Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Attend Summer School, Get Paid?

Some District taxpayers are asking whether the District's controversial Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) is giving cash to underachieving students to go to summer school rather than paying them to work?  It appears that the answer is yes, and the message it seems to send is that if you don't do well in school, no worries, you'll still get a D.C. government job.  Just like the real world?  I hope not.

Last summer, 3,370 of 22,076 youth enrolled in SYEP (15% of the total enrollment) were assigned to the D.C. Public Schools, according to the Mayor's press release.   The 2010 press release lacks such detail.  But in testimony to the D.C. Council on June 16, 2010, Department of Employment Services (DOES) Director Joseph P. Walsh reported that 8,360 youths were assigned among DCPS, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and the Department of Energy (DOE) of this summer's 21,000 total enrollment. 

An additional 1,316 and 641 youth were assigned to charter schools in 2009 and 2010, respectively.  No information appears to be available as to the nature of these "employment" assignments.  Predictably, statements by the Mayor and other DC government officials tout the number of placements with private employers and at actual worksites.

Summer school is open to high school students who need three or fewer credits to graduate or to move to the next grade level.

Those whose summer work assignment is the DC Public Schools participate in the "Career Pathways" program. 

According to the DC Summer Fun website, "DCPS understands that students might need both to attend summer school and to work. Therefore the “Career Pathways” program was created to allow students to remain on track for promotion and graduation while they grow professionally during the summer by participating in SYEP."  Students can enroll both in summer school and SYEP, their attendance in regular and Career Pathways classes is separately recorded, and the students are paid for their attendance in the later.

In a letter to parents of high school students, Chancellor Michelle Rhee explained the program as the summer approached.  Rhee notes that Career Pathways is cosponsored by DOES and is part of the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program.  It allows students to take up to two courses to earn academic credit, without pay, while also taking at least one paid Career Pathways course for which they do not receive academic credit.  Career Pathways is career services guidance.  "We hope that this program will prevent students from having to make the difficult choice between attending summer school or taking a summer job," says Rhee.

Perhaps that's just the type of difficult choice DC's youth should have to make.  It might teach them that if one does not focus in school, he or she will have difficulty getting a job or may have to work extra hard (nights and/or weekends) to make a living.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Leadership & Strategy Needed for DC Voting Rights

In today's Washington Post, long-time Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, pledges to take a shotgun, no pun intended, approach to D.C. voting rights and Home Rule, by introducing nearly every approach under the sun.  Throw it all against the wall and see what sticks, if anything.  Such a strategy is doomed to go nowhere.

"If I am reelected, I will introduce a series of bills in the next Congress that include not only the pending House-only approach, but also bills for Statehood and for votes in both the Senate and House," Norton writes

What we need, and is lacking, is leadership and a sound, politically astute, strategy. 

First, District residents should reach a consensus that a single vote in the House isn't worth the effort, in fact, its counterproductive.  One vote in 436 or 437 (if an extra seat is extended to Utah) doesn't provide real representation.  That's why the founders provided a Senate.  They recognized that small states were not adequately protected in the House.  Obtaining such a marginal improvement will only result in expenditure of scarce political capital that is needed for obtaining true representation.

Second, representation in the Senate, whether it is through Statehood or some other means is not going to happen without a strategy.  A closely divided Congress will not vote to alter the balance of power by adding what will certainly be two new Democratic Senators from the District unless the proposal also includes some way of preserving the political status quo.

In a post last week, I noted one possibility that has not been closely considered -- pairing up the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which some mistake as Democrat-leaning but is actually heavily Republican, for Statehood.  There is a long history of such arrangements, which are the norm, not the exception.  Even the bill that would have provided the District with a single vote in the House was based on giving an additional Republican seat to Utah. 

The other option for full representation in Congress is some form of "limited retrocession," in which the District remains a separate entity but is represented by, and votes for, Maryland's Congressional representation.  This has roots in history as well, since the District was formerly part of Maryland and its residents voted in Maryland's elections.  It keeps the balance of political power by not adding two new Democratic U.S. Senators, but giving District residents the right to vote for seats already held by Democrats.  (This approach does have a downside -- the District would still not have the independence and Home Rule that residents have long sought.  It is will also, no doubt, be subject to a constitutional challenge, the outcome of which is unpredictable.)

