One year after Mayor Anthony A. Williams took office, there are clear signs that he has ushered in a new era of D.C. government: There is a single telephone number for residents to call for city services; business owners are getting permits much more quickly; and some city offices stay open late to serve people who work all day.
But there are also nagging reminders of the old D.C. government: long waits at the Department of Motor Vehicles; trash that isn't always picked up on time; huge piles of leaves that accumulated in late fall because city crews were behind schedule; and abandoned buildings that continue to be eyesores along New York Avenue, despite officials' promises to tear them down.
They are the mundane tasks of government--visible ways to tell whether a bureaucracy is serving its residents. Williams (D) has spent much of his first year trying to rebuild trust in D.C. government by stressing such basic services, and interviews across town indicate he has been mostly successful.
For the record, Williams has come through on 20 of 28 promises he made a year ago to improve a range of basic city services, and he is making progress toward fulfilling five more. During the year he added more goals focusing largely on public safety; his success rate on those initiatives is roughly the same.
But as Williams tries to nail down the last items of his first-year plan, he acknowledges that the real work--fundamentally changing D.C. government so that it never again faces massive financial problems and a constituency that doesn't trust it to deliver services--is just beginning.
In essence, his first-year plan was cosmetic, a fresh coat of paint on a government with serious shortcomings, including its lack of oversight in issuing contracts, its neglect of the mentally ill and homeless and its incompetent workers who are a drag on the government.
Abdusalam Omer, Williams's chief of staff, said the administration hopes to sustain its accomplishments while tackling the complexities of dysfunctional agencies.
"Rome was not built in a day," Omer said. "The mayor came in and faced broken systems. A number of employees were not motivated or trained to do the job they were supposed to do. We dug out of that and have established confidence and credibility with District residents. There is a sense of hope and civic pride."
Williams said his main goal last year was simply rebuilding residents' faith in city government.
"I'm very proud of getting citizens involved and ensuring accountability," Williams said. "There is a sense of urgency and responsiveness. Our government leaves a lot to be desired, but it's a long way from where we were."
Among his top accomplishments: The mayor and his advisers cite the new citywide call center, the sale of more than 100 boarded-up buildings to first-time home buyers and a summit in November that drew about 3,000 people who were told their suggestions will be considered when Williams prepares next year's D.C. budget.
Williams designed the call center (202-727-1000) to try to make residents' interaction with D.C. government less frustrating. Twenty-seven operators, each with a computer, answer queries--an average of 41,000 calls a month--and try to provide accurate information with few delays.
More than 3,600 requests each month come from residents with complaints about trash pickup, illegal dumping, dangerous tree limbs, dead animals that need to be taken away, potholes or malfunctioning street lights. The complaints are tracked to ensure they are addressed.
Last summer, Williams persuaded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to release 68 boarded-up buildings from its public housing rolls, and the properties were offered to first-time home buyers for $250 in a lottery.
Williams has, however, been surprised by the difficulty in improving some aspects of D.C. government. In his inaugural speech, Williams said that "we need to free ourselves from the tyranny" of long lines at the DMV, and he promised results in six months.
He's fallen short of that goal. One Williams aide said that the DMV's problems turned out to be "worse than we thought."
The large waiting room in DMV's downtown headquarters seems more organized than before; each resident gets a numbered ticket and waits until the number is displayed on an electronic board.
But one recent day it was standing room only, with more than 300 people, at lunch time. For Stephanie Weisman, 30, who had shown up at 9 a.m. to get new car tags, the wait was nearly four hours, courtesy of a crashed DMV computer. Halfway through her wait, Weisman ran out to put more money in a two-hour parking meter and found that she already had been issued a ticket.
DMV workers weren't always helpful. Wrong advice from the information desk set Weisman behind about 30 minutes. At the first window, Weisman found a helpful and courteous employee. But then she had to deal with a rude cashier.
"You have no common sense," the woman told Weisman, who had lost her tags.
Sherryl Hobbs Newman, who took over the DMV last summer, acknowledged the crush at the C Street NW headquarters and the problems with an old computer system. By next year, she plans to have a new computer system installed.
Newman also plans to retrain DMV workers and to try to shorten the time residents spend at the agency by using a newsletter and a Web site to describe what documents they need to bring. Satellite offices are planned, and soon residents will be able to apply for licenses and permits online.
