From D.C. community leaders, a to-do list for Mayor Gray

By D.C. Community Leaders
Thursday, December 30, 2010;


Mayor Gray, you campaigned promising a change in how the District government interacts with its citizens as it makes decisions. You promised an open and collaborative process, and keeping that promise is the most important thing you can do over the next four years.

Unlike Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration, which ranged from imperial to merely autocratic and in which communication was a one-way street, you should present District residents with options rather than decisions that are fait accompli. After all, we are adults, not children. Respect our views. Recognize that those who disagree with you are not your enemies. Do not pit one group of citizens or neighborhoods against another. And above all, learn not just to tolerate criticism but to treat it as a chance to learn and improve.

If you and your department and agency appointees are straight with us and run a transparent, collaborative administration, not all the decisions may necessarily come out the way you anticipated or hoped for. But your administration will run a lot better with the consent and assent of the citizens than it would without it.

- Dorothy Brizill, executive director,

Go green.

You can boost employment, slash government spending and reduce the city's carbon footprint all at once. Here's how.

First, train and put the unemployed to work weatherizing low-income homes. Next, have this growing workforce install solar panels on City Hall, libraries, firehouses and schools throughout the city. "Solar garden" laws that promote shared solar installations, along with other renewable-energy incentives, would encourage individuals and businesses to invest in renewable power sources and reap the dividends via lower utility bills.

Finally, you should replace the archaic incandescent lamps now found in 6,500 D.C. streetlights with LEDs, which use much less electricity and last 16 years longer. Smart streetlighting would improve public safety and save us millions of dollars annually.

The ever-greener City Council and the people of the District stand ready to support you as you lead us into a green-energy future.

- Jim Dougherty, conservation chair

Put people to work.

The tools we've typically used to combat pockets of high unemployment in the District - job training, businesses subsidies, real estate development and local hiring requirements - will not create enough jobs (or the right ones) to get D.C.'s chronically unemployed residents working again. Your to-do list should include radically reforming how D.C. addresses joblessness.

Taking a page from the "Housing First" movement, which attacks homelessness by first giving people a place to live and then tackling the issues that made them homeless, you should launch an "Everybody Works" effort, with a goal to get every jobless person working - at any job - as a first step to addressing the issues that make it difficult for them to find or keep a job.

This doesn't mean putting everyone on the city payroll. It means reimagining work as a goal rather than a byproduct of economic growth. Start by giving every D.C. public high school student a work-study job, building skills and pride. Support experiments such as work cooperatives, in which jobless members contribute labor (from babysitting to home repair) in exchange for housing and other necessities while developing work histories and habits.

Full employment is the key to creating "One City." The way to get people working is to put them to work.

- Joe Sternlieb, vice president for acquisitions, EastBanc

Grow smart.

You can build on the successes of Mayors Williams and Fenty by championing the creation of a network of walkable places linked by an efficient regional transit system.

To do so, you must continue neighborhood-planning initiatives, drawing the whole community into the process. Support the ongoing revision of the antiquated zoning code to ensure urban, not suburban, designs that enhance walkable environments, creating vibrant streets and public spaces. You should also restore funding to the Housing Production Trust Fund and sustain affordable-housing programs for the low-income residents most at risk amid D.C.'s rising prosperity.

Smarter transportation is also essential. Accelerate improvements to walking and bicycling throughout the city, and expand access to Capital Bikeshare in Northeast and Southeast Washington. You should expedite bus service on major routes with dedicated lanes that move more people more efficiently. Work to meet Metro's funding needs and appoint effective Metro board members. Leverage private and federal financing to move streetcars forward.

With smarter growth, you can help make the District one of the world's most sustainable and inclusive cities.

- Cheryl Cort, policy director, Coalition for Smarter Growth

Read a book.

Washington should be a cultural capital as well as a political one. The city's mayor should be an arts advocate - a person who understands that organizations such as the D.C.Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. play a key role in shaping the quality of life in our city.

As mayor, you should be seen walking around not just with budget reports but with a book of poems or a novel as well. When you discuss school reform, you should emphasize the critical role of arts education. Young people in the District will develop a growing appreciation for the arts if they see you as a visible and vocal supporter. Find time to attend theater performances, gallery openings, concerts and cultural festivals. (You'll have fun, too.)

People can come together around song and dance and celebrate our city's diversity. Govern like D.C. native Duke Ellington and keep the big band happy.

- E. Ethelbert Miller, poet, Poet, director of Howard University's Afro-American Studies Resource Center

Say no to Wal-Mart.

In November, Wal-Mart announced plans to open four stores in Washington by 2012. This is not what our city needs.

As an independent small-business owner, I am concerned about the District's "big box" approach to economic development. This strategy - plant national chains in gentrifying areas, some of which are still recovering from 1968's riots - is unsustainable and unwise. It's economic crack.