Nevertheless, Norton and others seem to put philosophy, principles, and entitlement over strategy and political reality. 

For instance, DC political commentator Mark Plotkin asked House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, whether he sees the potential for Puerto Rico and the District to be jointly admitted as states.  Hoyer responded, "We shouldn't have to make a deal about how the District of Columbia comes in."  

Really?  Isn't that what politics is - the art of dealmaking?  Isn't that the history of how most states were admitted to the Union?  When the core issue of representation for the District is at issue -- why do our representatives put their head in the sand?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Home Again: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

In 2002, Mayor Anthony Williams introduced the "Home Again" initiative, a program designed to transform vacant and abandoned residential properties into single-family homeownership opportunities for residents.  About a year ago, it died, and no one even noticed.

The program "bundled" groups of vacant houses and lots.  It placed the bundles up for purchase by developers meeting certain qualifications.  Developers were required to set aside a certain number of the houses in the bundle for affordable home ownership opportunities, while it would set the remainder at market rate.  Keep in mind, these are not large city-owned properties like school or office buildings, but private homes that fell into government hands usually because of a calamity, such as a fire or collapse, or because it was abandoned.

While the program had some initial successes, I came to notice that many of these properties, sat and sat some more.  Given the emphasis placed to addressing privately owned vacant properties through the vacant property tax and increased enforcement, it seemed wrong that city-owned properties were left to rot.

A Mount Vernon Square house in the program (460 Ridge Street NW) collapsed in November 2007 and the lot was then neglected.  Nearby, another property in the program, a historic facade, remained in that state for years while nearly every other house on the block was renovated and sold (454 N Street NW).

Last summer, I decided to investigate.  I found that the District's Home Again website had not been updated since April 2004.  It remains in that state today.  I also tried to find out the status of the properties in the Home Again program the old fashioned way -- calling.  The phone number listed for the program immediately went a voice mail that appeared to be a wrong number.  There was no e-mail contact information listed on the website.

Finally, I found a number for Home Again on a 2006 press release that led to the Department of Housing and Community Development's "Property Aquisition Disposition Division."  On the third try, I reached someone. "There really isn’t a Home Again program," she said.  Responsibility for the program now is through the Aquisition Disposition Division, which is now auctioning off the properties.

That brings us today.  One year since my initial inquiry I toured Home Again properties.  Through DC Atlas, I found 113 properties identified by the city as in the program.  One in four are vacant homes ("vacant improvement") and the remainder are empty lots.  They are in every area of the city except Ward 3.  The most, 47, are concentrated in Ward 5.  I began by visiting properties in Wards 1 and 2.

I expected the worst.  Overall, however, the properties are secure and maintained.  That may not have been the case for many of them months ago, before "No Trespassing" signs suddenly appeared.

Two of the lots included a notice that they were among 18 to be auctioned off on June 30, 2010 at the Washington Convention Center - 501 Rhode Island Avenue in Shaw and the prime real estate Logan Circle property at 1335 R Street NW (The Victorian next door to the Logan Circle property sold for over $1.1 million in 2000).  According to Housing Complex, the 13th and R Street lot went for $590,000 after a bidding war.

According to a press release, this was the second such auction of government-owned vacant property by the Property Acquisition and Disposition Division [results of the 1st posted here]. Only bidders in specific categories were allowed to participate in the auction: home buyers who intend to occupy the property as their primary residence; non-profits; and DC Certified Business Entities. The Department of Housing and Community Development will hold a public hearing in August to announce the proposed disposition plans for the auctioned properties.  That may be progress.

Another two of the properties, both in Columbia Heights, had already been sold and developed into condominiums - 2809 Sherman Avenue and 3004 13th Street NW.  Also good.  The house on Sherman appears to have been purchased in March 2009 (sale price not listed) and then sold as two units for $395,000 and $459,750 last summer.  The 13th Street property was auctioned off for $380,000 in January 2009 and then sold as two units this past March, with each fetching over $550,000.  Wow.

