D.C. Council Fails
By Michael Powell
In Watchdog Role
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 1997; Page A14
The snows of 1996 haunted Washington. Nothing worked. City snowplows broke down. Officials didn't hire private plows, and tons of snow clogged the streets for a week.
So D.C. Council members promised to investigate, demanded accountability and reassured residents. They announced a round of public hearings.
That was the plan. The reality, recalls a council staff member, was a fiasco.
"Everyone got all pumped up, but there was no preparation," said Rob Robinson, former top aide to council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large). "No one talked to the public works managers to find out where the problems were. No one dug for budget information.
"So we had witnesses going off in all sorts of directions with no idea what we were after," Robinson said.
The council has stumbled repeatedly in its role as government watchdog during the last two decades, say current and past council members, aides and appointees. Critics say that although D.C. Council members are the second-highest- paid city legislators in the nation, they have concentrated more on cadging favors and jobs for constituents than on monitoring mayoral agencies, questioning contracts and appointees and blocking overspending.
As a consequence, Mayor Marion Barry (D) and his predecessor, Sharon Pratt Kelly (D), faced few penalties, political or otherwise, for ignoring the council.
"No council member can whine that they didn't know about the problems," said Otis H. Troupe, who wrote many scathing reports on municipal shortcomings as the council-appointed D.C. auditor from 1981 to 1994. "In the salad days of the 1980s, they didn't care what didn't work, because the money was flowing. It was an absolute lack of legislative will."
Sharon Ambrose (D), the newly elected Ward 6 council member who worked as a chief of staff for former council member Betty Ann Kane, added: "Historically, we were a rubber stamp. We've failed to examine this government at the top end."
In recent years, however, Ambrose, other council members and even some persistent critics say, the council has grown more assertive. They note that former council member John Ray was among the first leaders to challenge the high cost of city government and that Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) moved aggressively as acting chairman to gain council support for President Clinton's financial plan for the city. And they point out that the council recently tabled a proposed city contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. to install new parking meters after questions were raised. And Acting Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large), who is favored to win election as chairman tomorrow, has drawn praise from senators for insisting on a close partnership with the D.C. financial control board. All this, they say, is evidence of the council's new muscle.
"Members are very aware that they no longer want to be tarred with the same brush as the mayor," Ambrose said.
Many council members acknowledge, however, that much work remains before their body can be viewed as a legislative player on a par with the mayor and the control board.
The council's budget of $8.4 million is larger, per capita, than that of city councils in Philadelphia, New York and Detroit. Yet, unlike legislators in those cities, Washington's council members have spent little money building a professional staff.
The council assigns only five of its 147 employees, or 3 percent, to audit agency operations and oversee the city's $5.1 billion budget, compared with 27 percent of the staff in the Maryland state legislature, according to a study compiled for the control board.
"You just go crazy with a budget staff that small," said Carol S. Meyers, who was council budget director from 1991 to 1995. "You can't examine anything in particular because you have to balance the entire budget. We lacked the analytical capability of most legislatures."
Jamin Raskin, an associate professor of law at American University's Washington College of Law and a student of city politics, said this lack of staff for budget issues reflects a long-standing problem for the council.
"They all fly solo," he said. "No one wants a strong leader."
Nor has the council evinced much interest in baring its teeth. It has wielded its subpoena power once in the last two decades, and five council members and three longtime council staff members could not recall whether the council had ever rejected a proposed director of a mayoral agency.
"That's a tough one," a senior staff member said. "You'll have to research 22 years of council legislation."
And the council constantly passes legislation -- from a law regulating pit bulls to a curfew for teenagers to tough welfare reform requirements -- that the mayor and his officials simply ignore.
Even when council committees conducted oversight hearings and staff members wrote searing follow-up reports, council members often ignored the results. Staff reports prepared by the council's Library and Education Committee, for example, detailed overspending in the city schools and a lack of budgetary and personnel controls. Yet year after year, the full council voted to approve school budgets.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) is one of a few members whom critics credit with conducting tough oversight of city agencies. Last month, her committee recommended line-by-line cuts in the Department of Employment Services, an agency that has far more employees, per capita, than similar agencies in other cities.
"Barry conducted ward politics on a basic spoils system," said Otis H. Troupe. "And the council was divided between those who didn't know any better or those who were flatly in league with him."
"There isn't a habit of oversight in the city council," Patterson said. "Council members tend to become loyal to and friends with the agencies they cover, and they have traditionally judged themselves by how much money they give the agency."
The roots of the council's ineffectiveness, critics say, can be found in the political soil of the 1970s, when residents voted for their inaugural council under home rule. The first council leaders, former council chairman John A. Wilson prime among them, arose from the civil rights and anti-war movements. They shared a commitment to redistributing government money and jobs to the poor -- and a lack of previous legislative, governmental or business know-how.
"The council members came out of the same movement as Marion. They shared the same experiences, and they were sympathetic to him," recalled Jim Ford, the former longtime staff director of the council's Library and Education Committee. "But Marion was unique in that he was the only one among them who understood and embraced power."
Each time the council hesitated, Barry wrested more control over contracts, jobs and city services. Over time, some council members acknowledged, the mayor came to treat them as another supplicant.
By the 1990s, critics referred to the council as "the Marion-ettes."
"Barry conducted ward politics on a basic spoils system," Troupe said. "And the council was divided between those who didn't know any better or those who were flatly in league with him."
Some council members argue that Troupe gives too harsh an accounting. Bill Lightfoot, a former at-large council member, is sharply critical of the council's passivity. But he said it was unrealistic to expect the council to run the city from its legislative chamber, especially when agency chiefs were unresponsive on so many fronts.
The best the council can do, he said, is to shine a light into as many corners of city government as possible.
"We know that cronyism, nepotism and contract steering played a major role in our demise," Lightfoot said. "But our system relies on the goodwill of the mayor. And that's where it breaks down. There's a pervasive disregard for our legislation."
But to Troupe, such complaints only beg a question.
"It's their prerogative and responsibility to be a check on the executive," Troupe said. "If they aren't up to it, they ought to get out."