Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gray Announces 3 Agencies to Fix, No More Earmarks

Tonight, DC mayoral candidate Vince Gray announced three top priorities for fixing the District's government agencies.  The first target -- the Department of Employment Services -- "he's not sure what they do" beyond the summer jobs program.  Next up, the position of the Deputy Mayor for Education.  Gray says its time for a "more aggressive, more assertive" person in that role, one that coordinates policy between UDC, DCPS, charter schools, and other programs.  Last, but not least, Gray stated that he would develop a cohesive economic development strategy that would focus on growth areas such as healthcare, educational services, and green jobs, and make the District a national leader for financial services companies.

Gray avoided providing any hint on who in the current Administration he might keep on if elected mayor.  Given his current position as Chairman include oversight over DC government agencies, I asked Gray to name two agency directors or other appointees that he thought were doing a great job and two others that he thought were not quite up to par.  Good try, but he's not answering, Gray responded.

Here are additional highlights of the joint forum sponsored by the Convention Center Community Association and Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association.

Gray on Earmarks
  • Gray's elimination of earmarks was not solely due to budgetary necessity, but also a matter of policy.
  • The DC Council has not followed its own earmark policy, which is supposed to limit them to $250,000 in operating funds per organization per year, up to $1 million for capital projects, and not permit repeat earmarks to an organization.
  • He would have competitive grant programs available in several categories, rather than earmarks.  Grants could be available for multi-year programs because some issues cannot be addressed in a single year.  There would be oversight and accountability.
  • Any organization that gets money from the city should have its performance evaluated by a city agency and, if it is not meeting established goals, have a remediation plan.
  • Note: Ron Moten of Peacoholics, who participated, expressed frustration that Ward 5 groups friendly with Councilmember Harry Thomas have received DC funds despite elimination of earmarks, declared that he is against earmarks and for competitive grants.  More on that in a follow up post.
  • My view:  Good plan, if it is implemented.
Gray on Education
  • In his opening remarks, Gray emphasized the need for parity between public schools and charter schools.  As mayor, he would make unused or underused public facilities available for charter school and nonprofit use.
  • He emphasized his support for universal pre-school.  DC will be the first city in the country to guarantee seats for all 3 and 4 year olds in September 2012.
  • Gray also pushed his role in creating UDC's community college, which has acquired 3 campuses.
  • He will advance a holistic approach -- 0 through 24 education.
  • DC has the worst special ed system in the nation.  DC spent $166 million last year on special education, including $90 million to transport students to facilities outside of DC.
  • My view: I appreciate Gray's focus on the entire system.  I'd like the Mayor to respond to why it appears he has a poor relationship with UDC which seems to be moving forward despite him.
Gray on Vacant Properties
  • As Mayor, Gray pledged to increase enforcement of the city's higher tax on vacant property by hiring more DCRA staff.  These jobs pay for themselves, he said.  He did not get into details about the vacant property law, but noted that the Council had finally defined "vacant" v. "blighted."
  • My view: Great, but is this an empty campaign promise targeted to address an area of concern for Shaw residents?  What was Gray's position on taking away and re-instituting the vacant property tax, and on what it should cover or not cover?
Gray on Juvenile Justice and Crime
 "We have bikes.  We have segways.  We have walking.... that's been around for decades."
  • The purpose of juvenile justice is rehabilitation.
  • New Beginnings, the JV detention center, is overcrowded and needs additional beds.
  • Did not respond to the concern expressed by judges that they lack authority to sentence juveniles, which the city can let out at will.
  • Acknowledged that some violent offenders are let out too soon.
  • The city needs to invest more in the community placement system if this is to be an alternative to incarceration.
  • Does not support the proposed "civil injunctions" as a means to curb gang violence because they will result in racial profiling and pull in people who are not criminals.
  • Would push for more community policing. According to Gray (citing an MPD report), only 300 of 4,000 officers are involved in community policing.
  • My view: I heard him provide a stronger view on JV justice's failure at the Ward 3 Democrats forum.  It's broken.  Community policing is a nice buzz word, but it's not quite tangible.
Gray on Lack of Growth on 9th St. and Unwanted Development
  • Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Bernardo (ANC 2F) expressed the communities frustration with the slow pace of economic development on Ninth Street NW.  A Shaw resident noted her concern that the owner of a property in Shaw had opted to develop a group house rather than the initially planned condominium due to zoning restrictions.  
  • Gray proposed more "small area neighborhood plans," such as that developed for Chinatown, as the answer.  Since the summer of 2008, Gray noted that the Office of Planning, which falls under his oversight, had developed 15 small area plans that reflect what the community would like to see in their neighborhood.
  • My view: I'm not sure how realistic developing such plans would be and, as I expressed in a later question on the Bundy School, plans aren't worth a dime if they are not followed or ignored.
Gray on Bike Lanes and Smart Growth
"I thought they were high when they did [the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes].  They are really ludicrous."
  • Gray doesn't bike, but he supports bike riding and encourages it as energy efficient.
  • Reserved bike lanes in some areas of the city (i.e. 9th Street NW) back of traffic.  In other areas, the lack of bike lanes have the same result.  The lanes do not seem well planned.  "I'm not sure we have figured out how to do it yet," said Gray. 
  • Pennsylvania Avenue lanes are particularly dangerous.
  • Supports transit-oriented development around metro stations.
  • My view: I didn't get the impression that installing more bike lanes would be high on Gray's priority list.
Gray on Church Parking
"I'm not suggesting blame on either side."
  • Gray acknowledged that the city should enforce the law when drivers block crosswalks, hydrants, or other cars on Sundays.
  • He'll work with the community and churches to solve the problem.
  • My view: Ironic that Gray makes a stink about how Maryland and Virginia residents don't have to pay DC taxes, but then suggests out-of-state residents who ignore DC law have equally valid concerns with DC residents who have legitimate safety and quality-of-life issues.
Gray on the Bag Tax
  • Took issue with the Mayor's reallocating the money from cleaning up the Anacostia, as designated, to regular street cleaning purposes on the purported rationale that refuse blows into the river.
  • The Council has redirected the money collected from the tax back to river cleanup.
  • My view: Good.
Gray on the Bundy School
"Get a new Mayor, one that is more collaborative."
  • Given his support for community planning as well as his support for offering vacant DC properties to nonprofits, I asked Gray how he would have addressed the Bundy School as Mayor. (The Bundy School, located on the 400 Block of O Street NW) is slated for residential and recreational use in the District's Comprehensive Plan, but was given to Safe Shores, a child welfare agency/nonprofit partnership).
  • Gray responded that the city should stick with the plan and there should be no surprises.
  • My view: Gray wasn't aware of the situation. I agree that the city should have stuck to the Comprehensive Plan, and engaged the community at an early stage if it was going to go in another direction.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Silvermans Hit Twice

