Tangles Over City Budget Reflect a Deeper Divide

By David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's $5.7 billion spending proposal sprawls over six thick books that are so heavy they were delivered to the D.C. Council on a cart.

But when council members delved into the volumes, they said they were shocked at the little information they contained. Gone were the narrative descriptions that former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) used to lay out in detail. In their place were tables of numbers showing shifts in spending -- with little explanation.

"This is the most opaque budget I've ever seen. . . . The information is scant. It's difficult," council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said at a public hearing last week. "I've begun to lose faith in [the administration's] ability to provide us information. . . . Every committee has struggled to make informed decisions."

As the council approaches a vote May 13 on the budget, some members say they are frustrated. They say the mayor is marginalizing them in his breakneck effort to advance his reform-based agenda and fulfill his promises to residents. Members have said that although Fenty (D) talks publicly about creating an "open government," he has not been transparent with the legislative branch.

Fenty, several members said, has refused to send administration officials to oversight hearings, has asked the council to approve emergency legislation retroactively to support his actions and has misrepresented key initiatives to win public support.

Making matters worse, they said, is the mayor's determination to punish those who criticize or cross him -- for example, by not inviting them to news conferences in their wards. More stark was his recent refusal to distribute tickets for a city-controlled luxury suite at Washington Nationals' games to four rivals on the council.

"There are frequent reminders from the executive branch that perpetuate the tension," said Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), one of the few council members to criticize Fenty publicly. "Instead of going out of their way to improve relationships, they've gone out of their way to make things worse."

It's what has kept many council members publicly quiet and privately fuming.

Fenty's relations with Gray and others have been rocky for months, but until recently there seemed to be little collective will to fight back against a mayor with such a powerful mandate. Fenty was elected in a landslide and has used his popularity to outmaneuver critics as he has taken over the public schools and installed a new schools chancellor and police chief.

Not all council members chafe at Fenty's style. The mayor has several strong allies who say his boldness is notable mostly because it differs from the approach of his predecessor, Williams, who avoided confrontations.

Fenty is "like a normal mayor," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "If you [mess] with him, he'll [mess] with you worse. There are consequences for bad behavior."

The council is struggling to check an increasingly powerful mayor during the budget season. It has approved legislation aimed at forcing Fenty to provide more budget details. And in a show of solidarity, the council agreed to Gray's suggestion that all 13 members refuse to use the Nationals' luxury suite until Fenty gives all of them tickets.

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