When Marion Barry ran for mayor in 1978, he railed against inefficient and unresponsive government in the District of Columbia--programs that didn't work, managers who didn't manage, civil servants who didn't serve.
He promised better housing. He pledged more jobs. He vowed a new generation of leadership, a competent and compassionate bureaucracy, hometown pride instead of civic embarrassment.
And, symbolically, he promised the biggest of little things: a courteous and responsive voice on the other end of the telephone line--a blessing to thousands for whom the surly D.C. civil servant had be-come the epitome of a government that appeared to do just about everything wrong.
"If I can just get everybody to answer the telephone right," Barry said on the eve of his inauguration, "that's drastic, that's revolutionary."
Nearly 3 1/2 years later, the revolution has yet to come to D.C. government.
City employes may have improved their telephone manners a bit. Yet a caller seeking help, a businessman seeking a permit or a family member in search of a birth certificate can still encounter bureaucratic buck-passing. And the mayor says he knows it.
Barry's tough campaign talk of 1978 has given way to mayoral homilies on the limits of power. "I thought I understood the bureaucracy," he said during a recent two-hour interview. "But you get over here and you find out you really don't know all the actors--who will work, who won't work, what programs are."
Barry acknowledges that his administration got off to a slow start during its first two years. He made mistakes, he says, but learned from them. And in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, he insists, he should be judged only on what he has done recently, "not what I did not do three years ago."
"Things in the city, in almost every category of service delivery, are getting better," the mayor said. "I moved from the valley to the mountain top."
Are services better? How have things changed?
For the next five days, The Washington Post will examine Barry's record on municipal services, the handling of the city's financial crisis, housing, jobs, economic development and other issues--matching, as Barry often invites audiences on the campaign trail to do, rhetoric and reality, promises and performance.
"You're not going to find broken promises. You may find some things that may not have happened yet that I wanted to happen. You may find that I may have changed my view on a project or two based on more information," Barry said. "That's what experience does for you," he said.
"The main thing," he said, "is that the effort was made. That's how you judge a politician's promises: Did he make the effort?"
Barry's performance on bureaucratic efficiency is a jagged line:
The water bills are sent out in a more timely and accurate fashion now than three years ago, yet some inaccuracies still occur, including one astounding bill for $14,985 that should have been $28.
Getting a building permit can still be a six-month to one-year ordeal. Getting a birth certificate can take three hours.
Welfare and Medicaid payment errors are down, and so is rat infestation in poor neighborhoods. Services for the elderly have been improved.
But Washington's infant mortality rate is still among the highest in the nation, and ambulance response time here lags well behind the national average.
Street and bridge repaving has doubled, and potholes are patched more quickly. But snow removal is still spotty.
More police are on the streets. But more criminals are, too. Serious crime in Washington has risen by 20 percent in the past three years.
Barry claims limited power over his bureaucracy. He can do little more, he says, than "cajole and push" the vast majority of the city's 38,000 employes who are protected by civil service law that makes it difficult, though not impossible, to fire them.
"If you assume 10 percent of those people are unmanageable or are goofing off or don't care or are incompetent, all those things, you're talking about 3,800 people," Barry said. "Now I maintain that the great majority of our employes provide the services that they're supposed to provide."
Barry recruited Elijah B. Rogers, then city manager in Berkeley, Calif., to replace Julian R. Dugas, who as city administrator under former mayor Walter E. Washington functioned more as a chief of staff than city executive.
Rogers imposed rigid new budget and program policies, and the D.C. government underwent a major internal reorganization. As he had pledged to do during the 1978 campaign, Barry gradually replaced two-thirds of the department heads and cabinet members.
Also, the mayor sporadically waged crusades to make employes more cheerful and responsive to constituents, at one point even ordering all those who had contact with the public to wear name tags.
Neighborhood leaders interviewed recently said they have noticed improvements in city services during the past year, although some of them linked those improvements to Barry's reelection campaign. And there still are some complaints.
"Sometimes we blame the mayor for the delivery of services over which he has very little control," said Evelyn H. Gray, president of the Brightwood Civic Association in Northwest Washington. "But as Harry Truman said, the buck has to stop here."