It's not everyday that I see other Silverman's taking center stage in our local media, which is why it was fun to see two on opposite sides of a page of today's Examiner.

David Silverman, founder of the National Pinball Museum, is the subject of the 3-Minute Interview. David's museum will open with about 900 pinball machines in the Shops at Georgetown Park in September. It's website tagline: "Cowboys, Cardsharks, and Cabaret Girls All Under One Roof." While it won't be an arcade, there will be a room of playable games. David is using his own private collection and paying for the museum himself, while also seeking grants and donations from his long-lost college roommates. As he says, "If all of David Silverman's friends donated FIVE BUCKS, he'd have enough to get this museum up and running." That's a love for pinball. 

The other side of the page features a blurb on comedian Sarah Silverman, who has chimed in with an uncharacteristically serious letter to Congressman George Miller (D-Cal.) in support of the Healthy Schools Meals Act.

In related news, I noticed on Prince of Petworth (he's also a Silverman), that Patrick Mara, the Republican candidate who beat Carol Schwartz in the primary for At-Large Councilmember but ultimately lost to Michael Brown, is now running for the Ward 1 Seat on the School Board.  He announced his candidacy on June 11.  School board?  Yes, although DC has transferred most of the power over the educational system to the Chancellor's office, the District also has an elected "State Board of Education."  Established in 2007, it has limited responsibilities.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Elections Roundup

Join me for a Q & A session with DC Council Chairman and Mayoral Candidate Vince Gray this Tuesday, June 29. The forum will be held at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW.  I will be co-moderating with Convention Center Community Association President Martin Moulton. Later on the agenda is Peaceoholics Executive Director Maia Shanklin Roberts.  More details are available here.
Talk about a little pre-fall cleaning... The DC Board of Elections has released a list of 93,773 inactive registered voters who will be removed from the voter registration database [press release].  It's a large list - 1,737 pages.  These are folks who have not voted in any election in the past eight years and did not respond to repeated notices from the Board.  In other words, they live in Maryland or Virginia.

On Thursday, Councilmember Mary Cheh will hold a public roundtable on the Board's implementation of reforms mandated by the DC Council following the 2008 election debacle.  According to Cheh, "my Omnibus Election Reform Act has made significant changes to improve the administration of elections and to make voting more accessible. At the roundtable, I expect that the Board will be able to provide detailed information about their preparations to date and specific milestones that need to be reached before the election. I also anticipate discussions about the Board's new voting machines, its efforts to clean the voter rolls, its new pilot program for overseas and military voters, and its preparation for convenient voting methods." The public roundtable will be held in the Wilson Building, Room 500, at 10:30am.  Are they ready for 2010? Given that its website continues to prominently advertise "Election Year 2008" information only months before the September 2010 primary, I'm going to go with... not quite yet.

This week's Washington Blade contains a 5,098 word missive (the equivalent of 9 1/2 single spaced pages in MS Word) from activist Peter Rosenstein on why he won't support Adrian Fenty for a second term as Mayor.  Rosenstein, who credits himself with helping develop Mayor Fenty's 2006 platform highlights what he feels are major gaps between Campaign Fenty and Mayor Fenty.  Is Rosenstein over the top or is his take on point?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ZC Nominee: Stan Wall

Last night, a nominee to the Zoning Commission, Stan Wall, introduced himself to the Federation of Citizens Associations and took questions. 

The Zoning Commission is an independent, quasi-judicial body charged with preparing, adopting, and subsequently amending the Zoning Regulations and Zoning Map in a means not inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital area. It regulates the height, area, and use of buildings in the District of Columbia.  Three members of the ZC are residents of the District of Columbia appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Council. The fourth member of the ZC is the Architect of the Capitol (or his/her representative). The fifth ZC member is the Director of the National Park Service (or his/her representative).

