employees.

Unfortunately, only succeeded in leaving a legacy of moving DCRA to 941 North Capitol Street, NE in 1999 and authorizing the purchase of three Mercury Grand Marquis luxury sedans at DC taxpayers’ expense.

Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, an Outsider

In 1991, voters elected Kelly as the reform mayor, the one who would “clean house.” But, alas, her grassroots approach met resistance from the entrenched Barry loyalists. DCRA’s Aubrey Edwards resigned for unknown reasons, though it was speculated that she was frustrated with agency employees thwarting her on reforms. (Kelly badly lost her bid for re-election four years later.)

Has anything change some two decades later?

A No Nonsense Mayor, Anthony A. Williams

Williams sought to revolutionize DC government, including DCRA. His management seemed to be what the city’s then 30,000 employees needed (down from 40,000 in 1994.) In his administration, they set deadlines to be adhered to, such as reviewing plans for non-complex buildings within 30 days. DCRA’s director was proud of the department’s progress, although business people and others interacting with the employees did not discern much improvement. The “one-stop shopping” idea was a great one, but the delays continued.

The Get Things Done Mayor, Adrian M. Fenty

Along comes Mayor Fenty who declared that “everything is wrong” at DCRA and placed DCRA’s reform and rebuilding as one of his top priorities. On June 16, 2007, he celebrated a “grand opening” of the redesigned Permit Center where he declared, “I believe we are making significant strides to improving DCRA’s operations.” His pledge sounded familiar, though this time persons interacting with the department did say that now they could find employees and could actually leave messages for them.

Long-time City Official, Mayor Vincent C. Gray

Mayor Gray also declared DCRA needed drastic changes and established a task force which included former DCRA Director Nicholas Majett. “I believe that the District can be the most business-friendly city in the country, and I created this task force to make that vision a reality,” said Mayor Gray. “I can promise you that this report will not just sit on a shelf; we’ve already begun to implement its recommendations. This report will help us create jobs and grow and diversify the District economy.”

One of the report’s most significant recommendations was for the creation of a single-access Web portal, where businesses and individuals could access all government permitting, licensing and other services from one place — and do so remotely. Mayor Gray’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget would allocate $5 million for the development of the site, to be called the One City Business Portal.

Now it’s Mayor Muriel Bowser’s DCRA Opportunity

Most in and around city government believe that DCRA is “impervious to change.” In August, Bowser went deep into the DCRA weeds and spent a week trying to understand this $44 million, 350 employee agency. She wants to turn it around with a special emphasis on vacant and blighted properties. The backdrop for this is the FBI having negotiated two plea deals with a permit expediter and permit clerk who admitted to giving and receiving of bribes in exchange for construction permits.

It is challenging to get an accurate reading on DCRA. GlassDoor’s survey by DCRA employees rates it with a mediocre two stars out of five. recently, the City Administrator’s Office of Performance Management rated DCRA’s fully achieved measures at 33 percent, and with a report card rating of A-minus.

(Even though this initiative, as described in the City Administrator’s website as being “charged with monitoring agency performance and facilitating the effective and efficient implementation of the Mayor’s policies by providing leadership, support and oversight of District government agencies . . . [and] with the goal of improving . . . performance and . . .  transparency and accountability, there are those who have expressed doubts about the scoring given that the program is administered by the Mayor’s office and that most agencies are rated in the A to B range. Surely, the business people interviewed for this report would be surprised by DCRA’s A-minus rating.)

Some good news: In August of 2016, DC opened its $4 million Business Center, the promised one-stop portal through which the 56,000 active city-licensed businesses can accomplish much entirely online, including obtaining documents and making payments electronically.

Joaquin McPeek, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, has stated that “[w]e recognize the challenges some residents and businesses have historically experienced when interacting with DCRA. It’s why the Mayor spent a week at the agency with the leadership and staff identifying ways to make policies and processes more streamlined, efficient and consumer-friendly. We look forward to announcing new programs in 2017 aimed at improving DCRA and raising its level of customer service to all DC residents.”

McPeek has been on staff with Bowser since January, 2015. His role includes internal and external communications.

Continuing, according to McPeek, “[d]uring the past two years of the Bowser Administration, DCRA has done considerable work to improve service to business and residents. The agency launched our new business portal, which allows users to skip the trip to the agency and obtain business licenses online. In just FY-’15 alone, DCRA’s Small Business Resource Center conducted nearly 700 one-on-one counseling sessions with local entrepreneurs and offered more than 70 workshops or symposiums — all at no cost to participants.”

Further, McPeek tells of how in early 2016 DCRA began performing construction inspections on weekends to help deter scofflaws from doing illegal, after-hours work. Moreover, he says, DCRA is meeting its goal to perform first reviews of permit applications within its 30-day time window more than 90 percent of time, which is as good or better than many surrounding jurisdictions.

Referring to that week when the Mayor was at DCRA “getting into the weeds,” in responsie to The InTowner asking if any progress resulted from that week’s visit, McPeek stated:

“Yes. On the heels of the Mayor’s visit, DCRA launched the new business portal, which offers local entrepreneurs increased flexibility in obtaining licensure. Mayor Bowser then joined DCRA at our Entrée DC event, where the agency provided a free half-symposium aimed at assisting entrepreneurs in the food-service industry. DCRA will also be announcing a number of new service enhancements in the new year.”

And in response to the question of how the business portal initiative is working out, McPeek said, “We’re seeing tremendous progress. The new business portal is saving entrepreneurs trips to DC government offices. In October 2016, walk-in customers seeking a business license dropped 19 percent from October 2015.”

Further, McPeek asserted, “Administration understands the frustration from business owners and has taken steps to improve the way we do business. Long-term we are working to ensure we are more customer service driven and look forward to making continued progress in that direction. The agency continues to make progress toward offering improved service to residents and businesses.”

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman who, as a member of the Committee of the Whole which now has DCRA oversight jurisdiction, has stated her impressions as follows:

“DCRA is an agency that touches nearly every District resident at some point, in some way. When there’s an agency of that size and scope, addressing procedural problems and improving workplace culture can be challenging — and it doesn’t happen overnight.

“Ideally, DCRA would be the perfect balance between government efficiency and enforcement. District residents should expect a professional and consumer-friendly approach in all aspects of service, while knowing that violations of District law will be fully enforced. In working over the last two years with Director [Melinda M.] Bolling, I believe she echoes this perspective and is working toward making this a reality.”

[Editor’s Note: The World Bank publishes an annual survey that scores and ranks countries according to the ease of doing business. Is it a surprise to have learned that the U.S. ranks number eight after Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand.]

*Larry Ray, a resident of Columbia Heights, is Senior Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University School of Law. He has served as a former multi-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in both Dupont Circle and later in Columbia Heights and has also served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.