You should take the long view and strive to attract small businesses with tax incentives that level the playing field for those battling the big-box bullies. Small businesses give our neighborhoods - whether Mount Pleasant, Shaw or H Street - their unique character. (Remember when Chinatown had something more Chinese than Fuddruckers?)

Small businesses create more local jobs, pay more taxes, keep more money in the community and are far less likely to close down when things get tough. And, if they go bust, they don't leave an economic crater behind.

Learn from the mistakes of your predecessor. Instead of hopping a flight across the country to entice Fortune 500 companies, support independent local businesses by taking walks in our neighborhoods, dining at local restaurants and shopping at local shoe stores. It will be money well spent.

- Andy Shallal, owner, Busboys and Poets and Eatonville restaurant

Focus on senior citizens.

Washington is on the verge of a senior population explosion. Almost 12 percent of D.C.'s population was born before 1945, and nearly 30 percent are baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. The D.C. Office on Aging (DCOA) projects that senior citizen numbers will "increase exponentially by 2025" and calls the consequent budget increases "a bomb waiting to explode."

You - a senior yourself - must defuse this bomb now. The DCOA has been spared the brutal cuts inflicted on other social service agencies, but it needs more resources and reorganization. As a start, you should find the funding to conduct the first comprehensive senior-needs assessment since 1978, to be completed by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, inexplicable delays in processing applications for Elderly and Physically Disabled Home-and-Community-Based Services Waivers create months-long gaps in critical services such as home health care. Your administration must process these waivers more quickly or put many seniors at risk of expensive institutionalization.

In addition, a shortage of staff and other issues at Adult Protective Services have rendered that office unable to respond to senior abuse, self-neglect and other life-threatening situations. This crucial agency must be fully funded and staffed.

- Mark Andersen, co-director, We Are Family

Open up Family Court.

Let the sun shine on Family Court by opening hearings and records to the public. More than 20 years after a court-ordered reform plan for D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency, and after recent tragedies such as Renee Bowman's 2007 murder of two adopted children, it is clear that lawyers, caseworkers and judges have proven we can't run the system on our own.

With closed courts, children's fates are decided secretly. Lawyers, caseworkers and judges are unaccountable. With open courts, we can learn why the Child and Family Services Agency and D.C.'s Family Court missed Bowman's financial problems and criminal history. With open courts - such as those in more than 20 states - children have more eyes watching out for them.

Opening Family Court would show that a Gray administration has nothing to hide and that you trust judges and caseworkers. And open courts would show respect for the public. These are our children, after all, and we are their village.

- Matthew I. Fraidin, associate professor of law, University of the District of Columbia

Reform school admissions.

Building top schools that will attract and retain families is the unfinished business of the past two Washington mayors. Nothing should loom larger than following through on your promises to advance school reform.

You should start by centralizing school admissions. Through the state education office, set up a clearinghouse for parents to choose public schools - district or charter - through a single application and a single lottery, instead of our current patchwork of dozens of lotteries held at different times without meaningful oversight.

Under the current system, a fraction of the coveted slots at popular schools are filled by lottery. The rest are filled by pre- and post-lottery maneuvering by savvy parents and school staff members, with deserving kids possibly left behind. The system burdens schools, whose admitted applicants may never enroll because they applied to so many other schools, and parents, who can be overwhelmed by options.

With one-stop shopping, parents can apply once and rank their preferred schools. They can mix out-of-boundary district schools with charter schools as they like, and officials can use this information to run a super-lottery - with many more winners than the current system.

- Steven Glazerman, a research economist and a charter school co-founder. The views here are his own.

Make the federal govern ment work for you.

Even though you have spoken of your vision of "One City," D.C.'s mayor will in one sense always be the mayor of two cities - the District itself, with all the challenges of any urban area, and the nation's capital, with a different set of challenges.

Unfortunately, the District cannot afford the infrastructure necessary to make Washington a great national capital, one with modern public schools, transit, roads and bridges, water systems and public safety facilities. (That is the finding of our recent report, "Building the Best Capital City in the World.") This is due primarily to the revenue limitations that the federal government imposes on D.C., and because the federal government does not support the District in the way that other countries support their capitals. As a result, the Government Accountability Office has estimated that the District has a built-in annual shortfall of up to $1 billion.

You should ask the president and Congress to help address the District's urgent infrastructure needs. President Bill Clinton worked with Congress to pass legislation that relieved D.C. of some of its expensive state-like functions, such as financing the courts and managing the prisons. President George W. Bush worked with Congress to transfer federal land to the District for use in economic development. You should work with President Obama and the new Congress to continue this tradition and make building the best capital city in the world part of their legacy.

- Walter Smith, executive director, DC Appleseed

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