Wall would replace Anthony Hood, the current chairman, whose term expired four months ago, and serve until 2014.  Hood is a civic activist, who, in addition to his job at the EPA, serves as President of the Woodridge Civic Association and the Woodridge Civic Fund, on the Board of Directors of the Bryant Park Homeowners Association, and as a Member of MPD's 5th District's Citizens Advisory Council.

Some DC residents have raised concern that, with Hood's replacement, the Zoning Commission's resident members will be composed of developers who have an inherent interest in higher, more concentrated development.

Profession: Consultant on projects in DC and surrounding jurisdictions.  Self employed.  The Wall Development Group's clients are primarily federal and local government entities.
Educational background: Engineering (BA Penn State) and project finance/business (MBA, UPenn).
Is he a zoning lawyer?  No.
Is he developer?  Yes, but he has not developed anything.
Is he a member of any fraternity in which the Mayor is also a member?  No.
Why was he nominated?  On the basis of his consulting work with the District and other jurisdictions.
Did he receive "marching orders" from the Administration? No.
Where does he live?  He lived in many areas of DC; currently, he is a Ward 6 resident on H Street NE - though his nomination resolution provides a West End address at 2501 K Street NW.
When is his confirmation hearing before the Council: Initially, it was scheduled for earlier this month.  The hearing was postponed until June 29 due to community concerns.
What role do you see for the Comprehensive Plan in your decisionmaking?  It would be the first document I would look to.
Is the Zoning Commission position paid?  No.  It receives a nominal ($25) stipend per meeting attended.
How will you have the time?  As a self-employed person, his schedule is flexible.
Demeanor: Extremely soft spoken.  Good thing they have mics on the Zoning Commission dais.
Resume: Available here.
Questions?   E-mail Stan Wall.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

14th & Geez, Part III

Today's Washington Business Journal takes up a big question on the minds of downtown workers,what the heck is the deal with the large vacant National Bank of Washington building and several properties at 14th and G Street NW. 
The prime real estate was bought up between 2001 and 2003 to house a 50,000 square foot Armenian Genocide Museum, and has sat empty ever since.  In addition to the Hahn Shoe store, the project swallows up the ruins of a large office building, and such former businesses as Shelton's Salon & Day Spa and the Olmstead Grill, Clement's Pastry Shop, the Dragon Exotic Massage Parlor, a nail salon and tattoo parlor, a brewing company, a newstand, an Italian restaurant, and a vacant lot.  Housing Complex chimes in, noting that the properties are "to stay empty for quite a while more."

I explored this situation about a year and a half ago in a two-part series.  [14th & Geez, Part I / Part II]. Unfortunately, it seems as if the situation has only further deteriorated.  The owners owe the city more than $350,000 in taxes and face a lawsuit from a major disgruntled donor.

If you're curious, you can see how much these properties are worth and how much the owners have paid in property taxes over the years through these links:
  • 0253 0053: 1342 G ST NW purchased for $1,340,000 on 12/16/2003.
  • 0253 0054: 1340 G ST NW purchased for $1,700,000 on 3/19/2001.
  • 0253 0055: 1338 G ST NW purchased for $1,350,000 on 12/16/2003.
  • 0253 0067: 615 14TH ST NW purchased for $4,121,600 on 12/30/2003.
  • 0253 0817: 1336 G ST NW purchased for $6,500,000 on 11/04/2003.
  • 0253 0818: G ST NW purchased for $6,500,000 on 11/04/2003.
For years, my law firm was located across the street.  One year ago, we moved to a brand new building a few blocks away... but nothing has changed at 14th and Geez.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A World Class Riot

At the Mayoral Forum in Ward 3 on June 11, Mayor Adrian Fenty called New Beginnings, the city's youth detention center a "world class facility."  Last night, WUSA-9 reported a "riot situation" in which the juveniles refused to enter their bedrooms and fought with staff.  A shift supervisor who responded had his nose broken.  MPD arrived to find the youths wandering through the facility at will while others were on the roof.  The good news.... apparently no one escaped this time.  According to the report:
Union officials say the facility meant to house 60 youngsters between the ages of 15-20 currently holds 70 and staffers are unable to safely supervise their charges, especially because of the more open nature of the structure's design. "It's been open season on staffers, they are being continually assaulted by the and this needs to come to a stop" concluded williams. "The juveniles need to be taught a lesson, they continually assault our officers , that's been the status quo"
In somewhat related news, the Washington Post includes a report today on the Peacoholics and the millions of dollars it has received during the Fenty Administration.  There's not much new in this article, but it does document that the group received at least $1.5 million in noncompetitively bid city contracts in 2008 and $5.1 million in taxpayer funds from a variety of sources in 2009 (including $4.4 million to build a group home in Congress Heights).  Those figures apparently do not include $3.6 million ($1.5 in 2009) in contracts from the Youth Investment Trust Corp., which is largely funded with city money distributed by a board appointed by the mayor, or $500,000 from the Justice Grants Administration, another quasi-city agency, awarded in October 2009 for the organization to help run prisoner reentry programs.  The article questions whether by taking a very active role in supporting Fenty and opposing Gray, Peacoholics may jeopardize its 501(c)(3) status.  I've discussed my concerns with Peacoholics before and had a chance to discuss them in person with co-founder Ron Moten one month ago.  Both Peacoholics and Chairman Gray are scheduled to appear at the next Convention Center Community Association meeting on June 29.  If past meetings with Peacoholics are prologue, expect fireworks.

