Monday, October 26, 2009

Off the Deep End?

I voted for Fenty. I donated to Fenty. I've supported Fenty. But lately, I find my self asking, has Fenty gone off the deep end?

First, there were the repeated situations when the Mayor refused to make agency officials available for oversight and legislative hearings. Ok, they're busy doing the people's work. Maybe the Council was being too demanding with their pesky questions.

But then there was the continued silence, stonewalling, and misinformation on the fire truck sent to the Dominican Republic through the DC-funded millionaire Peaceaholics, which has brought no peace to the "feuds" that continue at 5th and N, 7th and N, Lincoln Westmoreland, etc.

Next, there was the firing of Clark Ray for no apparent reason and his replacement with Ximena Hartsock. She went from school principal to running after school programs to leading DPR within a very short time. I was skeptical, but, from what I saw, she was stepping up into the new position. Given that prior to Clark Ray DPR went through about 6 heads in less than 5 years, and most of them incompetent, she was doing comparatively well. But understandably the Council had their doubts and ultimately decided she was not the best person for the job (though comments at the hearing by a certain infamous councilmember with respect to her race/gender tarnished our city). It was their prerogative not to approve her nomination. But, this week, Fenty thumbed his nose at the Council, changed her title from "acting" to "interim," and kept her in the job.

That's, as some in the Jewish faith might say, some real chutzpah. And our Attorney General actually defends the move as legal with some tortured legalese. Try Civics 101 -- the executive appoints with the advice and consent of the legislature. If the legislature says no, the end, try again. The only way for Fenty and Nickles to redeem themselves in this instance is to truly view this as an "interim" appointment and nominate someone else who is qualified for the position within the next two weeks.

Next, there's the contracts for building a dozen parks, at a cost ranging from $800,000 to $12 million, without council approval. What? That $800,000 park -- it's the slum park down the block from my house in Shaw. When the design was announced after years of hoping, waiting, fighting, hearing "there's no consensus," "it's not in this year's budget," I was elated when the design popped up - finally, a Mayor and DPR that gets stuff done! More surprising -- the groundbreaking would be held within a month of the announcement. But an unanswered question lingered - where was the money coming from? Did the Council approve the allocation? Was it already in the DPR budget? Apparently not. It was coming out of the DC Housing Authority budget to avoid procurement rules.

Attorney General Nickles, to his credit, found the contracts illegal -- as any contact over $1 million requires Council approval. Then, to his discredit, he warned the Council that they'd pay if they stopped the illegal contracts, awarded to acquaintances of the Mayor, from moving forward. (Actually, the Shaw park budget was low enough to not require Council approval, aside from the stalled hotel -- why are Shaw projects always cheap?) Oh, and now Nickles says the contracts already entered are fine after all ("retroactivity is not favored in the law" (article in today's Post)-- huh, I thought his original opinion was based on a 1996 corporate counsel opinion that addresses the same question?).

Then there is the ongoing battle of the nickels -- AG Nickels v. Auditor Nichols -- over her access to records of real estate deals related to the National Capital Revitalization Corp. and Anacostia Waterfront Corp. Nichols, the auditor, won her right to the docs, and the AG is taking it up on appeal.

Oh, and how can I leave out the hiring of 934 teachers earlier this year only to use a RIF to fire 200+ of them a month into the school year? A month into the school year? And then claim that the layoff was timed to minimize the disruption to students. Chancellor Rhee claims budget cuts necessitated the RIF. Either that's untrue or there's astoundingly poor management at DCPS.

Meanwhile, the city just finished building a new Walker Jones elementary school campus, which has less than 200 students for its 800 spots and plans to consolidate Montgomery Elementary School's 200 students into Walker Jones -- after just spending millions on a new wing, playground, parking lot, and other improvements, and as student testing scores go up. Good luck to the six-year-olds crossing New York and New Jersey Avenues, among the most dangerous intersections in the city.

Linking the schools and the parks, the Mayor, lest anyone forget his beneficent rule, etched his name across an elementary school soccer field in Columbia Heights.

DC residents are excited and optimistic to see dramatic change in the way our schools operate. We are all pleased that parks are finally getting needed renovations. I cannot wait for the new park to replace the broken concrete shooting gallery and graveyard on the 600 Block of N Street NW. I hope residents regain the confidence to trust their children to DC public schools.

But the Mayor needs to step back and recognize that his Administration must operate within the law. He must begin working with the Council, the legislative body of government which allocates funds and is responsible for oversight, and put out the fires that are engulfing the bridges. Attorney General Nickles should begin acting like the chief legal officer of the District of Columbia -- and not as the Mayor's name-calling bully who pretends any action by the Fenty Administration is above board and anyone who raises legitimate questions is a "stupid, angry woman."

It's past time that the DC Council step up and play hardball. Councilmembers know what is going on. You can bet Ward councilmembers attended the ground breaking ceremonies for each of those illegally funded parks and didn't ask questions. Chairman Gray and the Council claim that they did not reduce the school budget, but the Chancellor moved forward with layoffs. Now, with the Mayor refusing to acknowledge the Council's power to confirm nominees to lead DC agencies and the AG allowing millions in contracts that were not approved by the Council, will the Council sit idly by, hold another hearing that Administration officials can chose whether or not to attend, or do more than threaten a lawsuit?


mytwocents said...

It is troubling, but weirdly, I also believe he is doing a good job at what really matters: improving the city and making no small plans. For me, and it goes against my principles a bit, I still take the effective devil I know rather than the incompetent devil I don't know. I still believe that deep down, everything Fenty does is in a belief that it's improving the city. I've been particularly impressed with his choices of cabinet: guys like Vivek Kundra, Gabe Klein, Clark Ray/ Ximena Hartsock, George Hawkins, etc. And yes, Michelle Rhee. Those are some great and surprisingly professional appointees. I'd hate to see whoever the next mayor chooses for their cabinet. Probably old style bureaucrats who get nothing done. Count me among those who hopes Fenty wins reelection and wises up during the campaign. Appearances and integrity matter to voters. I firmly believe we'll end up with a bad mayor in 2010 because they'll run as the anti-Fenty candidate. And it'll be a return to Sharon Pratt Kelly, at best. My problem with guys like Kwame Brown and Vince Gray isn't that they're bad- it's that they don't really strive for greatness. They don't seem to care whether DC becomes a great city or not. They were happy with it when it was a backward, crime-filled, sleepy backwater and I can't see that mentality changing. Fenty is "get it done" and they seem to embody the morass that infects most bad governments. So, even if Fenty is a poor man's Richard Daley or Guliani, at the end of the day the city will be getting better during his reign.

Cary Silverman said...

Mytwocents, I generally agree with your comments on Fenty and his appointees. My concern, however, is that at some point, Fenty's approach will backfire and become counterproductive to achieving his goals. That point may have already arrived or it is soon coming. Wanted projects will stall due to lawsuits stemming from procurement issues (Exh. 1 is the convention center hotel, Exh. 2 will be these dozen park projects). The Council will refuse to pass legislation to implement Fenty's agenda where changes to law are needed (Exh. 3 is anti-gang provisions in the crime bill). The city will find itself spending more and more on litigation (exh. 4 is the teacher firings and don't forget Pershing Park). And, while Fenty aims to make DC a great city, the combination of illegal contracting and budget transfers, a perception of cronyism, and embarrassing defeats in court will convey to the outside world that the usual continues in D.C. Fenty's refreshing "get it done" philosophy can only work in the longer term if there is better communication with the Council and adherence to D.C. law.