D.C. officials ignore own words on fiscal restraint

Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 8:57 PM

MAYOR VINCENT C. GRAY (D) and Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) both took office in the District soberly warning of the need for fiscal restraint. Apparently, though, neither thinks this message applies to him. How else to explain decisions to acquire luxurious vehicles or bump up the salaries of top staff? These dubious expenditures by the city's highest elected officials raise questions about their judgment as well as their credibility in managing the city's money.

The mayor, as reported by The Post's Nikita Stewart, has engaged in a hiring spree, bringing in more senior staffers than his predecessor and paying them tens of thousands more a year than the people they replaced. Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was generally seen as running a pretty efficient government, so it's curious that Mr. Gray sees the need to double, for example, the number of deputy mayors.

Among those getting city jobs are the son of Mr. Gray's chief of staff and the daughter of an adviser close to Mr. Gray. Particularly troubling was the revelation of a $110,000 "special assistant" job given to a minor mayoral candidate who was so lacking in credibility that he became something of a laughingstock during the campaign with his patented attacks on Mr. Fenty and effusive praise of Mr. Gray. Mr. Gray defended the decisions during an appearance on WTOP radio, arguing that he will save money by consolidating positions and that all those hired are fully qualified. We've asked for, but have yet to receive, information detailing those savings.

We're also waiting for an explanation of why the city, faced with a $400 million budget shortfall, felt the need to acquire new vehicles for Mr. Gray and Mr. Brown. Most appalling is the extravagance and missteps that caused the city to get stuck with two luxury sport-utility vehicles intended for Mr. Brown. Reports by the City Paper's Loose Lips column and The Post's Mike DeBonis detail a series of actions in which Mr. Brown's staff repeatedly pressed for a fully loaded Lincoln Navigator and then rejected one vehicle because it was the wrong color; extra money was paid so that another vehicle could be delivered in time for Mr. Brown's inauguration.

Mr. Brown offered a series of conflicting explanations, but only when the car - along with its $1,963 a month lease - became embarrassing front-page news did he move to return the vehicle and offer to reimburse the city for some of the costs once the lease is renegotiated. Since it is unclear whether the city will be able to get out of the lease, we would hope that Mr. Brown - whose annual $190,000 council salary is among the nation's highest - is prepared to make the city whole.

It's also prudent for the city, as council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has promised to do, to examine the use of all city-owned vehicles. Why is the chairman entitled to a government car when his counterpart in the vastly bigger and more populated Fairfax County seems to manage with her own vehicle? Do police really require a town car to do advance team work for the mayor? Also in need of council scrutiny is Mr. Gray's plan to boost the salaries of top managers. A mayor should have flexibility in shaping his administration, but if there is to be belt-tightening in the government, shouldn't the first step be to set a good example?

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