There were some bad cases.  In Ledroit Park, a historic corner property at 475 Florida Avenue NW has a skylight that is not of its own making.  Curious that it sits in this condition, since it was apparently auctioned off by DC in the first batch of vacant properties for $300,000 in January 2009 - did the sale fall through? 

At 756 Park Road NW, a nice block that includes a police station also has a boarded up Home Again property - it's also on the list as sold in January 2009 (for $160,000).  Huh? 

It's only a matter of time before what is left of 454 N Street NW collapses like its neighbor at 460 Ridge Street NW.  At 1319 Harvard Street NW, neighbors appear to have taken charge by hiding an enclosed empty lot with a beautiful flower garden.  Good for them!

The ugly, however, is 709 Kenyon Street NW.  Posted prominently on the front of the house is a notice by the fire chief condemning the property as unsafe.  The rear of the house, along with the roof, has partially collapsed.  The alley alongside the property was filled with trash and empty beer cans and bottles.

Ward 1

475 Florida Avenue NW (Ledroit Park)

1319 Harvard Street NW (Columbia Heights)

756 Park Road NW (Columbia Heights)

709 Kenyon Street NW (Columbia Heights)

2809 Sherman Street NW (Columbia Heights)

3004 13th Street NW (Columbia Heights)

Ward 2

454 N Street NW (Mount Vernon Square)

460 Ridge Street NW (Mount Vernon Square)

501 Rhode Island Avenue NW (Shaw)

1818 6th Street NW (Shaw)

1735-1737 10th Street NW (Shaw)

1335 R Street NW (Logan Circle)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Challenges Galore, Board Paralyzed?

Ward 1 Democratic Chairman Bill O'Field has provided an analysis of the numerous challenges to nominating petitions filed by candidates seeking to be on the ballot for the September primary [Election Education Incorporated].  The deadline for filing such challenges expired yesterday.

According to Fields:
Valencia Mohammad filed challenges to the nominating petitions of mayoral candidates Carlos Allen and Sulaimon Brown and Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff filed a challenge to mayoral candidate Leo Alexander’s petition. Chairman of the Council candidate Calvin Gurley’s nominating petition was challenged by Alonzo Edmondson.

Four challenges were filed to the nominating petitions of the five candidates seeking the Ward 5 City Council seat currently held by Harry Thomas, Jr. Cynthia M. Gill filed a challenge to Kathy Henderson’s petition; D.C. lawyer Cary Clennon is challenging Delano Hunter’s petition; and candidate Henderson is challenging both Kenyan McDuffie and Tracey D. Turner. Ward 6 Council candidate Randy Brown’s petition is being challenged by Jim Abely.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has until August 3 to rule on the challenges.  That may be an interesting feat given this morning's news that the Chair of DCBOEE, Errol Arthur, submitted his letter of resignation, effective August 2.  The three-member board has been running with only two members since February 2009.  With one member, the Board will lack a quorum to take action.  The D.C. Council and Mayor Fenty have been at an impasse on appointees for the already vacant position with the Council finding Mayor Fenty's nominees unqualified.  Last year, he sought to fill a vacant seat with one of his running buddies

If appointments to the DCBOEE are not made quickly, then the Board (and the election) will not be able to operate.  With the Council on recess, Mayor Fenty has threatened to make an interim emergency appointment, even though D.C. law does not explicitly provide him with such power.  Even the Mayor's cheerleaders at the Washington Post say "don't do it, Adrian."

Some have questioned whether the Board in its current condition will be able to certify the results of the September primary.  A more pressing question is whether they can even certify which candidates will appear on the ballot? 

Puerto Rico: Key to DC Statehood?

There's a long history of new states being admitted in pairs in order to keep the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.  Yet, there seems to be little consideration of whether Puerto Rican statehood could be the key to the future status of the District of Columbia.