Downtown Parking Lots

This morning, NPR reported on a proposed change to Baltimore's zoning code that will give a thumbs-up for downtown parks and a thumbs-down for surface parking lots (listen here).  "If we have to tear buildings down to plan for future development lets turn them into temporary green spaces at the very least," said Kirby Fowler, who heads the Downtown Business Partnership in our neighboring city.

We've been through this issue many times in the District.  In my own personal experience, there was the Old Convention Center lot, where the philosophy was that parking fees would offset the costs of demolishing the massive structure.  The parking lot use, in the center of downtown, was supposed to last 3-4 years.  Then the recession and credit crunch hit. It's now nearly a decade.

Last year, there was a heated debate over use of the lot behind the Bundy School on the 400 Block of O/P Sreets NW.  Although the parcel and lot were slated for residential and recreational use in the Districts's 2006 Comprehensive Plan, the city leased the building to Safe Shores, a nonprofit/quasi-governmental agency.  The District planned to use the land directly behind the old school building for about 100 dedicated parking spaces for employees, government agency officials, and clients.  Possibly because of the controversy, the northern portion of the lot, which is federal property, was ultimately not transfered to the District and remains vacant.

The most recent controversy occurred at 5th and I Streets NW, where the District transformed a grassy vacant lot into a paved surface parking lot after a development project on city land stalled.  Mount Vernon Triangle residents, in an area whose unofficial motto is "we're not just parking lots anymore," predictably and understandably exploded.  It''s a matter that got attention in Sunday's Post as a potential issue that could affect the area's new voters in the Mayoral race.  We are now in the process of introducing temporary urbanism to the site, developing plans for a summer outdoor film series and Sunday market on the lot.

What has the District learned from these experiences?  Are changes to the zoning code needed to address surface parking lots?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

This City Owes You!

On Friday, posters for Calvin Gurley, candidate for Chairman of the D.C. Council, appeared on lampposts throughout downtown. He is apparently attempting to present an alternative to frontrunner at-large Councilmember Kwame Brown and former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange. Merits of his platform aside, Gurley's slogan, "This City Owes YOU," struck me as quite odd. The city did owe me, but I finally received my tax refund about a month ago. It reminded me of when a resident, in his mid-thirties, emphatically demanded that Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) provide him with a big screen TV to watch at the Kennedy Recreation Center. "This city owes you" seems to be a message that responsible city leaders should not send.
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Friday, June 18, 2010

Gray Narrowly Wins in Ward 3

In a surprising upset, Council Chairman Vincent Gray received slightly more votes that Mayor Adrian Fenty in a "straw poll" following a mayoral debate co-sponsored by the Ward 3 Democrats and the Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia.  I served as a questioner/panelist for the forum, which was reported on this blog.

Gray received 174 votes to Fenty's 168.  15 voters selected either candidate Leo Alexander or "undecided."  The vote was open only to registered Democrats in Ward 3.  The close outcome does not permit an endorsement by the Ward 3 Democrats, which requires a 75% margin for the organization's official support. 

Media reports and political observers have suggested that Gray is strongest east of the river, as a former Ward 7 Councilmember, while Mayor Fenty is depending on a strong win in more affluent areas of the city, such as Wards 2 and 3.  The results of the Ward 3 straw poll suggest that Fenty will need to make changes in his approach in order to reconnect with voters and provide them with the confidence needed to reelect him to another 4-year term.

In other races, the Ward 3 Democrats endorsed Kwame Brown for Chairman (over Vincent Orange), Mary Cheh for Ward 3 (who is unopposed), and Mike Panetta for another term as "Shadow" Representative to the U.S. House of Representatives following overwhelming votes of support.

The Ward 3 Democrats did not make an endorsement in other races, including Delegate to U.S. House of Representatives or the At-Large City Council seat.  The results, however, showed significant frustration with long-time Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton who received only 19 votes (30%) to challenger Douglas Sloan's 41 votes (65%) - likely a result of the continued ability to move forward in achieving voting rights in Congress.  Ward 3 committee chairman Thomas M. Smith called the near endorsement of Sloan the surprise of the night.

"The Holdout": WP Article on "Ledos Pizza"

The Washington Post today tells the story of the lone surviving townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW between 4th and 5th Streets NW.

The owner, an architect who bought the building in 1980 for about $135,000, had refused offers of up to $2.75 million for the little property as developers made plans for condominiums a few years ago.  Ultimately, they worked around him, putting up new high rises on both sides and behind the building.  He then vowed to start a Ledo's Pizza until a dispute with Adams National Bank led to the end of the financing for the needed renovation.  The house, built in 1890 and dwarfed by its neighbors, is a reminder of the houses that once sat on Massachusetts Avenue in times past.  It now sits vacant.
Developer types throw around ideas for the spot. A cafe could work, perhaps, or a bar or restaurant.  Whatever opens, Cary Silverman of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association said, he has the perfect name: "The Holdout," an eternal reminder to anyone and everyone "to not make unreasonable demands."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vacant Properties for Sale

The District is auctioning off 18 vacant properties to the highest bidders on June 30 at the Washington Convention Center.  It's just the tip of the iceberg of the hundreds of DC-government owned vacant properties, but it does represent progress.  Those eligible to bid include (1) individuals who intend to purchase the property and reside in the property as their principal place of residence; (2) businesses that are active "certified business enterprises" registered with the District of Columbia Department of Small and Local Business Development; and (3) Not For Profit Corporation. An individual can't win more than one property and a CBE or nonprofit can get no more than two properties, according to the rules.

