With just over two weeks to go before Mayor Barry's inaugural festivities, we're hearing more and more about the mayor's wish for his administration to "speak with one voice" even as his transition team wants to give the mayor a stronger hand in dealing with key, politically sensitive issues such as spending for public education and economic development.
No doubt both these aims have some merit, but they also raise questions that may outweigh some of the prospective benefits.
The "one voice" dictum was pronounced after a budget official publicly disputed the mayor's estimate that the corrections agency was overspending its budget. He later was dismissed because of incompetence for giving a reporter what his superior said was inaccurate information.
There is something to be said about having a singular rather than a conflicting policy, and there could be cases when mixed signals to Congress could work against the city's having certain programs implemented if Congress thought it was being deceived.
But in trying to achieve this aim, too many middle-level people are stifled, fearful to speak out on even minor issues. What Mayor Barry seems to want is for his administration to speak with one voice -- his voice alone.
Here a question is relevant. Has any chief executive ever been successful in executing a policy of containment -- strictly channeling press inquiries, stifling dissent and coordinating political statements? Richard Nixon tried it, to cite one example, and we know what happened to him.
All this raises the question of who will speak against the mayor. In some cities, the private sector is sufficiently strong to offset the tendency of an all-pervasive government, but government is king in D.C. Even community-based organizations get a lot of their funds from the city, and some of these might be loath to criticize the mayor, especially in these hard economic times.
Moreover, the timing of the mayor's get-tough policy on dissent is disturbing. Its occurrence at the same time he is seeking to centralize power and control and consolidate his power base raises the spectre of a highly political second Barry administration. In many ways, in seeking to consolidate his power he is doing what any good politician would do. But Barry seems almost to have set a goal of total control of the city -- and the school system as well.
The transition proposal calls for changes that would give the mayor increased information and staff support on education issues, allowing him to take a more active role in proposing policy. The school board now originates spending proposals for the coming year, which must be approved by the mayor, the City Council and Congress. Once a new spending level is set, the school board determines how that money is to be spent.
I like it that way. The school board should be independent and not subject to the whims of political expediency. If the mayor gets the power he wants, public school funding is left too much to the personality of the man in office at a given time. I know that Mayor Barry is dedicated to public education, but what would stop some future unscrupulous politician from axing the school budget when things get tough as they increasingly will in this decade?
Taken together, these two things--the mayor's dictum of "one voice" and the transition team's wish to give him more power -- leave me with an unsettled feeling. I seem to be hearing more about power and control than about substantive issues such as the lives of the people and a real vision of the city's future.
Close observers say, too, that there is a sense of hostility, bitterness, even vindictiveness within the halls of the District Building these days. That is strange, given the mayor's stunning victory a few weeks ago.
John Milton once counseled, "Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
For my part, I voted for a mayor, not a king, and I consciously chose to live in Washington, not Chicago.