Despite Corruption Concerns, D.C. Improves Services

Amid several ethics scandals, the city government has dramatically improved its delivery of services -- even as demand has increased.
by | March 2011
 

I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. It’s my hometown.

It’s also the hometown of the federal government, a relationship that dates back all the way to 1791, when the city was founded by Congress as a federal district. Almost a century later, Georgetown, a small port on the Potomac River, was incorporated under a single municipal government and the District of Columbia was born.

Today, it is the D.C. government that federal officials in the executive branch and Congress interact with more than any other locality, or more than any state. And the relationship between the two governments isn’t always amicable.

For starters, voting is a major point of contention. Please understand that eligible voters among the 617,000 District residents do not have the right to vote for a congressional representative. We pay federal taxes like everyone else, but we can only vote for a nonvoting delegate who sits in on House committees, but has no real say. We couldn’t even vote for president until 1961. Beyond that, Congress has an almost imperial control of our budget and all other laws our Council enacts.

But sometimes you can’t blame Congress for its heavy-handedness. These federal officials in the bureaucracy and Congress form their impression of the District based on what they see right in front of them every day. That’s not so good when you consider D.C.’s recent and not-so-recent history.

Marion Barry, who may be one of the craftiest politicians I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the most deeply corrupt, served four terms as mayor. We finally escaped his grip in 1995 when Congress created a financial control board to oversee all municipal spending and rehabilitate a city government that was in a fiscal and political death spiral. Three years later, Anthony Williams, the former finance officer for the control board, was elected mayor, served two terms and transformed D.C.’s government. He was so successful that the oversight board went out of business in the middle of his first term. In 2006, Adrian Fenty, a young, energetic, impatient and abrasive reformer with the political skills of a drill sergeant, succeeded Williams.

Unfortunately, as the Tea Party Congress convened last year, they didn’t see the new, transformed D.C. Instead, they saw a series of bad news stories in the local press.

Fenty had lost his re-election bid to Vincent Gray, the Council chairman who almost immediately was accused of paying off a competitor no one had ever heard of named Sulaimon Brown to stay in the race if he would continue attacking Fenty. Gray allegedly even offered Brown a government job, which he eventually took, but was fired within weeks for incompetence. The whole matter is under federal investigation.

Then newly elected Council Chairman Kwame Brown ordered up not one, but two “fully loaded,” $2,000-a-month Lincoln Navigator SUVs for his personal use, defying not only the city’s supposedly stringent cap on spending, but also its devout green policy.

In December, a District councilman admitted in federal court that he had defrauded the city -- specifically programs for disadvantaged youths -- of $353,000 in public funds to pay for a fancy car, a trip to Pebble Beach and even a dinner at Hooters.

Another member, the son of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in the Clinton administration, is being investigated for pushing online gambling legislation while working at a law firm that represents clients who would profit from the gaming. (Please see editor's note below.)

Then, there is the part-time City Council itself, which has 13 members and is the second-highest paid in the country at $125,000 annually per council member, except for its chairman, who makes $190,000. Some of its members even maintain lucrative jobs in the private sector.

I could go on. Marion Barry isn’t the mayor, but he’s still on the Council and still in trouble: He seems to have a perennial problem paying his federal taxes.

It’s as if a new mentality has seeped in that permits what in many cities and counties would be deemed wildly inappropriate. Each Council member has been allowed to raise $80,000 a year in private constituent services funds, mainly from special interests. They can legally spend the dollars on almost anything they want. It’s a mentality that may have spread through the ranks. Nearly 90 employees recently were suspended and face potential firing and prosecution for illegally receiving unemployment benefits while holding city jobs.

Unquestionably, our city government has been keeping FBI and IRS agents very busy, not to mention Justice Department attorneys. Even the new Congress has had their hands full making sure we don’t enact any gun control laws or do anything else they wouldn’t do back home.

In spite of all of this, a new analysis of city performance scrutinized by The Washington Post and Georgetown University shows that in the wake of the Williams-Fenty reform movement, the city government has dramatically improved its delivery of services, even as demand has increased. It shows the murder rate is falling like a rock. And the newest Census data shows D.C. is the fastest growing city in the country, and not because of jobs in the federal workforce, which are actually declining.

Best yet, the Council has passed an ethics law, which, while watered down, at least cuts those allowable constituent services slush funds in half. You take progress where you can find it.

Editor’s Note: Since this article was written and edited, the D.C. Office of the Inspector General has finished its investigation and released a report that found no evidence that Councilmember Michael Brown had lobbied or received anything on behalf of any gaming entity while sponsoring gaming legislation. The report also stated that the “better course of action” would have been for the councilmember to alert the Council that his law firm had a gaming practice, or to seek an interpretive opinion about his activities.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus
pharkness@governing.com

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