Five of the eighteen vacant properties are in Ward 2 and most are within 10 blocks of my home (from top to bottom): 922 French Street NW (Shaw / Logan Circle), 1713 New Jersey Avenue NW (Shaw / Bates Area), 1335 R Street NW (Logan Circle), 501 Rhode Island Avenue NW (Shaw / Bloomingdale), and 900 T Street NW (Shaw / Howard Univ.).  It will be interesting to see how much they sell for. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Church Parking: The New Old Campaign Issue

The Washington Informer reports that at a recent meeting of meeting of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of D.C. and Vicinity (emphasis on vicinity), "Reverend Gilbert began by asking about the city’s parking policies that have 'strangled the life out of churches,' he said. Aggressive parking enforcement, initiated under Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration, continues to result in high fines and cars being towed away in neighborhoods that are not friendly towards churches."  The article continues:
Gray agreed to improve access of worshippers to churches in the District and to open a dialogue between churches and the community. He promised to reestablish an Office of Religious Affairs and to hold an annual religious prayer breakfast.

Fenty said a compassionate police department has reduced the animosity between the churches and the police department that occurred four years ago.

“You talk about compassion,” Gilbert asked Fenty, “but it’s a reality that every Sunday there are tow trucks sitting outside of churches, not only to ticket them but to tow those cars away. These are $75 tickets on a Sunday. Do you call that compassion?”

There is still work to do, Fenty said, but at least the animosity between the churches and the community has dissipated. 
In the last Mayoral election, a turning point for me was when Linda Cropp stood with churches who felt that their congregants from Maryland and Virginia should have a license to park anywhere they please on Sundays rather than neighborhood residents who felt that they were prisoners in their own homes and had their safety placed at risk.  The situation has improved in recent years with establishment of special Sunday parking rules and more angle parking that increase the number of spaces, and ticketing for blatant violations.

I'm not sure why the churches are entitled to special compassion?  Residents don't get any compassion if they can't find a space to move their car near their home on a street cleaning day.  They don't get compassion when they choose to drive somewhere in the city rather than take metro, whether its work-related or personal, and park near a hydrant or in a crosswalk.  They pay a ticket.  And if a person were to go to high holiday or even Saturday services at the Sixth and I Synagogue and double park on H Street, I expect they'd get towed.  Immediately.

Mayor Fenty has this one right.  The rules should be applied fairly and consistently to all.  Where it's possible to change the rules to help the situation, absolutely, the city should do so.  But allowing lawlessness in our neighborhoods, providing certain groups with special privileges over others, or favoring nonresident interests over resident safety and quality of life concerns are nonstarters.

Welcome back, vacant property tax!

According to the Washington Business Journal, the vacant property tax is back.  That's good news for those who live in neighborhoods inundated properties that have sat vacant for many years and are often under assessed.

Last night, the budget adopted by the DC Council restored the vacant property tax at the rate - $5 per $100 of assessed value - that was in effect prior to 2008, when the DC Council, in an election year, doubled it to $10 and eliminated most exemptions.  That change, combined with increased enforcement by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), led to push back that ultimately led to the demise of the tax.  It was replaced with a "blighted" property tax that basically only applied to houses that were already subject to condemnation and applied only to about 2% of the vacant properties previously subject to the higher rate.

Questions remain as to whether the final adopted Budget Support Act also restored some of the most frequently abused exceptions (such as those that allowed owners to evade the tax by obtaining a permit for the most minor work or placing a "for sale" sign on the property) and whether the tax will apply to both vacant lots and "improved" properties (houses and stores).  Vacant lots had been removed from the "blighted" property tax, a strange distinction since vacant lots can be an even greater magnet for crime, dumping, loitering, and litter, as empty homes.  Also unknown at this time is when the vacant property tax will be back in effect.

[As a side note, I'm still waiting for the day that the D.C. government provides its citizens with a legislative monitoring system that allows us to accurately view the status of legislation, amendments, and the final version of passed laws in something approaching real time.  Nearly every state promptly makes such information available to the public.]

Monday, June 14, 2010

Concerned About Local News

Yesterday, the Intowner announced that effective with its July 2010 edition, it will no longer print and distribute hard copies of the newspaper.  Instead, its content will be exclusively available on its website.  (If you would like to receive the newspaper via e-mail, send an email request to

I don't know about you, but I typically pick up the Intowner when I am walking down 17th Street NW or come across a stack a neighborhood business or near a metro.  I tend to read it at the local coffee shop or while waiting for a table at a restaurant.  If I don't finish reading the paper there, then I pack it up and take it home with me.  While having the articles available online is helpful for purposes of archiving and sharing articles with others, I don't buy into the idea that web-only can replace the print edition.

