Nearly 3,000 District residents turned out at the Washington Convention Center on Saturday in response to a call by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to help him set priorities for D.C. government. The forum, in which residents from across the District sat in groups of 10 and occasionally expressed opinions through a computerized voting system, was the first major event in a series of meetings Williams plans to hold to give residents a say in how the city should spend its money and direct its programs. What follows are some scenes from Saturday's summit, compiled by staff writers Michael H. Cottman, Stephen C. Fehr, David Montgomery, Vanessa Williams and Yolanda Woodlee.
Tracking the Themes
Typing madly into their Apple laptops, summiteers might have wondered what happened to their recommendations after they pushed the "send" button.
Off to the side of the hall at the Washington Convention Center sat a group whom Williams dubbed the "theme team"--an enthusiastic bunch of about a half-dozen volunteers and members of the mayor's staff. They had laptops, too. As comments were filed from the 241 tables in the hall, the words would pop up on the screens of the theme team.
Their mission: Identify the themes that mattered most to the citizenry, and sort them out in the coming days. Eventually, the comments will be posted on the Internet, Williams said.
Theme team member Yoshi Uchimura, a municipal management expert volunteering from George Washington University, read the demands transmitted from one table: "Clean and well-maintained streets." "Rehab abandoned buildings." "More community centers for neighborhoods."
From time to time, Williams would stop by for a quick briefing from theme team member Mikki Seligman on what people were saying, so he could go up on the stage and give a reaction to the crowd. There were few surprises in what Seligman had to tell him. People wanted safe streets and opportunities for youths. They were proud of the culture and neighborliness of their city. Seligman also noted that residents weren't parochial in their concerns: They spoke of pulling together to address problems citywide.
Of the several goals suggested in preparation for the summit, the largest number of participants, or 29 percent, named building and sustaining healthy neighborhoods as their top priority, followed closely by investing in children and youth.
The only surprise, Williams said in an interview after the summit, was that the goal of making government work received the fewest votes--as though, perhaps, people view the government as already beginning to work again after near-bankruptcy. "I could take that as a compliment," Williams said.
The nifty keypads everyone had at the summit allowed for a quickie demographic survey of the crowd--including which wards were represented most heavily. We're not sure what this means, but here's the percentage of people who attended from each ward.
Ward 4--16 percent; Ward 1--15 percent; Ward 2--15 percent; Ward 5--14 percent; Ward 6--10 percent; Ward 7--9 percent; Ward 3--9 percent; Ward 8--8 percent; outside the city--4 percent.
Getting Everyone on Same Page
Borrowing a technique from the United Nations, the summit offered simultaneous translations of the proceedings in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean, in addition to sign language for people with hearing impairments.
Foreign language translators sat in glass cubicles, offering translations that could be heard in headphones provided by summit organizers.
"I came because I have different issues that I would like to address," said Elizabeth Phan, a teacher, who sat at a table of people who emigrated from Vietnam. Phan did not need a translation, but several at her table who were using headphones reported the system worked well.
The members of Phan's table all wore stickers of the yellow-and-red flag of the former Republic of Vietnam, defeated by the communist regime of Hanoi. Phan whispered to a reporter that there was another table of Vietnamese communist sympathizers present at the summit. The anti-communists typed into their laptop that on occasions when the District shows the flags of various cultures represented in the city, it should include the flag of the defeated republic. A recent public schools program displayed only the communist flag, Phan said.
Alexander Padro was surprised to see so few fellow Latinos in the crowd, given the growth in the number of Hispanics in the city during the past decade. A census of the audience counted 3 percent of the participants to be Hispanic.
Padro, who has lived in the Shaw neighborhood for three years, wondered whether the city did a good enough job reaching out to Spanish-speaking residents. He said he did not notice signs and fliers in Spanish in the city's heavily populated Latino neighborhoods.
Max Brown, a top aide to Williams, said literature advertising the summit was distributed in Spanish, as well as in several Asian languages. He agreed that the administration would have to work harder to recruit Asian and Latino participation in future discussions.
Padro said Latino residents in the district face serious barriers in the areas of housing, employment and education. But they have no advocates in city government, he said, noting there are no elected officials in the District who are Latino. He said Latinos will have to take a more active role in city politics to ensure their success in the city.
"That's why so many immigrants come here," he said, "to guarantee a better future for future generations. Hispanics just want to share in the growth and improvements of the city that we're all working to make our own. We're prepared to play as large a role as we can."
Connecting With the Mayor
The summit was the first chance for many people to see the first-year mayor in a personal, relaxed setting. Williams left his customary bow tie at home, wore a sports shirt and walked among the crowd as he spoke. Throughout the convention center, the mayor, who often has been criticized for not consulting many people before making key decisions, seemed to have won many fans for his efforts to solicit residents' opinions.