Early on our nation's history, states were admitted in pairs -- free states and slave states: Indiana and Mississippi (1816-17), Illinois and Alabama (1818-19), Maine and Missouri (resulting in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 specifying that Louisiana Purchase territory north of latitude 36° 30' would be organized as free states and territory south of that line would be reserved for organization as slave states), Michigan and Arkansas (1836-37), Iowa and Florida (1845-46), and Wisconsin and Texas (1848, 1845).  California followed by pledging to maintain the balance with one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery Senator (1850).

The U.S. has now gone the longest period of time since the last state was admitted - 51 years.  Those two states - Alaska and Hawaii - also represented a political compromise, which came in the charged context of the civil rights movement.  At that time, Hawaii was considered a Republican territory because it had mostly had Governors appointed by Republican presidents and Republican state legislatures.  On the other hand, many believed that Alaska would turn out to be Democratic (ironic in the Palin world).  Statehood for Hawaii, as the first state to have a majority nonwhite population, was expected to result in two pro-civil rights senators, endangering the ability of southern segregationist Democrats to maintain a filibuster.  The result was that both Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.  Even the District's most recent failed quest for voting representation inwas based on giving Utah an additional seat in the House prior to the 2010 census.

That brings us to an interesting column by George Will in Sunday's Washington Post.  Will notes that there may be a popular misconception that because Puerto Rico is majority nonwhite and its residents make substantially less income per capita than even the poorest state, its voters favor Democratic candidates.  Not so.  Puerto Rico has a "very Republican" governor, Luis Fortuno and an overwhelmingly Republican legislature.   According to Will, 78% of Puerto Ricans are pro-life, 91% oppose same-sex marriage and 30% of the 85% who are Christian are evangelicals. A majority supports an agenda of tax and spending cuts, trimming public payrolls, and reducing the state budget deficit.  The Republican party platform, since 1968, has endorsed Puerto Rico's right to choose statehood.

Let's face it.  A closely divided Congress is not going to recognize D.C. Statehood if it means two additional Democratic Senators that would shift the balance of power.  A DC-PR compromise could maintain the balance of power in the Senate and give Republicans an additional bone for providing rights to D.C. residents -- the possibility of a slight gain in the House of Representatives.  Puerto Rican statehood would come with six House seats compared with just one vote for the State of New Columbia.

Puerto Ricans are still deciding whether they want to become a state or continue to enjoy a status that D.C. residents lack -- where they have the benefits of citizenship, but don't pay federal taxes (they also don't get to vote for President and have only a nonvoting delegate in the House).  They rejected statehood in 1967 and 1993, and were almost evenly divided in 1998.  The momentum, however, appears to be increasingly moving toward statehood.

With the Utah-DC idea off the table, is a DC-PR compromise worth seriously examining?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Historic DC

The national capital, Washington, D.C. Sketched from nature by Adolph Sachse, 1883-1884.  
(Balti[more] A. Sachse & Co., 1884.)  Zoom in of Logan Circle.

A neighbor passed on this interesting link from the Library of Congress, which includes panoramic maps of our city from about 1850 to 1996. In lieu of aerial photos, these painstakingly detailed, hand-drawn maps are hugely important "snapshots" of DC. Used with city directories, they show the state of development in parts of our city overlooked by contemporary tour guides.

The most interesting may be the Aldolf Sachse map circa 1883-1884 and the grand maps done by Williams and Heintz in the 1920s. You may be able to zoom in on the high resolution images to see your very block over a century ago.  Looks like what is now Whole Foods was a whole lot of grass.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Franklin School Exhibit Begins 7/28

An exhibit on the Franklin School will open at the
Historical Society of Washington in Mount Vernon Square (801 K Street NW) on Wednesday, July 28, from 12-2pm.

The exhibit is expected to be on display through Labor Day at HSW and then will be taken "on the road," hopefully to the Wilson Building, Eastern Market, UDC, office buildings and retailers which border Franklin Square, Union Station, the MLK Library, the Sumner School, and other locales.  The beautifully designed and documented 8, 3' x 7' panels will be affixed to stands/easels/tripods that make the exhibit easily transportable.

