Diplomatic re-gifting, another city austerity measure

August 12, 2011

These are dire fiscal times for the District of Columbia. Tax collections are down. City services are still on the chopping block even though the mayor and the council just closed a $322 million budget gap .

But fear not, District taxpayers, for the city has embraced an austerity measure long cherished by coupon clippers, frugal Fannies and cheapskates everywhere: re-gifting.

The perfect opportunity arose in the mayor’s office of protocol. Among the many duties of city officials is to greet visiting foreign dignitaries and delegations. And standard diplomatic protocol demands that guests not leave empty-handed. The protocol office dispenses an assortment of tchotchkes: mugs, some pens, an appointment calendar — all, of course, bearing the slogan “Taxation without representation.”

One of the schmancier items, however, is a decorative dish bearing a likeness of the District seal and made of porcelain fine enough to eat a state dinner on. The dish is one of roughly 500 donated to the city during Anthony A. Williams’s second term by a person the mayor’s office would describe only as “a private citizen from Turkey who was so appreciative of his reception in the city.”

The generous Turk thought the extra plates might come in handy for entertaining at the mayoral residence (though they might be more appropriate for the grand ballroom inside New York City’s Gracie Mansion than the Foggy Bottom rental Williams occupied while in office, or Vincent C. Gray’s one-car-garage brick home on Branch Avenue SE).

The plates languished in storage through the Fenty administration. Last year, Pat Elwood, the director of protocol and international affairs, noticed that a few of them had broken and that storing them was a pain. So she got the idea to repurpose them and asked the donor as well as a local relative of the donor whether the dishes could be re-gifted. Both said yes.

“They had not been used for years and would save money if put to good use,” mayoral spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said.

A few months ago, a delegation of officials from Chinese provinces, here to tour the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, left with plate in hand. (Just one. That’s the rule: One plate per delegation.)

Other gifts bestowed on the city by foreign dignitaries include: an evergreen with 8,000 lights, given by Norway’s ambassador as part of the annual “Norwegian Christmas at Union Station” festivities; Maori art from New Zealand; and a statue of Alexander Pushkin. (Not too many re-gifting possibilities there.)

The cost savings might add up to, at most, a few thousand dollars a year, but as every penny-pincher knows, every little bit helps.

The District should count itself lucky to still be able to keep up appearances. Montgomery County used to have a separate line-item budget of several thousand dollars to cover the cost of promotional items, mainly to give away at trade shows but also to foreign visitors.

“But as times have changed, marketing media has changed, plus the budgetary situation,” said Peter Bank, an economic development official for the county. Now the county is down to backpacks, jars and glass paper weights bearing the county logo.

Arlington County gives gifts to visiting delegations only on rare occasion. A foreign delegation coming to take a look at the soon-to-be-upgraded wastewater treatment facility got nada, while the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, the county’s newest sister city, received a key to the county when he came to Arlington in March for a signing ceremony. Other possible gifts are framed photos of Arlington (because everyone needs a picture of Whitlow’s on Wilson), a vase and a platter.

“We’re talking tens of dollars, not hundreds of dollars,” county spokesman Hunter Moore said.

County Board members who go abroad to promote Arlington usually have to dig into their own wallets if they want to be gracious guests.

Given the delicate nature of diplomacy, is it really acceptable to re-gift?

“If they want to use them as a gift, especially if it has the seal, then they’re fine,” said Robert W. Frye, former chief of protocol for AT&T and for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “You want the gift to reflect something special about the city or the state.”

Frye had one bit of advice, though.

“Now, I wouldn’t hand it over and say, ‘We got these as a gift,’ ” he says. “I wouldn’t advertise that.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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