Residents have praised one thing about Newman's agency. The DMV, along with the departments of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Employment Services and Human Services, now is open until 8 p.m. Wednesdays to make it easier for working residents to take care of city business. The DCRA and the Office of Tax and Revenue also have opened one-stop customer service centers.
One recent day, D.C. landlord Edward T. Battle needed the names of the officers of a corporation he planned to sue, so he headed to the DCRA's new offices on North Capitol Street. He was directed to the "One Stop Business Permit Center," a clean, comfortable room filled with clerks.
At the front desk, Battle was asked what he needed and issued a number. In 20 minutes, Battle's name was called, and the file was delivered. It was, he said, quite a contrast to the times he had to wait hours for documents at DCRA's old offices on H Street NW, where workers often appeared to duck into cubicles to dodge eye contact with frustrated residents. Sometimes, Battle said, he'd hear workers chatting with each other or making personal calls as he waited.
"I'm one of the people who believe the mayor has done a good job in terms of his outreach services," Battle said. "It's an 80 percent turnaround in better efficiency."
Williams's emphasis on simply filling potholes in a reasonable time--a basic task that in the past often was beyond the Department of Public Works's capability--has won the mayor fans across the city.
In Cleveland Park, Tersh Boasberg and his wife, Sally, watched for two weeks as a pothole on their street grew. The hole eventually got so huge that when cars hit it, hubcaps flew off. Finally, they decided to plow through the city's bureaucratic maze and report it. They made one call to the city's new main number. The operator took the location and gave Sally Boasberg a case number so she could track the complaint.
Six days later, the pothole was filled.
"It's a complete change," said Tersh Boasberg, a lawyer and chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. He said they did not give the operator his name or address.
"The thing that blew my mind was, there was a central number to call," said Boasberg, who backed Williams in last year's elections. "The person who answered the phone knew what she was doing. She gave us a computer tracking number and it was fixed. . . . There's no question in my mind that city workers are nicer, quicker."
But Public Works is still struggling in other areas. Peter Riddleberger, a retiree who lives in American University Park, said that when he complained about leaf pickup, he was told that it was 2 1/2 weeks behind.
Public Works Director Vanessa Dale Burns said the city collected 4,300 tons of leaves this season but fell behind in Wards 3 and 4 in Northwest. The city has 27 new leaf vacuums, but some arrived late, delaying pickups.
The city still has problems getting trash picked up on time, cleaning roads and alleys and fixing garbage trucks, Burns said. One day in recent weeks, as many as 17 of the city's 48 garbage trucks weren't working. The city has spent $1 million on new equipment, including 24 new alley sweepers, but residents won't see the impact until spring.
For the Department of Human Services, the largest D.C. agency, the good news has been the recent beginning of a multilingual referral service that is always open. Williams also kept promises to give welfare recipients financial aid for education and vocational courses, and to commit $52 million to community groups to manage welfare-to-work cases.
But the department faces huge problems.
There were contracting problems in the welfare-to-work program that led to the firing of a top DHS official. And a Washington Post probe found 350 documented cases of abuse and 116 unexamined deaths in group homes for the mentally retarded since 1993. The Post also found that the DHS had lost or concealed records on dozens of deaths in its group-home system.
Williams and his aides were taken aback by the mess at DHS. The mayor said he soon will propose "serious, substantial changes" for the agency.
Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless and the mentally ill say the mayor has much work to do. Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said her hopes soared when Williams, in his inaugural speech, said he wanted to "reweave the safety net" for the most vulnerable D.C. residents.
"But it hasn't played out as a priority for the mayor," she said. "One year into the Williams administration, we still have over 400 families on the waiting list to get into emergency shelters. I believe his commitment is genuine, but we haven't seen it acted on."
Williams agreed he needs to work on that, adding, "I'm glad the critics see my commitment."
The mayor has been frustrated with some of the most persistent problems in D.C. government because three troubled systems--the D.C. jail's mental health division, the D.C. Commission on Mental Health and Child and Family Services--operate under court-ordered receiverships because of massive problems in the past. The housing agency also has been run by a receiver, but it has improved and is on track to be returned to city authority.
Although he has a limited say in how the receiverships are run, Williams appointed a liaison to improve communication among the agencies.
"Cleaning the streets, putting in computers and answering the phones--these are the easy jobs," Omer said. "Helping our children, the elderly, the unemployed and taking them to a sustainable level--that will be the prize."