The exhibit is organized by the Coalition for Franklin School, a group that has organized to support a future educational use for the historic school building located at 13th and K Streets NW.  Others involved include Cindy Janke (curator), Kesh Ladduwahetty (designer), Humanities Council of Washington, DC, Sumner School Museum & Archives (Kimberly Springle), Historical Society of Washington, DC (Sandy Bellamy), Margaret Hutto, Jack Brewer, Association of Oldest Inhabitants (Bill Brown), and Tanya Edwards Beauchamp (project humanities scholar / adviser). 

I strongly support their efforts.  You can reach my Washington Post op-ed on the future of the Franklin School here.

According to a recent article in the National Trust for Historic Preservation magazine, the building, which was the site of Alexander Graham Bell's and last used as a homeless shelter, is deteriorating. 

"There's water on the top floor, and there are broken windows or open windows," says Joe Browne, chairman of the steering committee of the Coalition for Franklin School, whose members toured the building last November. "Because there's no climate control, [an] original mural is deteriorating fast."

Baseless Lawsuit Continues, Expenses Mount

Tonight, Thursday, July 15, I will be co-hosting a benefit party and fundraiser in support of Martin Moulton. I hope you will join me at the home of Charles Walker, 1518 Fifth Street NW.  Come by anytime between 6 and 9pm.

As many of you know, Martin has worked hard to make our community safe and improve the quality of life for all of its residents, new and old.  Whether it is volunteering at our schools, improving housing for current residents, working with police and government officials to address nuisance properties and crime, or planning neighborhood events... Martin is on it.  Perversely, Martin’s leadership has made him the target of an unfounded lawsuit that is directly related to his efforts.  He's being sued for $20 million - amazing how one can pull any crazy number out and sue.

We are confident that Martin will prevail.  I am told that last week a judge ordered the plaintiff to respond to a detailed set of questions that will require him to disclose what evidence — if any — he has to substantiate the claims in the suit.  Earlier this year, after a trial before a DC Superior Court judge, the plaintiff was convicted of a misdemeanor for involving the police in this matter.  Meanwhile, however, as this case has dragged on, Martin has accumulated tens of thousands in legal costs that continued to mount.

Martin has been there for our community — let’s be there for him. We are aiming to raise at least $15,000 for his legal defense fund. Any amount is appreciated. 

If you can’t make it, please consider sending a contribution directly to his law firm at:

Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg LLP
1726 M St. NW, Suite 600,
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 328-3500 | www.HarmonCurran.com

Christine Fanning, Kareem Saleh, Manly Moulton, Charles Walker, William Waybourn, Cary Silverman, Kevin Chapple, Alexander M Padro, Gretchen Wharton, Si Kailian, Ayeh Bandeh-Ahmadi, Brian Smith, Deborah Ziska, M Marie Maxwell, Cheryl A. Lofton, Richard Worthington-Rogers, Debra Chatman, Carl Wilson.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mayoral Straw Poll for Ward 2

The Logan Circle Community Association and the Ward 2 Democrats are hosting a Mayoral straw poll Wednesday, July 21st at the Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle. All of the candidates who filed papers to run have been invited, including current Mayor Adrian Fenty and current Council Chair Vincent Gray.

Everyone is invited to attend, but only registered Democrats will be able to participate in the straw poll. Registration begins at 7pm, and guests will have the opportunity to talk to any candidates who are present at that time. The presentations will begin at 7:30, and voting will close by 9:15. (Times subject to change if needed.)

Each candidate will be asked to speak on several topics. Following the presentation, registered Democrats will have the opportunity to vote. For more information, please contact Ward 2 Democrats President Pat Allen at 202-296-0720 or LCCA President Bob Maffin at 202-301-2125.

Friday, July 9, 2010

And the nominees are...

At 5pm on Wednesday, the deadline expired for filing nominating petitions, petition supplements, and Declaration of Candidacy and Affirmation of Qualifications with the DC Board of Elections for the September 14, 2010 primary.  And the Democratic candidates are....

