Friday was my last day as the District's city administrator. Before I go I want to describe some of the special gifts I've received during my seven-year tenure.

The first is an understanding of the value of democracy. Before coming to Washington I had worked for cities in three other states. Those cities were represented by such people as Sen. Robert Dole, Sen. John McClellan, Sen. William Fulbright, Rep. Dick Bolling and Rep. Wilbur Mills. I took for granted what that representation meant -- advocacy and leverage in the national government. Only in working with the government of the District of Columbia do you begin to understand and treasure all that everyone else in the United States takes for granted. The power of Congress naming your streets, trying to run your prisons or legislating your morality is not to be underestimated.

Without voting rights in Congress, the national debate over what is best for Washington is paternalistic and, at its worst, is demeaning to both the nation and the District. The pain of this paternalism seems to permeate the lives of all of us in Washington. Sometimes the pain manifests itself in humor. I recently received a note from a friend who said: "Don't think of this as leaving Washington, think of it as gaining two senators."

To all of you who have worked so hard to defend home rule, to obtain full voting rights for Washington, my hope and prayer is that you will never give up the fight until you are victorious. Even in times of doubt, always remember that the stakes are enormous. It is not the dignity of everyday life in Washington that is at risk; it's the dignity of the nation.

The second gift is the reaffirmation that public service is joyful and memorable only when you meet the public as you should -- eyeball to eyeball. Because most citizens in Washington realize that they are denied a reasonable voice in national affairs, they focus their hopes and dreams on the only government they truly have, the District government. Citizens try hard to make their neighborhoods work, and they demand a lot of their public servants.

But they give a lot in return. After meeting the public in houses, schools, businesses and government buildings on everything from stop signs to a home for disturbed children, my best memories are of being directly accountable to a demanding public. I know now that public servants are only as good as their direct connection to their citizens. The dedication, care and concern of the citizens of Washington created whatever small successes I had during my seven years here.

The third gift is a true understanding of the value of neighborliness, in the regional sense of the word. Even though you might not expect it, the Washington region is blessed with a sense of togetherness that is uncommon in any other city or state. It could easily be otherwise. Being surrounded by two powerful states that could use their congressional power to dictate regional answers to the District, we are treated as equals. Whether the issue was air quality, water quality, landfills, sludge disposal, transportation or Metro, we have been treated as full partners in the debate by our neighbors.

For this I must thank two people who have respected the dignity of the District and have worked hard to avoid end runs to Congress. The first is Walt Scheiber, director of the Council of Governments, who has set the tone for a level of regional cooperation that is probably unattainable anywhere else in the country. Walt understands the importance of cooperation among equals and has devoted most of his public life to that ideal.

The second person who has helped the region develop the sense of fairness and dignity about the District is Jay Lambert, the Fairfax County executive. Jay is just hell to negotiate with because he is always tough and well prepared, but you know that he will never push over the line of fairness, nor will he ever resort to Congress to solve a regional problem. He has reached out to help the District when he could and has set the mark for intergovernmental relations throughout the region. To Walt, Jay and others, such as Steny Hoyer, who have been tough with the District while still respecting our dignity, thank you for creating a region that is strong together.

In leaving Washington, I regret not having done more for two groups of people who have even fewer rights than the rest of us: the recent immigrants and illegal residents, and the children. The hard work of immigrants built our city and our country. We have turned our back on their problems and overlook the opportunities. Our dignity depends on how well we integrate these new immigrants into our community and our lives.

The children, who are born poor and grow up even poorer, suffer from inadequate health care and nutrition. They get caught up in the lure of the street and kill or are killed in a span of time that seems unbearably brief. I now wish for more time to work out better nutrition programs, Head Start programs, better foster care, better cooperation with the schools -- but time is gone for me.

All of you can help make this a safe and healthy city for children. Because they don't vote and because they always seem able to survive somehow, children become invisible. They are not. They are our future. -- Thomas M. Downs