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D.C.'s Mild-Mannered Mayor

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 1997; Page B01

Not so very long ago, Mayor Marion Barry called the shots in most of the city's vast bureaucracy -- revving up programs, doling out multimillion-dollar contracts and presiding over a 35,000-member work force that bore his own personal stamp.

How things have changed.

The mayor acknowledged this week that he hasn't held a Cabinet meeting in two months, now that the heads of nine major departments he once controlled take all their orders from the D.C. financial control board. Stripped of power over the jobs, the contracts, the city programs, Barry said that he finds contentment in the fact that agency heads return his calls, hear him out and tell him what's going on.

That seemed an unlikely admission from a man who has tended toward micromanagement during almost 15 years in the mayor's office. But what really surprised the diminished audience at Barry's weekly news conference was his assertion that he wasn't the least bit frustrated by the sudden lack of clout.

"This doesn't bother me that much," the mayor said, without a visible trace of regret.

Political analysts offer varying theories for the mayor's almost casual acceptance of his new, marginalized role. Some argue that Barry's acquiescence to control board dominance is a sure sign of his political decline.

"I've felt for the past two years that he would ultimately come to grips with being a ceremonial mayor," said Dwight Cropp, a former top Barry aide now on the faculty at George Washington University. "He has always been more preoccupied with the trappings of power than the delivery of service."

But others see Barry's conciliatory stance as the move of a dedicated pragmatist, going along to get along -- for the moment.

"Since Marion has opted out on a frontal attack [on the control board], he's doing the next best thing," said Lawrance Guyot, a civil rights leader, city employee and Barry loyalist. "He's saying, `I'm not going anywhere. You've got to beat me out of here. And you've got to find someone to do it.' "

Remember Barry back in August, when he railed against the "rape of democracy" on national television and swore vengeance against those in Congress who'd stripped him of power? Now, he might best be described as downright mellow.

Barry still has the plush 11th-floor suite at One Judiciary Square. He still makes $87,984 a year. He still moves around town in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln, and he's still escorted by a phalanx of plainclothes police, though the size of his security detail has been cut in half by the control board.

But Cabinet meetings take place on Wednesday afternoons -- at the control board's suite nine floors above One Thomas Circle. All the department heads are there. Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams is there. School Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr. is there.

"No, the mayor is not there," said John W. Hill Jr., the control board's executive director, "because these are people who have either direct or indirect reporting responsibility to the board."

The department heads, he said, have all been instructed that they report to the board and only the board.

"That is their understanding," he said. "That's clearly understood."

Hill added that those department heads have also been instructed to give the mayor "access to information. . . . They should continue to provide the reports the mayor has asked for -- and provide them to the control board, as well. We have not done anything to restrict his access to the agencies."

Asked about this new role, having access to -- but not control over -- department heads, the mayor said he is satisfied.

"As long as service delivery is going on, as long as I can have analysis and program reports on things that are important to me and the citizens, that's all I need to do," Barry said. "That's all you do as mayor, anyway. I'm not going to spend my time worrying about it."

The mayor's only formal involvement with the nine agencies he used to control comes as a member of management teams set up by Congress to oversee the control board's management reforms. Barry has likened those four-member teams -- composed of the mayor, the agency head, a representative of the control board and a D.C. Council member -- to the "memorandum of understanding" group that has been overseeing reform of the police department.

"I can't wait to get started on this," Barry said. "We're going to roll up our sleeves and treat this with a sense of urgency. We all have equal say into what goes on, similar to the police model, which in my view worked very well."

But those inside and outside city government who've watched police reform unfold say the effort has been almost totally driven by the control board, with Barry often the odd man out at the police group's meetings, unable even to obtain certain reports held closely by Booz-Allen & Hamilton, the board's consulting firm.

"I think the mayor in many ways has been beaten down by the sheer force of the sea of change," said D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), one of three council members likely to challenge Barry in next year's mayoral election, should he choose to seek a fifth term. "He has a certain air of resignation about the whole process, and I think some of his energy has been sapped."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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