Seven of the thirteen candidates who picked up nominating petitions to run for mayor actually filed.  In addition to incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chairperson Vince Gray, other candidates for mayor include former reporter Leo Alexander, Whitehouse party crasher Carlos Allen, Sulaimon Brown, Michael T. Green, and Ernest Johnson.  In a very tight race between Fenty and Gray, could these challengers pull away enough votes to effect the outcome?  Should DC require runoff elections where no candidate receives 50% of the vote?

In addition to Kwame Brown and Vincent Orange, Dorothy Douglas and Calvin Gurley are also running for DC Council Chairperson.  I've seen a few signs up for Calvin Gurley, who lives in Takoma Park.  He apparently pushed for a voting initiative he entitled the "Mr. Bill Cosby’s Age 18 House Rule" in 2004, which would have cut off a parents' obligation to make child support payments at 18, rather than 21.  Dorothy Douglas is an activist who lives in Deanwood and is currently a member of the State Board of Education.

At Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson faces a strong challenge from former Parks and Rec Director Clark Ray.  Two others, Will Rossand and Michael Brown, are running.  Michael Brown?  I'm confused.  Is another Michael Brown seeking a seat on the Council?  Yes, it is Michael D. Brown, the District's "Shadow Senator." (the current at-large member, Michael A. Brown, obtained the seat as an independent and is not up for reelection until 2012).  New rule: 2 Browns on the Council is enough, and if Gray and Orange get elected... we'll probably have the more colorful legislative body in the nation.

In Ward 1, incumbent Jim Graham, a popular councilmember who has nevertheless been plagued with controversies from limiting the hours of Jumbo Slice to his chief of staff being indicted for excepting bribes from the taxi cab industry, faces two challengers: Jeff Smith and Bryan Weaver.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, after completing her first term, is unopposed.  Seems that folks on the western side of town like her focus on healthy foods and animal rights, and her tough talk to Attorney General Peter Nickles.

Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, also a first term councilmember who replaced Vincent Orange after he decided to run for Mayor, faces four opponents: Kathy Henderson, a former Historic Preservation Review Board Member and ANC Commissioner; Delano HunterKenyan McDuffie, and Tracey D. Turner.  I'm disappointed to see that George “Action” Jackson did not file his nominating petition.  You know what they say... all talk...

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells faces two opponents - Randy Brown and Kelvin Robinson.

Finally, Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton faces a challenge from Douglas Sloan.  After ten terms in office and the most recent failure of voting rights for the District in Congress, will residents opt for new blood?

These aren't necessarily the people you'll see on the September ballot.  The Board will make a preliminary determination of their eligibility this Monday, July 12 and consider any challenges to petitions until August 3.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Education: When everyone is in charge... no one is in charge

A core element of Mayoral Candidate Vince Gray's education platform is to strengthen the position of Deputy Mayor for Education.  As he's described at public forums, Gray envisions the position as coordinating education policy for the District, dealing with such elements as public schools, charter schools, the University of the District of Columbia (which has a law school and new community college), vocational training programs, literacy training, among other areas.

But where was such coordination on the D.C. Council?

Just about every state legislature in the country, as well as Congress and most city governments, has an committee charged with addressing education issues.  Not DC.

For many years, the DC Council had a Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation.  Before running for the Ward 4 seat on the DC Council, now-Mayor Adrian Fenty did a 2-year stint as the lead attorney and counsel for the Committee. 

Immediately after he was elected as Chairman of the Council, Gray eliminated the Committee in 2007.  Instead, deeming education issues too important to be discussed by a five-member committee, Gray placed education in the Committee of the Whole.  The Committee of the Whole is precisely what it is named -- the full council, led by the Chairman of the Council.
"I think it sends the message to the city, for the council, too, that education is the key issue. I had eight council members to ask to be on the education committee," Gray said. "This is an opportunity for everybody to participate. It takes a layer out of the process."

But there's a flip side.  When everyone is in charge... no one is in charge.  That's part of the reason why the District has consolidated much of the power over education reform in a Chancellor rather than in a large school board.

