I GOT THE NEWS over the telephone. The caller said the mayor had announced he was naming Joe Yeldell as one of his top assistants. I was out of town and asked for the details. The caller said she was indignant. She said she had been watching the news on television and half the city was indignant. She said I should be indignant, too. I'm not. Instead, I'm grateful.
I have my reasons. In the first place, you have to concede that what the mayor did took a certain amount of guts. Forget for a moment that Yeldell is not bargain at $47,000 a year, you still have to give the mayor credit for making an unpopular decision. He could have let Yeldell languish as chairman of the city's Board of Appeals and Review - the bureaucratic Gulag to which the former Department of Human Resources director had been exiled. In other words, the mayor could have done nothing and no one but Yeldell would have been indignant.
But there is something else, too. The mayor stood by a friend and political ally and I, for one, approve of that. I learned my politics at the foot of Marvin Mandel, learned, for instance, that a commitment is a commitment. Sometimes it's not fashionable, but there is something to be said for a man who is willing to take his lumps to do what he thinks is right.
But none of these reasons, I must admit, fully accounts for why I am grateful to the mayor for what he has done. I have yet another reason and it has to do with Norval Perkins, who for about six years was the executive secretary of the city's Board of Elections and Ethics. Forget the part about ethics - what Perkins did was run the city's elections and he ran them in such a way that a summary of the record is enough to take your breath away.
Under Perkins, elections in this city got to be something of a joke. One year, for instance, it took 12 days to count the ballots.. Another year, ballots fell off the backs of trucks. Some years, the computer walked off the job. Every year it was something else and it got so that Washington did totally by accident what it took people in Chicago months to plan. Last year, though, the election went off without a hitch, Perkins by then was gone.
If Perkins has a rival when it comes to blithely presiding over disasters, it has to be Yeldell. Under Yeldell, he city's mental health program deteriorated, the facility at Forest Haven became a shame, letters from U.S. senators weren't even answered, the city's only municipal hospital losts its accreditation and the Human Resources Department itself entered into a leasing arrangement that is such a bargain for the city that the U.S. Attorney's Office is looking into it.
But Yeldell and Perkins have something else in common besides their records. You cannot get rid of them. Both seem to think that they have an inalienable rights to a job with the government that is such a bargain for the city that the U.S. Attorney's Office is looking into it.
But Yeldell and Perkins have something else in common besides their records. You cannot get rid of them. Both seem to think that they have an inalienable right to a job with the government. Yeldell, for instance, simply would not go. Even though he served in the mayor's cabinet and makes nearly $50,000 a year, he could not be fired. The same more or less holds for Perkins. He, too, could not be fired, so his job was eliminated. The Civil Service Commission saw this for the ruse it was and ordered Perkins reinslated. He is now once again serving the board of elections and the people of Washington - a bargain at only $35,000 a year.
There is something terribly wrong here. The civil service regulations were originally designed to protect government workers from the abuse of the spoils system - getting fired, for instance, for the sin of belonging to the wrong party. They were not intended to protect executive-level officials from being called to account for their performance. That is not to say that people should be fired willy-nilly. It is to say, though, that there is something wrong with a system where the board of elections, for instance, feels the prudent thing to do is abolish the position when they're really out to fire the man.
So now I come to my main reason for being happy about what the mayor has done with Yeldell. Perkins has been dickering for some sort of compromise city job - maybe a position of some importance. I don't know for sure. So now I think the mayor ought to do for Perkins what he has done for Yeldell.
He ought to do the city a favor and also take Norval Perkins on his mayoral staff.