Overall, I'm concerned about the state of our local news coverage.  For those who live in the Nation's capital, it is a longstanding concern that are newspapers are dominated by national issues, leaving local news, politics, and general public interest stories in the shadows.

The Washington Examiner provided some new life to local coverage, but tok a loss when Michael Neibauer moved to the Washington Business Journal (which has interesting local coverage but is generally subscription-only).

Mike DeBonis's move is the Washington Post's gain, but a loss to the Washington CityPaper, which has substantially reduced the size of its print edition features in favor of shorter blog pieces.  Loose Lips, which had provided a wide-ranging round up of local stories from a wide range of sources, is now a short cut-and-paste job of primarily major media sources.  Don't expect any substantial exposes on fake nonprofit organizations, forged signatures, or government corruption any time soon.

The Washington Times is rumored to be considering ditching its print edition for an web-only publication.  But few would care given its lack of local coverage.  The paper laid off 40% of its newsroom staff at the conclusion of 2009.

The Current Newspapers continue to provide a source of in-depth local coverage.  My criticism of The Current is its lack of availablity outside of its core distribution areas, Dupont, Georgetown, and some areas of Northwest.  The paper stubbornly refuses to provide a viable online edition to complement its hard copy.  One can only download massive pdf files of the paper, usually in two parts.  It's impossible to forward articles to others (or even cut and paste them) or to find archived articles on a topic online.  What a waste of a valuable resource.

Finally, while some local blogs that focus on local issues have flourished, it seems many more have fallen to the wayside.  Is that just my perception?  This may simply be the nature of the blogisphere... it takes an incredible amount of effort to regularly post unique content and build readership.

To conclude on a bit of good news, I'm glad to see that The Washington Blade is back, after briefly becoming the DC Agenda when its parent company died, and it has resisted the urge to move to a web-only publication.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Assessment of the Mayoral Forum

Well, tonight I had a front row seat as one of four questioners at a mayoral candidate's co-sponsored by the Federation of Citizens Association and the Ward 3 Democrats at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church.  Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chairman Vincent Gray, and lesser known candidates Leo Alexander, Sulaimon Brown, and Ernest Johnson participated.  [Washington Post]

General impressions: Fenty is certainly on the attack.  He brought up Gray's work in the Sharon Pratt-Kelly administration and alleged failures while head of the Health and Human Service agency every chance he could, which was greeted by boos from Gray's vocal supporters.  I was put off by the attacks, which seemed over done (as well as the booing).  Fenty refused to give any ground -- nothing done wrong, not much he would do differently.  He did say that he would "work harder" to have a positive relationship and shared governance with the city council (while also seeming to say that if he worked more closely with the Council, the Administration would get less done).  Gray had more of what I'd call the "right" answers.  That's always easier when you are not the incumbent.  As for the others, they were better prepared than I expected, but otherwise no surprises.  They bring up some valid issues and had a few good lines, so their participation was worthwhile.

Here are some, but not all, of the questions.  The responses are not direct quotes unless they appear in quotations, but I've attempted to paraphrase their answers.

Do you feel that the juvenile justice system is working, is in need or improvement, or broken?  And if broken, how would you fix it?

*Fenty - Under Sharon Pratt Kelly Administration the courts took over the system.  They failed to close Oak Hill.  His Administration has created a world class facility at New Beginnings.  Yes, there are issues, but they are getting results.
*Gray - It's not working.  Oak Hill had 180 beds.  New Beginnings has just 60.  Offenders are in the community in group homes where they can just walk away.  Many of the major crimes have been committed by wards of the city.  We must balance between rehabilitation and having a secure community.
*Alexander, Brown, and Johnson.  All spoke of broken families, the need for jobs and opportunity, perpetuation of poverty.  When these social problems are addressed, juvenile crime will be addressed.

The answer I was looking for: GRAY.  Fenty at least admitted that the system can be improved, but he does not seem to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.  New Beginnings - a "world class facility?"  I seem to remember it under a few feet of water soon after it was constructed.  And with 60 beds for the entire city?  As for the others, they put our safety at risk.  Yes, crime is a symptom of larger social issues.  But if our safety is based on a strategy of creating jobs in this economy, fixing the education system, and eliminating generational poverty, forget it.  Tell the person whose head got bashed in by an absconder that we need to create more opportunity, rather than lock the kid up.

Should there be an investigation of the Chancellor agreement with donors, which guarantees millions in private funds to the school system to fund the teacher contract, but reserves to donors the right to discontinue funding if there is a change in the current leadership?

*Gray - the Office of Campaign Finance will sort it out.  And "let's get it on" if you want to talk about my record, Fenty!
*Brown - It's not legitimate.  It's a crime or at least unethical.  No one has created more controversy in this city than Michelle Rhee.  I'll fire her on my first day.  The donors can keep their $60 million.
*Alexander - Not proper.  Why would someone negotiate a contract that provides money only in return for her own job security.
*Fenty - Used the time to attack Gray again on his Health and Human Service record.

Answer I would support: It's proper and not out of the ordinary.  Only in DC do we attack a school official for raising millions in private funds to support higher teacher salaries and a better education system.

Would you keep the Chancellor?