There is a value to smaller committees.  They allow Councilmembers to develop expertise on an issue, which can be helpful in developing legislation and providing effective oversight.  Committee members build relationships with the executive branch officials, organizations, community activists, and those affected (in this case, teachers, administrators, and students).  Committees permit greater dialogue among their members.  Those who serve on the Committee become points of contact for the public as well as people to hold accountable.  And yes, it facilitates coordination of policy.

What are the positions of the candidates for DC Council Chairman, Kwame Brown and Vincent Orange?  Would they bring back an education committee or keep it in the Committee of the Whole? 

Is a Committee on Education (including literacy) and Workforce Development in the works for 2011?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Peacoholics Responds

Peacoholics has provided new details on the organization's funding and operation, which has been a growing source of controversy.  At a joint meeting of the Convention Center Community Association and Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, Peacoholics Executive Director Maia Shanklin Roberts answered questions posed by residents.  The organizations' co-founder, Ron Moten, also participated in the community forum.

Millions in Public Funds

Some have questioned the appropriateness of Peacoholics receiving millions in public funds during the Fenty Administration, raised concerns with a lack of government oversight, and asked questions about the organization's accountability for obtaining results.

According to Roberts, between 2008 and 2009, Peacoholics received $3.48 million in city, federal, and private funds.  Most were allocated to violence intervention programs in Wards 1, 2, 7, and 8.  Their activities included operating a community center, programs at two high schools, and work at New Beginnings, the city's youth detention center.  Peacoholics also performed third-party monitoring for court social services, including probation checks for 100 juveniles.

Roberts noted a website, http://www.citystat.org/, where one can view the public funds provided by DC agencies to organizations.  If you have not seen this website, it provides quite interesting information, even if not very user-friendly.  The database provides the following information for city funds provided to Peacoholics, but does not provide detail as to the date or purpose of payments:
Grand total: $2,701,064.53.

Moten: No More Earmarks

When public funding for Peacoholics was at its apex in 2008-09, the organization had a 60-member staff. Since elimination of much of its city funding, particularly after the DC Council eliminated all earmarks last year, Peacoholics has significantly downsized. It is now examining sustainability issues and considering partnerships with other organizations and sources of private funding.

In what may have been a surprise to some, Peacoholics Founder Ron Moten declared, "I believe that earmark funding should be cut, eliminated" and that there should be a competitive process to obtain government funding. Moten had led a protest with youths at the Wilson Building, covered in bandages and fake blood, after the city council eliminated earmarks.  Moten's comments were directed to Council Chairman and Mayoral Candidate Vince Gray, who attended the meeting for a candidate's forum later on the agenda. Moten's comments appeared to be fueled by his frustration that despite the elimination of most earmarks, Gray allowed groups friendly with Councilmember Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) to obtain public funds for violence intervention programs on an noncompetitive basis.

"I think it is criminal to give people money who don't do the work, who are just friends with people," said Moten.

Roberts later responded to an assumption that most of Peacoholics funding had come from noncompetitive grants. While some of the organization's funding has come from earmarks, "most is competitively bid," she stated, resulting from the submission of proposals to government agencies.

Where the Money Goes: Peacoholics' Programs & Activities

I asked Roberts if she could be more specific in how the organization spent millions in public dollars, such as the percentage spent on staff and various programs, and whether any youth directly received cash or stipends.  She noted that the activities for which Peacoholics receives government funds include third-party monitoring through the court system and its civil rights tour, in which 75-100 youths participate twice annually.

The group is also funded by the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services (DYRS) to provide life skills training.  Funds go to pay staff and overhead for acting as facilitators at New Beginnings.  In addition, Peacoholics employs case managers, who are paid $45-55k per year and work with five youths.  Funds also go to "exposure activities," designed to bring youths out of the violent environment in which they often feel trapped.

Roberts also explained that in schools in which it is involved, Peacoholics places six staff members who are each paid $40-47k.  They work in the school from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm and then go into the community for outreach in the evenings.  Peacoholic views itself as filling gaps at schools, such as providing uniforms for teams where needed.

