It began as a way for District Mayor Anthony A. Williams to spread a little goodwill: hold summer picnics in each of the city's eight wards to thank volunteers who have supported him.
But now community organizers are complaining that the mayor's office, while pressuring them to hold the picnics, gave them only $400 each to pay for the festivities. It has left some groups of Williams volunteers scrambling to raise $2,000 or more to pay for food, drinks, security and fliers to promote the events--and left them feeling more than a little disenchanted.
"This is Mayor Williams's picnic," said Glenda Neamo, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Southeast Washington's Ward 8. "Why should we solicit from our constituents? When you give something, you either give it or you don't.
"For $400, you can't give a [soda] and a bag of chips," Neamo added.
Bud Lane, the organizer in Ward 2, said he's prepared to go to the community's merchants for picnic donations, but questioned why the mayor's office wasn't contributing more money.
"I said, 'What am I supposed to do with $400?' " Lane said. "They said their funds were limited."
Meanwhile, Williams's constituent services fund--which is made up of leftover campaign contributions and designed to be used by the mayor to help fund such self-promoting events--is overflowing with nearly $150,000. The mayor and his wife, Diane Simmons Williams, control the account, which is made up of three certificates of deposit at Independence Federal Savings Bank.
Max Brown, Williams's legal counsel, said the mayor's office limited contributions to the picnics to have more money available to spend on services for needy constituents. Brown said the mayor's office intended for the picnics to be funded through a combination of donations from the mayor's fund and the community.
"The intention over the whole time was to make sure we have participation from small businesses and citizens who are interested in folks coming together to support the community," Brown said. "It's building community spirit."
That approach may be tough to pull off in Ward 8, a low-income area without a large business community. But it did work in Northeast Washington's Ward 5, the only ward to host a mayoral picnic so far.
Bob King, the Ward 5 coordinator, said he relied heavily on in-kind contributions from businesses in his community to help defray the costs of feeding more than 400 people.
He said he used the $400 from the mayor's office to rent tables and chairs for the picnic, held recently under shade trees at Howard University's School of Divinity.
"If we had to spend money" rather than receive donations of food and other items from local businesses, "we're talking about $5,000 to $6,000," King said. "I don't think it would have had the same effect if the mayor had given me $5,000. When you have it this way, the community shares in an event that the mayor had."
King agreed that such a scenario "might be difficult in Ward 8."
The Ward 8 picnic is scheduled for Saturday, and while organizers continue to try to raise money for the event, they are getting some help. D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8) tapped her own constituent services fund and contributed $1,000, organizers said. Allen did not return telephone calls yesterday.
"The last thing we wanted to do is . . . not have enough hot dogs for the children," said Philip Pannell, one of Williams's political coordinators in Ward 8. "We get shortchanged over here all the time."
Pannell acknowledged, however, that he has benefited from the mayor's constituency fund. When Pannell was having problems paying his rent earlier this summer, Williams's fund donated $400 to help out.
The fund generally is used to help residents with emergency assistance, to offset costs for community events and finance other goodwill gestures, such as flowers for deceased supporters.
In July, Williams filed a financial statement for the Mayor Williams Citizen Service Program indicating that he has spent $2,490, including $72 in banking fees, since April. He is allowed to spend $40,000 from the fund each year.
Besides the contribution to Pannell, Williams's fund has donated $550 to help residents with their rent, $1,000 to the Congress Heights Day Festival, $300 to cater a reception and $167 for flowers for the families of two firefighters and a community activist who were killed.
Richard Levine, coordinator of the Ward 3 picnic, said he expects some donations to supplement the mayor's $400 contribution, but he ditched the idea of holding a large event with hot dogs and hamburgers.
"We're not having a picnic," Levine said. "We're having an ice cream social. I think we can put it together."
Meanwhile, the mayor's office indicated late yesterday that it probably will donate more to the Ward 8 picnic.
"Once we have the budget for the Ward 8 picnic, we'll look at what the expenditures are and what we have as far as commitments and expenses," Brown said. "We will commit the remainder."