"He started out as a perfect stranger," Wade H. Jefferson, 70, of Northeast, said of the mayor, who took office in January. "I'm very touched by his administration so far."
"I like the way he's decided to involve the public in the planning of our city," said Brenda Floyd, 47, of Southeast. "I don't feel like I'm just a citizen being told what to do."
Betsy Kim, a discussion leader at one table, said she admired the way Williams was reaching out.
"Unfortunately the Asian American community in D.C. doesn't have a voice because of language barriers," said Kim, 36, of Northwest. "So I came because I thought it was really important to have representation."
Many people said they appreciated Williams's position that the city should be evaluated on its job performance just as its residents are in their jobs.
The challenge now for Williams, many agreed, is to deliver on the high expectations he set at the conference. He promised that many of the recommendations suggested by participants would be found in the annual city budget he will propose early next year.
I. Toni Thomas, 60, a Prince George's County consultant with contracts in the District, said the mayor's goals for the District won't be achieved until he brings more jobs to the city.
"If people have jobs and training then you can have everything else--good schools, housing, neighborhoods," she said. "Because if you have a job, you worry less about survival. The city then can spend more time on issues of quality of life."
Abena Disroe, a Ward 2 resident, teaches workshops to residents on how to empower their neighborhoods through a program sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. She said she was excited to see Williams bring D.C. residents together for the same purpose.
But she questioned why Williams didn't have copies of the draft of his citywide strategic plan stuffed in the materials that were passed out to participants. She picked up one of the few copies sitting on a table.
"Why isn't the plan in the folder? Half of these people will leave without it," Disroe said. "The mayor has a vision and he's written it down.
"Once he receives the community's input, I want to know if he's going to include their vision into his plan. He invited them here to come up with ideas. Whether these people believe this is going to happen or not, this is important to them."
Recognizing Common Goals
Marge Maceda, a day-care center operator who lives in Southwest Washington, said one of the things she learned at her table was that people of all the neighborhoods have common goals.
"We'd like to see retail and restaurants developed in neighborhoods as well as downtown," she said. "Trees and flowers kept in the city."
Maceda attended a reception held by the mayor Nov. 18 and picked up a draft copy of his strategic plan and was "amazed at how detailed this is," she said. "I don't think we'll have real knowledge for a while of how this connects to the draft."
Youthful Point of View Several teenagers from Ward 7 attended the summit.
Marcus Harley, 15, who attends Eastern High School, said he wanted to participate because "I want to help improve the community . . . and I get school credits." Harley said there are several important issues facing young people in the District, namely "recreation and teen violence."
Harley was working the room with buddies, Raven Maynard, 15, Tim Johnson, 14, and Chris Smith, 14.
Each of the boys said it was important for young people to participate in the summit so officials could get a sense of what's important for the District's youth.
A Voice From the Past
Besides several D.C. Council members, former mayor Marion Barry dropped by the summit and pronounced it a good idea for improving residents' involvement in city government. Barry chatted with several residents and was viewed by others as something of a curiosity. The former mayor's named popped back into the news last week with reports that the FBI had planned to conduct a second sting operation aimed at him.
Barry--who was arrested in an FBI sting nearly 10 years ago in which agents videotaped him smoking crack cocaine, and then returned to the mayor's office nearly three years after his release from prison on a misdemeanor drug charge--was the target of an aborted bribery sting last year. As part of an investigation of D.C. police corruption, the FBI and D.C. police hoped to videotape Barry accepting money in exchange for giving someone a city job.
Barry said the aborted sting was evidence of continued federal harassment of him, and some of those at the summit seemed to agree.
Williams, who succeeded Barry as mayor last January, wouldn't criticize the FBI but did say that the city was growing weary of the Feds vs. Barry story line.
"We're proud to have the FBI has a partner in our crime fighting and they're a great organization," Williams said. "But these officials need to get a life. Leave the man [Barry] alone. . . . I don't know how I can elaborate. Leave him alone."
CAPTION: At the citizen summit called Neighborhood Action, Brenda Floyd, below, paid close attention to speakers on stage. "I like the way he's decided to involve the public in the planning of our city," she said of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). At right, DiYi Bei, left, Xi Mei Luo, Chunna Cai, John Lem, Zhen-Liu Guo and Jin Huan Lin represented the Cantonese speakers of Chinatown. Below center, about 3,000 people attended the event, which was used to identify priorities and develop a citywide strategic plan.
CAPTION: Williams doffed his trademark bow tie for the event and strolled among participants. Some residents said they enjoyed having access to him in the informal setting.