A peculiar devil-may-care attitude pervaded the City Council's deliberations last week when members discussed the city's embarrassing, error-prone election system.
Although little time remains for the city to make crucial decisions about which, if any, elections the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics should hold this year, council members appear far apart in deciding what to do.
The lack of a political consensus was painfully obvious as council members postured in their debate. The decorum that new council chairman David A. Clarke fostered after taking office in January seemed to evaporate as members strolled around the dais and chattered among themselves.
The council easily agreed to put off elections for three city-paid lobbyists to promote statehood for the District on Capitol Hill. But, it surprisingly killed a plan by William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) to delay balloting for hundreds of Advisory Neighborhood Commission members.
There was plenty of political rhetoric about not wanting to subvert the democratic process by postponing elections. But some council members only considered their votes a holding action--subject to reversal--until they can figure out an overall strategy.
The council acted even though the Board of Elections for months has told the council and Mayor Marion Barry that it cannot hold ANC elections any time soon because of administrative disarray and redistricting problems.
Moreover, neither Barry nor the council has made a concerted effort to provide the board with the tools and support necessary to hold the elections.
In effect, the council has voted to schedule an election that most experts agree will be a disaster.
That approach has invited criticisms that the council is merely trifling with the deep-seated problems of the voter rolls and election system.
A compromise plan floated by Barry and Clarke to postpone all scheduled elections this year as part of a plan to consolidate elections now split between even and odd years was not even brought up after Spaulding refused to go along.
The plan is still alive, but one influential council member said Barry "has just not made this a personal priority."
At week's end, some members were rethinking their actions, while some community leaders were saying they are impatient with both the council and the mayor.
"It is the responsibility of the mayor and the council to make sure we have an election," said Leona Redmond, president of the Ward 8 Fellowship Council.
"I see a lot of passiveness from both the legislature and the executive branch."
Barry has finally released his long-promised report on the spending cuts and other measures he ordered to try to avert a $110 million budget deficit this year.
It's the same information he first promised to release in January or February. In March, he turned down reporters' requests for the details, saying the information would only confuse the public.
At the time, the City Council was working on the mayor's budget for the coming year and an audit of the previous fiscal year had just been released.
"I made the decision that really we ought to communicate better with the people by not getting them confused with all of these numbers," Barry said then. "The general public when it hears four or five sets of numbers about four or five fiscal years--it just gets to be too big."
But now, apparently, the public is ready. Last week, the mayor released a highly upbeat, midyear report that the city probably would end the fiscal year with a balanced operating budget.
"We believe we have a very sophisticated public out there," Barry said, apparently trying to smoothe feathers ruffled by his previous comments. "They can count. They can read."
Barry said his administration's success in battling the projected deficit resulted from a combination of budget cuts, tax increases just approved by the City Council and a slight improvement in the economy.
Barry declared that, to his knowledge, no one has suffered because of reductions in city programs and services but provided no documentation.
Even City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Human Services Committee and one of Barry's most loyal allies on the council, was not satisfied.
"We really are not too sure of what social service programs have been cut," she said. "We've heard of some problems where there have been some cuts. . . . We've requested a list of the cuts that have been made."