Moves Tensions Into Front Row
By David A. Vise
Newman, a board member who rarely challenges colleagues publicly, grabbed the microphone from in front of Brimmer.
"I'm sorry I have to do this, Mr. Chairman," Newman said. "As far as I'm concerned, the matter is not open. There are five of us. We each have a vote. The issue of the skybox is closed."
Ed Singletary, an often reticent control board member, took on Brimmer as well. "I'm most definitely opposed to it," he told those gathered for the public meeting at Hine Junior High School.
With less than seven months to go in their three-year, presidentially appointed terms, the members of the powerful control board overseeing the District are publicly battling one another as never before. The skybox dispute reflects the growing behind-the-scenes tensions between Brimmer and the other board members, who increasingly are asserting their independence from the chairman.
The struggle has important implications for the management of the local government. Brimmer and some board officials have disagreed over how great a role he should play in the day-to-day management of city affairs after the board hires a new "chief management officer" to direct nine major District agencies the panel was given control over by Congress last summer. The board is in the midst of interviewing candidates for that job, which sources say will be the highest-paid position in the D.C. government with an annual salary that could exceed $150,000.
While several members of the panel want Brimmer to retreat to more of a "policy" role after the new management specialist is hired, he sees himself continuing as the city's "chief executive officer." Brimmer says that he will rely heavily on the new manager and that the details of their relationship will be worked out once the management executive is on board.
Also hanging in the balance is the question of which of the five control board members will stay after their terms expire in June. Brimmer, who is logging longer hours than ever in the unpaid post, seems fully engaged by the job and eager to continue leading the board if the White House approves, which appears likely. The 71-year-old chairman recently initiated one-on-one discussions with the other board members on their plans. Although Brimmer declined to reveal the substance of those discussions, at least two members Joyce A. Ladner and Singletary have decided they do not want to serve beyond June, sources familiar with the matter said.
For a board that has stood united in public on virtually every issue during the last 2 ½ years, the varying time horizons of its members add a new dynamic as individuals seek to make their own marks and preserve their own reputations. The bickering over the $625,000, five-year lease for the MCI luxury suite for the D.C. Sports Commission revealed the increasing strains among panel members, some of whom say their chairman does not respect their views sufficiently or give enough weight to political considerations as he goes about the board's business.
"Dr. Brimmer is a very able businessman and economist, but he has a tin ear politically," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District. "To get anything done in government, you have to understand the politics in the situation as well as the substance."
A Suite for the Commission
Brimmer, who has tangled with Barry on numerous issues, was an easier sell this time. He saw the opening of the new downtown arena, where the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Capitals hockey team will play, as a major coup for the city, with enormous business and tax revenue potential. And he regarded the decision about the suite as within his span of influence as control board chairman and the member most focused on economic development. Relying on advice from Richard Montielh the city's newly recruited director of Housing and Economic Development Brimmer concluded that leasing the suite to promote District business and tourism was a good idea. City and state officials elsewhere had access to similar suites, where they entertained business prospects, so the D.C. government needed one, too, he said. The money to pay for the suite would come from public funds generated by the Sports Commission's operation of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and the D.C. Armory, rather than directly from tax dollars.
Brimmer gave Barry his approval before discussing the matter fully with the other control board members, some of whom learned about the issue from the board's staff, sources familiar with the discussions said. Newman, Singletary and Ladner were convinced that neither the Sports Commission nor Barry would have much success generating new business for the city and thought the suite was a bad idea. (Control board member Stephen D. Harlan was out of the country on business at the time.) They also feared a political backlash from members of Congress and the public, who might be angry that the board was granting Barry the use of a skybox, with its private living room, kitchen and restroom facilities, while cutting costs elsewhere.
"I hope no one would believe the Sports Commission exists only to provide perks for Barry," Brimmer said. He did, however, telephone Abe Pollin, the arena's owner, to see if Pollin would give the city a skybox. Pollin, who is footing the bill for the $200 million complex and paid for his two suites there, said no.
Brimmer technically had authority to approve the lease without putting it to a vote, but control board members expected sensitive matters to be discussed and considered by the full panel. The chairman, however, forged ahead even though a majority of the board, and many staff members, opposed the suite.
"All of us were outraged," Ladner said. "Brimmer doesn't have much respect for his board."
The chairman sensed that those opposing the lease were focusing on politics and appearances, rather than economic development, and he pressed ahead with his agenda.
"I refuse to be blinded by politics," Brimmer said.
After The Washington Post reported Nov. 14 that Brimmer had approved the lease for the suite, angry D.C. residents called him at home and at the board. Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) who only days before had won congressional approval for the city's $4.2 billion budget threatened to block the lease if Brimmer didn't drop the idea. Faircloth, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, released a letter saying he was "shocked" and "outraged" that Brimmer had approved a lease that would make the struggling city look poorly run.
Inside the control board's offices, a mini-revolt was underway. Ladner and Singletary were upset that Brimmer had approved the lease, embarrassing the entire panel. Now, as Brimmer prepared to back down after the public rebuke from Faircloth, it angered them further that the chairman had appeared to give greater respect to a senator than to his own board members.
Through the staff, Ladner and Singletary sent Brimmer a message: Either he needed to withdraw the approval of the lease and make absolutely clear that the initial decision was his alone, or they would speak to the media themselves and set the record straight, sources said. Brimmer withdrew the approval, but when he did not go far enough in saying he was acting on his own, Ladner, Singletary and Newman spoke out.
The issue appeared to be dead. But five days after withdrawing his approval, Brimmer declared at the evening meeting at Hine Junior High School that the matter was still open. Two days later, without seeking board consent, a determined Brimmer was phoning local business leaders and asking them to donate the $625,000 needed to pay the cost of the five-year lease.
"I've been trying to look through the smoke of politics and keep my eye literally on the ball," Brimmer said.
After control board members learned that Brimmer was pressing the luxury suite issue again, their anger was reignited, prompting one board member to refer to the chairman privately as "bullheaded." Given the political backlash, they were incredulous that Brimmer had revived the issue so soon. Singletary said the board had more important things to do with its time than focus on the skybox. "As far as I'm concerned, the skybox issue is dead," he said.
Ladner agreed. "I told [Brimmer] that I felt he had disrespected the other members of the board," she said. "I told him that this is a very political issue that we should not be engaged in and certainly not besmirch our good names for."
Brimmer said he mistakenly assumed that his colleagues initially opposed the lease because it would be paid for with public funds. After learning that a majority of the board would vote against the suite even if it was paid for with private donations Brimmer abandoned the fund-raising effort.
A White House Meeting
Some District politicians and community leaders have suggested that it is time for a new leader to chair the congressionally created panel and that one or two locally elected officials should be on the board. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who frequently has raised questions about Brimmer's leadership, has said she will provide Clinton administration officials with her own thinking about the board after canvassing the community for ideas. The White House has no formal position on the matter, but sources familiar with the issue said Clinton administration officials have a generally favorable view of Brimmer's tenure and a sense that the board is correctly focusing on improving city services after making progress on the District's finances.
Brimmer discussed the matter recently with Franklin D. Raines, the White House budget director who will advise Clinton on the nominations. With all five board members' terms expiring at once, and some members interested in leaving the panel, Brimmer said he and Raines discussed the need for continuity on the control board.
"It is vital to have continuity," Brimmer said. "And I believe there is a great need to have some institutional memory. But remember, it is entirely up to the president whether he would ask any of us to stay on."