NEXT: The D.C. Council is eager to demonstrate that times have changed and that it is a major player in running the city.
YEAR ONE: MAYOR WILLIAMS AND THE DISTRICT'S 28 GOALS
When he took office last year, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced 28 goals for his administration during its first year, aimed largely at improving basic services to residents. A look at how the mayor has fared:
1. Reopen Thomas Circle Underpass
Award emergency contract to allow for its reopening in February 1999.
2. Rat Abatement
Increase abatement efforts. Distribute containers for residents to store trash and host a "Rat Summit" to discuss ways to fight the rodents.
In progress. City held summit. Abatement efforts have increased, but complaints remain high.
3. Pothole Blitz
Extend temporary pothole repairs to 10 hours a day, six days a week, with eventual goal of filling 95 percent of all reported potholes within 48 hours.
Goal met; Crews typically fill potholes in four days; some are filled sooner.
4. Gateway Beautification
Expand sweeping and replace trees, kill weeds and replace missing, faded and graffiti-laden signs along the Georgia Avenue, East Capitol Street and New York Avenue corridors.
Goal not met; Weeds have been cut down and new signs put up, but much work remains.
5. Welfare Service Network
Commit $52 million to community groups for a decentralized case management system to speed up welfare-to-work efforts.
6. Building Plan Reviews
Reduce waiting time for building plan reviews at Department of Consumer Affairs.
7. Faster Electrical Inspections
DCRA will eliminate the backlog in electrical inspections and reduce its response times.
8. Decrease Regulatory Hassles
DCRA representatives will work with developers to explain and expedite the regulatory process and help them meet requirements.
9. Extended Hours on Wednesdays
To accommodate residents' busy schedules, many agencies will remain open until 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
10. Neighborhood Stabilization
DCRA inspectors will work with residents andneighborhood groups to address conditions that facilitate drug trafficking and other illegal activity.
11. Graffiti Blasters
Double the number of rapid-response teams from three to six. Remove graffiti in targeted neighborhoods, clean street signs, public buildings and fixtures.
In progress. Anti-graffiti teams have been doubled; graffiti removed from three recreation centers.
12. Partnership with Doe Fund
Form partnership with the [New York-based nonprofit] Doe Fund to give treatment, job training and work to 25 formerly homeless people with substance abuse problems.
13. One Phone Number for D.C. Government
D.C. government will develop a telephone help line (202-727-1000).
14. Improve Service Centers
Many agencies will upgrade service centers with additional customer service representatives, better lighting, new paint and one-stop shopping.
In progress, but goal not met.
15. Satellite One-Stop Career Center
Establish a career center at the Latin American Youth Center in Adams-Morgan.
16. Reduce Waiting Time at DMV
DMV will make greater use of express windows and "concierge" service, and add five staff members to help those in line at its C Street office. DMV will establish a tracking system to monitor waiting times.
Goal not met
17. DMV Neighborhood Drop Boxes
DMV will establish drop boxes in neighborhood police stations.
18. Education and Training for Welfare Recipients
Provide financial help for education and vocational courses to recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families who meet the federal work requirement.
19. Nontraditional Child Care
Establish rates for nontraditional hours to enable welfare recipients to get subsidized child care.
20. Consumer Affairs Online
DCRA will establish interactive online capability so businesses, professionals and developers may request assistance and submit applications for licenses and permits.
21. Summer Employment for Youths
Provide 6,500 D.C. youths with employment opportunities.
22. Eliminate Backlog of Home Improvement Loans
The housing department will attack a backlog of 75 loan applications for small improvement projects.
23. "Answers, Please" Social Service Referral System
DHS will establish a referral system listing all social service programs available for its clients.
24. Demolish Abandoned Buildings
Demolish abandoned buildings on New York Avenue between Interstate 395 and H Street NW.
Goal not met
25. Sale of 100 Boarded-Up Buildings
Work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to sell 100 boarded-up buildings, primarily in Shaw and Columbia Heights.
26. Create 13 Neighborhood Computer Learning Centers
Convert 13 D.C. recreation facilities into after-school homework centers.
27. Improve Employment Services
Make Department of Employment Services more responsive to the training and skills needs of current businesses.
28. Develop Three Recreation Centers
Build three recreation facilities: The Arc on Mississippi Avenue SE, the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center on Mississippi Avenue SE, and the Banneker Ball Fields on Georgia Avenue NW.
SOURCE: D.C. government