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Don't Wait Until '98

By Colbert I. King

Saturday, November 2, 1996; Page A23

This Tuesday is the biggest political event of the year. But for District residents sickened by the sad state of their city, the day after the general election is no time for rest. Nov. 6 should mark the beginning of a two-year campaign to get the District back on the right track and out of the hands of the slick-talking, second-raters who have spent the better part of their lifetimes running this town into the ground.

There are solid reasons why the campaign can't wait. Mark time until Election Day 1998 rolls around -- when the mayor's job, seven council seats and five school board offices are on the line -- and you'll find yourselves about where you are now: crying the blues on election eve about the awful ballot choices you've been given.

Start now, because taking back this city from the politicians and entrenched interests that make a living off the District government will take months of hard work. No one knows that better than the Barry Bunch. They are counting on you -- the fed-up, the disillusioned and the unorganized -- to waste the coming year fuming and fussing about them ("Ye gads, did you read about Ivanhoe Donaldson's return?") -- but doing little else -- until it's too late. Do that, and you've been had once again. That's why now's the time to get busy. The look of the 1998 election lineup will turn on decisions made now and next year.

Some things that be done almost immediately, starting with the D.C. Council and the school board.

Let's consider who wields gavels over the crucial areas of public education, public works, public safety and the city's finances.

The council's supervisor of the nearly half-billon-dollar D.C. school system and the University of the District of Columbia is none other than five-term council member Hilda "Grandmother of the World" Mason. A community stalwart, 'tis true. But is Mrs. Mason the person to shape a comprehensive multiyear plan for higher education or to produce legislative solutions to help fix a broken public school system? She's chaired the council's Education Committee since 1981. Need more be said?

Then there's Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas, overseer of the Department of Public Works. In a way that's fitting since DPW's record of clearing snow, picking up trash and leaves, or preventing the city from becoming the region's dump, rather faithfully mirrors Thomas's effectiveness as a legislator. But really!

The police, fire and corrections departments have been under the eye of outgoing at-large council member William "Light Touch" Lightfoot -- which may help explain why some cops and guards feel free to play fast and loose with public safety. And guess who is the council's chief budget guru -- its main link to the mayor and financial control board -- and one of the architects of the fiscal year 1996 supplemental budget rejected as "irresponsible" by the financial control board? Take a bow, Chairman David Clarke.

Now don't cry. That dismal situation can change. Here's how.

The council meets next month to select committee chairmen for the next session. Until now, this has been a closed-door back-room horse-trading get-together in which every member tries to come away with a bone to chew on. Well, instead of sitting back while those members rub their hands in giddy anticipation of this year's goodies, the public must remind council members that they are doing the public's business, and that this time, the public wants to be heard on who is going to work for them and how.

Seniority and sentimentality have their place. Mrs. Mason deserves a permanent position of honor in our hearts. But if you believe -- as I do -- that the needs of 79,000 schoolchildren and the nation's only urban land grant institution have standing, too, and that the council must have a more engaged and up-to-speed Education Committee chairman, then parents, PTAs, local school committees and civic groups should tell their council members to make a change by January.

And if you believe -- as I do -- that our streets and alleys, and attention to public safety have suffered under weak but genial "Don't Make Marion Mad" committee chairmen, then now's the time for reform-minded legislators to steer the gavels to the hands of men and women in pursuit of excellence, not enthronement.

And if you think -- as I do -- that the council's anemic response to the city's insolvency has cost it credibility and clout, then this is the moment to insist that the council strengthen its budget oversight capability with staff, and that budget responsibilities be transferred to a member who is prepared to address some of the financial crisis's underlying causes. But those actions require attention now -- not when you read about the back-room deals in The Post on the morning after.

Similar attention should be directed to school board members. They must select a new president in January. The last thing the school system needs is a board president safely in the superintendent's pocket or one without a clue as to how oversight of school management should be exercised.

Why stall until '98? The reshaping of those institutions can start now.

Likewise, from this moment on, residents upset with the current lineup of leaders should concentrate on finding candidates to occupy the council, school board and city hall. And don't believe for a second that this city lacks good people to stand for public office.

I'm not referring to the abundance of wannabes who love to run around town emoting like mad about real or trumped-up problems, under the mistaken assumption that they are displaying leadership when it's nothing but low-grade showmanship. This city has men and women with brains, good personal habits, integrity and trustworthiness, and the ability to make good decisions. Some can be found out front, some are in the shadows. But all have one thing in common: They are self-disciplined and good at what they do.

Unlike so many of our current officeholders who see what has to be done, but who try to slide by without having to take on the tough work themselves, these are individuals who, in their line of work, see the task and just do it. They include U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, financial control board members Constance Berry Newman, Joyce Ladner and Steve Harlan, community activists such as Dorothy Brizill, Marie Drissel and Lawrence Guyot (who'll probably choke when he reads this), and a couple of members on the council. And they aren't alone.

The point is, while much remains to be done to make the District viable and no longer the object of national derision it has become under Marion Barry, there are many potential leaders and new faces to whom residents can turn. What's needed now are people willing to sign on for the long haul -- homeowners and apartment dwellers, business, professional and religious leaders, labor officials and community activists. This city needs people of diverse backgrounds who are willing to find common ground and plan ahead for the day when the nation's capital can be free of those who believe their calling in life is to put the D.C. government to their own use.

To bring on that day, we have to get busy, and now.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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