The group's violence intervention programs, Robert's explained, involve dedicating two to three staff members to known conflicts.  For instance, Roberts credited the organization for work done in Shaw with respect to gang disputes involving crews on 9th Street, 5th and O, and 7th and O.  Staff are on call 24/7, go to crime scenes, and follow up. 

Peacoholics typically plans large community events to bring people together, but did not have a planned event in Shaw last year upon the recommendation of MPD.  Such events cost approximately $5-7k for equipment rental, such as a moon bounce and food.

During her descriptions of Peacoholics' activities, Roberts occasionally referred to "direct funds to youth" and stipends.  During the discussion of the group's activities in schools, she noted that Peacoholics provides "direct support" to those youth and their families.  She also mentioned the organization's use of "flex funds" go provide youths with necessities, such as clothes and shoes, as part of its DYRS-funded activities. It was unclear to me whether this may mean cash payments in some instances and how youth are selected to receive support. 

Some have claimed that youths involved in Peacoholics were paid to vote in a mayoral candidates straw poll in Ward 8, an allegation was not raised or addressed at the Shaw forum.  Moten is a strong supporter of Mayor Adrian Fenty.  Also not discussed at the forum was the organization's involvement in a housing project in Congress Heights, which has drawn concern from nearby residents.

A Major Employer of Ex-Offenders

Three out of four Peacoholics employees at ex-offenders, stated Roberts.  From Roberts' comments, this appears to serve two purposes: (1) ensure staff and at-risk youth can relate; and (2) provide a job to ex-offenders who might otherwise go back to crime.  Some questioned whether providing at-risk youth with ex-offenders as mentors provides the right type of influence to move them away from crime.  In response, Roberts emphasized the importance of using people for outreach who "understand and are sensitive" to the environment.  Roberts also noted that their staff undergoes substantial training to provide "the more theoretical base for what they are doing" and with "hard and soft skills." 

If you are "bit by a snake, the antidote comes from the snake," added Moten.  "Ex-offenders who are trained properly can do the same thing" as others.

From Point A to Point B

Roberts acknowledged the limitations of the services that Peacoholics and its staff can provide.  For instance, the organization is not involved in pyschological counselling, which she views as a vital service that is not being adequately provided by the District's Department of Mental Health.  "Peacoholics is an organization that will take you from point A to point B," she stated.  At-risk youth may then need another organization or services to go further.

"Never Heard a Good Thing," said Mendelson
Roberts was asked to respond to comments attributed to Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) that he has never heard a good thing about the organization's work from the Metropolitan Police Department. Roberts noted that her organization is a partner with MPD on various projects and that she has recently participated in meetings with Chief Cathy Lanier and Assistant Chief Diane Groomes which do not leave her with that impression. She noted that Peacoholics always testifies at Mendelson's hearings, yet he has never met with them outside a hearing. Roberts expressed willingness to meet with Mendelson and have an ongoing dialogue, and to provide monthly reports to all funding sources.

Absconders in the Midst

Shaw resident Rickey Williams asked Roberts to explain how Peacoholics verifies that those participating in its programs "are not absconders, wanted criminals."  His concern stemmed from the realization that the youth arrested in the murder of Shaw Middle School Principal Brian Betts had absconded from DYRS and participated in a retreat in suburban Maryland co-sponsored by Peacoholics just days before the killing.

Roberts noted that the organization receives permission slips from parents prior to participation in such programs, but that it "is not standard for any organization to do background checks" and that it would be counterproductive to impose such a requirement.  Only when it takes youth out of state for the civil rights tour (apparently, a Maryland retreat does not qualify as out of state), the organization runs background checks to ensure participants can legally attend.  Roberts also noted that the retreat was "for the entire community" and was not solely for youth in the Peacoholics program.  The organization did not have an ongoing relationship, control over, or know the status of, the youth allegedly involved in the killing.

Moten added that the retreat was planned in direct and immediate response to threats of violence and retaliation in the area.  "Boy scouts don't do background checks," he noted.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Healthy Habits?

par·a·dox: one (as a person, situation, or action) having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases.  Here, biking with helmet, smoking at the stop light, then continuing on, cigarette in hand.