*Gray - Michelle Rhee has done some good things.  Some certainly could have been done in a better way.  I would sit down with her and we would reach a decision together.
*Johnson - It's inappropriate for a candidate to to about hiring and firing people.
*Brown - I'd fire her the first day.
*Alexander - I would not keep her.  She fired 266 teachers.  Gray didn't seek a court injunction to stop her, but only later held a hearing.  Then she smeared the teachers.
*Fenty (as Mayor, it was assumed he would keep her and he was not provided with an opportunity to answer by the moderator, Kathy Patterson, to which he responded, "are you kidding me?")

Answer I would support: I'd sit down with her, lay out the changes that I feel are necessary to her leadership style, priorities, and actions, express my own priorities, listen to her reaction, and then decide whether we will be able to work together.  We are speculating as to whether she is even interested in continuing into another term.  So, close to Gray, but not exactly.

Critics have charged that this Administration has given no bid contracts for millions of dollars to build park facilities to close friends of the Mayor who serve more as middlemen than experienced developers.  Mr. Mayor, how would you respond?  Did you do anything wrong?  Would you go about it differently in the future? [I directed this question only to the Mayor]

*Fenty (direct quote from the Washington Post): "Every contract that has been pointed out has gone through the entire procurement process that has been in place ... and each and every one of the contracts has been administered and the buildings have been built," he said. "After three investigations by the city council and other agencies, no one has put forth any wrongdoing or allegation just insinuations."
Answer I was hoping for: We did things in the way we did to move park construction forward quickly when it was stalled for years.  Those we hired are qualified, will get the job done, and will do it at a competitive and reasonable price to taxpayers.  I welcome monitoring of contracts by the auditor, inspector general, and council to ensure we are spending appropriately.  In the future, my Administration will go through open and competitive bidding for such contracts.  (Instead, Mayor Fenty gave a defensive answer that was more suitable for court than a public debate.)

Streetcar funding.  What happened?  Do you support them?

*Gray - I support streetcars, but there is no plan.  They were going to be here, then there, then somewhere else.  Now we have tracks to nowhere from Benning Road, no power source, and no permission to use Union Station.  I'm just asking for a plan before we commit more funding.
*Fenty- They are very important and exciting.  The plan originated under the Williams' Administration and there is a plan - it is on the internet.  Gray suddenly reversed years of work by removing it at 2am from the budget and only put it back in after numerous e-mails.  But then the city had to borrow $47 million to fund the program because the Council had committed the originally allocated funds to other programs.
*Johnson - Against.  The city has its priorities wrong. 
*Alexander - Against.  We are building for tourists, not the future of DC.
*Brown - For, if we have the money.

Answer I would support: Combination of Fenty and Gray.  I support streetcars.  Cutting them in the middle of the night after approving them was the wrong move on many levels, but the city also needs to get its act together.

How would you support transparent government?  Plus question directed at Fenty: Why is the President of the United States' schedule online, but not yours?

*Fenty- My schedule has always been online.  I follow the same practice as the Williams' Administration.  I have the same routine every day - dropping off kids, meetings, CAPSTAT, touring communities, neighborhood meetings, and seeing my family.  I don't put my vacation schedule online because it is my personal life.  Questions regarding foreign governments paying for my travel have been addressed.
*Gray - We put the budget discussions on television for all to see.  This has been one of the most opaque administrations I have ever seen.  This Administration receives the same number of FOIA requests as the past administration, but denials have increased from 139 four years ago to 664.  I support transparency legislation that is before the Council.
*Brown - I'd have an elected attorney general because the current AG is responsible for cover ups for the Mayor.
*Alexander - Fenty's friends get rich at our expense.  Gray finds $50 million for street cars in the middle of the night.  I would have a monthly town hall meeting in each ward.
*Johnson - The soda tax was eliminated but then it came back through applying the sales tax to soda sales.  All tough decisions should be made in public, but they now turn off the camera when making decisions.

Answer I would support: None of them.  Committed to open and competitive bidding for all major contracts, will either eliminate earmarks or post all documentation of their award and use on a public website, will reform the budget process.  Brown makes a good point about an elected AG providing another layer of independence and oversight.

It seems as if the District is currently rudderless on Congressional representation and Home Rule.  As Mayor, if you had to choose one priority, would you choose (1) a voting representative; (2) statehood; or (3) some form of limited retrocession in which DC residents vote for Maryland Congressmen and Senators.  And, aside from representation, can you provide 2 or 3 other actions you would take to further home rule?

*Fenty - If we really could choose, statehood.  We could then tax income at the source, which would generate $700 million per year.  It would make a huge difference.
*Gray - I will advocate hard to make DC the 51st state.  I support the right to vote like other states.  We should not give up the right to legislate for a vote - it's unpalatable.  If we would have accepted the bill with the gun amendment, we would have been challenged in the courts and could have ended up with no vote and the loss of our ability to regulate guns.
*Alexander - Statehood 100%, but I disagree with the strategy.  I would seek making DC a US territory first while we seek statehood.  Then we wouldn't pay taxes and we would have our own judges.  Then we would put statehood to a referendum.
*Brown - missed his answer.

What I was looking for: I believe a 1 in 437 vote isn't worth a dime and will actually hurt our ability to obtain full representation and greater home rule.  I was hoping for the candidates to say they would take a leadership role in seeking something, anything.  That it would be a priority.  I didn't get that impression from Mayor Fenty, who said "if given the choice, statehood."  The Mayor needs to lead.  Congress isn't going to offer us anything.  The city needs to say loud and clear what it wants.  Gray gets this one.  None of the candidates answered the second part of the question about home rule efforts -- i.e. seeking greater control of our courts, prosecutors, parks, legislative authority, budget, etc.

