Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis
Reporter

At Federal City Council, shades of D.C. Mayor Gray

Priorities matter in politics, and it’s not just the politicians’ priorities that matter. There are the people who elect the politicians — their priorities, of course, matter. In the District, the federal government’s priorities matter more than in most places. And the priorities of the city’s business elite — its largest employers, its largest landowners and tenants, its largest taxpayers — matter a great deal.

In that spirit, D.C. residents ought to know that the city’s ultimate conglomeration of economic power, the Federal City Council, is in the process of resetting its priorities. What the group of about 170 executives, developers, lawyers, university presidents and philanthropists thinks should get done has had a way of getting done.

Any reporting on this group starts with some disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is a council vice president; his father, Phil Graham, founded the organization. It counts among its accomplishments the Metro system, the preservation and rehabilitation of Union Station, and the revitalization of downtown Washington. The council is, to swipe the words of architect Daniel Burnham, a make-no-little-plans group.

But as the city, particularly downtown, has developed into an economic powerhouse, its needs have shifted from bricks and mortar to more complex sociogovernmental challenges. That’s a transition reflected in the Federal City Council’s new strategic plan, its first in more than a decade and the product of months of discussion and planning, according to chief executive John W. Hill Jr.

Given its policy of working “without seeking publicity,” the council has long been a target for critics, who accuse it of being unaccountable and pursing a shadow agenda at odds with public priorities. But what’s striking about the council’s new strategic plan is how closely it mirrors the priorities of elected officials — in particular, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

Of four “key areas of focus,” battling the city’s chronically high jobless rate earns first mention on the council’s priority list. For a group that counts the city’s major employers among its members, it might come as a surprise that this hasn’t always been the case.

“Reducing unemployment is a new area that we really hadn’t focused on,” Hill said. “We certainly had focused on some pieces of it, but we really had never focused on it as one area.”

He said the council is identifying major projects that can create jobs in the city’s key private sectors — construction, hospitality and health care — and doing what it can to create support programs so city residents get jobs, while at the same time working to develop new industries.

That sounds a heck of a lot like the Vince Gray economic development agenda, and Hill said that Hizzoner “having placed that as his number one priority was absolutely a part of our decision to look at that as an area we focus on, as well. Independently, our members felt it was an issue that we should be involved in.”

Expect the council to mobilize to help make sure city residents get qualified for jobs at the redevelopments of the Walter Reed campus and the old convention center site, among other projects. It was no accident that Hill and deputy Jon Fernandez attended Thursday’s announcement of a $3 million workforce development investment from Wal-Mart.

The next item on the council’s “key areas” list also doubles as a frequent Gray talking point: “Ensuring fiscal stability and integrity.” In other words, Hill, a former executive director of the federal control board, wants to make sure the city does not return to federal control. That, to the council, means establishing a “strong financial foundation” by finding “savings and efficiencies in the government’s operations” and “investments that will generate future revenues.”

Education, where the council has been most prominently engaged in recent years, is still a top priority. But with Kaya Henderson confirmed as D.C. schools chancellor, Hill said, he and council members have renewed confidence that reforms started by her former boss, Michelle A. Rhee, and supported by the council will proceed as intended.

Infrastructure makes the list as well, with the council pledging to improve cross-downtown traffic flow by turning K Street into a “major multi-modal thoroughfare” and reestablishing a traverse near the White House.

But though the council is plenty forthcoming about what it wants to accomplish, don’t expect to hear a whole lot while it goes about accomplishing it.

For instance, Hill said not to make too much out of the fact that he recently started tweeting: “We haven’t changed our operating principles at all. We still believe we can be most effective if we work behind the scenes.”

 
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