What are the most important issues that you'll address in Ward 3?

*Fenty - Education and development.
*Gray - Education - universal pre-K and on.
*Alexander - Illegal immigrants.
*Johnson - Ward 3 gets many benefits.  It's affluent.  The issues are in Wards 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8 - they are unemployment, a lack of economic opportunity, and affordable housing.
*Brown - Other Wards need more help, particularly with unemployment.

What I was looking for: I'm not a Ward 3 resident, but I was surprised that none of the candidates seemed able to articulate an issue that is particularly important to Ward 3.


*Fenty - I'm keeping Michelle Rhee (In response to an earlier question to which he was not permitted to answer).  #1 priority is the schools.  To give a non-answer (referring to Gray) is a void of leadership.  Yes, she is brash and aggressive, but scores are up and the drop out rate is down.
*Gray - I have passion, commitment, experience and a vision for this city.  Early childhood education.  Jobs.  Fiscal responsibility.  Bring up the reserve fund balance.  "One city" approach.
*Johnson - "We don't need the sharpest knife in the draw," we need vision and conviction.
*Brown - Balance budget, put people back to work, checks and balances to watch over your money.  We now have a disfunctional government.  "Vote for any color - Brown or Gray or any other color.  But please not Fenty."
*Alexander - Reduce generational poverty by 10% per year.  Reduce illiteracy.  Increase vocational education.  Make it second to none.  Shore up families of DC - then we won't have to worry about crime.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Raising the Bar: DC's Public Law School

At the mention of law school in the District of Columbia, those that typically come to mind are Georgetown, George Washington, American, Howard, and Catholic.  Those who consider a bit of a broader area will also think of George Mason and the University of Maryland, two high-ranked public law schools that provide an affordable alternative to residents of our neighboring states. 

Likely to be overlooked, and for good reason, is the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clark School of Law.

In a prior life, it was the Antioch School of Law, which closed in 1985, after the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools nationwide, revoked its accreditation because students had low academic credentials and many failed the bar exam. It reopened as the D.C. School of Law in 1988 and merged with UDC in 1996.  Then it began a fight to gain accreditation, which continued for nearly a decade as only 1 in 4 of its students passed the bar on the first try.  When I was in law school (at GW) between 1997 and 2000, UDC was on the brink.  It continued to have only provisional accreditation until 2005, when it began to emerge from legal limbo between life and death.

Today, the UDC law school is on more solid footing, but the school has not reached its full potential.  This year, US News and World Report ranked UDC's David Clarke School of Law tenth in America - out of 188 ABA accredited law schools - for clinical legal education.  But it remains the only ABA-approved law school in the United States without its own, stand-alone building.  The school is currently housed on a single floor of a building on UDC's Van Ness campus.  Its student body of 300 future lawyers exist in this small area with cramped classrooms, which boasts only a new coat of fresh yellow paint.

"Having such limited space inhibits enrollment, which in turn hampers our school's ability to recruit and develop a student body that reflects its mission statement of serving those traditionally underrepresented in law school enrollment," law student commented.  "The current concrete building in which our one-floor law school sits looks as if it were built in Soviet Russia.  Sometimes it feels that way as well."

There are rumors that UDC's administration is exploring a location for a stand-alone law school.  Will it end up in an old office building, quickly retrofitted for student use, as it chose for UDC's community college on North Capitol?  Or will UDC and the city select a more appropriate and inspiring location?

With all of the closed school buildings in the downtown area and across the city, why is UDC's law school operating on a single floor in Van Ness?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mayoral Candidates' Debate: June 10

I will be serving as one of four questioners/panelists at a June 10 mayoral candidates' debate.  This should be an interesting, informative, and lively event.  If there is a question you would like me to pose to all of the candidates or an individual candidate, please submit them in the comments.

Contact: Thomas M. Smith
(202) 364-7130

DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and DC Council Chairman Vince Gray, the leading candidates in the September 14 Democratic primary for Mayor, have confirmed they will participate in the Neighborhoods Mayoral Forum to be held June 10 in Tenleytown. In addition to focusing on city-wide issues, the Forum is intended to explore candidates’ views on a wide range of issues specifically affecting the city’s diverse neighborhoods. The Forum will be moderated by former Ward 3 DC Council member Kathy Patterson, a current resident of Ward 6.

The Forum will take place at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church Great Hall, 4201 Albemarle Street NW, just one block from the Red Line Tenleytown Metro Stop. The Forum will be held from 7:30 – 9:30 PM.

Other mayoral candidates participating in the Mayoral Forum are Leo Alexander, Sulaimon Brown, and Ernest Johnson.

The Neighborhoods Forum is being sponsored by the Ward Three Democratic Committee and the Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia.

In addition to the Forum, the Ward Three Democratic Committee also will sponsor a Mayoral Straw Poll on June 10 open to all registered Democrats residing in Ward 3. Any registered Democrat residing in Ward 3 is eligible to cast a “vote” in the straw poll. Voting will be by secret ballot. The straw poll will be held from 7 – 10 PM at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church.