Stephen Koczak, president of the Federation of Citizens Associations, said Barry has coped well with routine services, but neglected long-term problems, like deteriorating sewer lines.
"The city's infrastructure is wearing down and one day whole sections of the city will have to be torn up," Koczak said. "There is no proper maintenance to keep it in good order."
Arthur V. Meigs, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, said he personally feels that city services have improved but that many of his members don't share that conviction.
"The feeling is there is not all that much improvement, Meigs said, "but it's certainly not worse."
Candidate Barry had pledged to straighten out the water billing problem in six months. But until late last year, the water revenue division of the Department of Environmental Services was a shambles and a major embarrassment for Barry.
Customers either received no bills for years or wildly inaccurate bills. Telephones calls often weren't answered, and when they were, clerks were discourteous. People waited in line four hours at the water billing office to talk to someone.
"The first time I came here I couldn't believe it," recalled Earle Jones, who became customer services manager last year. "People were going to and fro, yelling and sweating, like a market scene, it was total chaos. You could almost taste the venom."
Six months ago, after years of study, Barry instituted a crash program. He doubled the division's budget to $3.2 million and brought in Enrique Jograj, a 32-year-old utility whiz with 12 years of experience, who began running the city agency like a private utility.
Jograj fired meter readers he thought were loafing, replaced the old manual ledger system with computers, hired more people to deal with the public, quadrupled the number of phone lines and expanded customer service hours.
As a result, late billings are down, from 23,000 in September to about 1,000 a week ago, and the wait for customer service has been reduced from hours to an average of about five minutes, according to departmental logs.
The city also has a vigorous campaign to collect delinquent bills and other procedures predicted to reap an additional $14 million in revenues over last year.
So far, Barry has not delivered on his pledge to expedite the process for issuing various city permits to businessmen.
For two years, for instance, Rafael Lopez was the lone electrical engineer in the D.C. Building & Zoning Regulation Administration (BZRA), responsible for approving more than 3,000 building-permit applications a year.
When Lopez was ill, as he said he frequently was last year, delays rippled through the building world, from downtown developers to residential renovators.
Carlos Rojas, a member of a Greater Washington Board of Trade task force that studied the city's building permit operation last year, said recently that the system has gotten worse under Barry, primarily because of inadequate staffing.
"The [city] officials of course will argue otherwise, but I've done this for many years, and things are worse," said Rojas, who is responsible for obtaining D.C. building permits for a Washington-area architectural firm.
Despite a major building boom, the housing department currently employs only 12 full-time engineers and technicians to review all aspects of building permit applications.
In 1968, there were 28. But many have retired, including some who took advantage of early out provisions that Barry instituted during the city's financial crisis to minimize layoffs. For a time, moreover, the city had a hiring freeze, also part of Barry's budget battle.
A second electrical engineer was hired recently to help Lopez, and several private consultants have been retained to help reduce permit application backlogs.
But the department still has staff shortages in other areas that add weeks and months to the waiting time for permits, drive up the cost of projects and retard the city's efforts to increase its tax base.
As a candidate, Barry promised to improve city health care. Shortly after taking office, he labeled infant mortality Washington's "No. 1 health problem" and launched a crusade that eventually became the most visible symbol of his efforts to make good on the pledge.
Several blue ribbon panels were appointed to determine why Washington had the highest infant mortality rate of any metropolitan area in the country. Reports were made to the mayor, but little has changed.
Some of the recommendations proved too costly to implement and others were rebuffed by private hospitals. Moreover, adds Department of Human Services Director James Buford, the city's bureaucracy has in some instances been "dragging its feet."
The result has been a minor change in the infant mortality rate. When Barry took office, Washington had 27.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 1980, the latest year for which figures are available, the rate was 24.6--still the highest of any area and still twice the national average.
While conceding that results have not measured up to his expectations, Barry notes that the city has implemented an outreach program of prenatal education and established a supplemental food program. Without his efforts, he says, the infant mortality rate would not have gone down at all.
Had he known in 1978 how difficult it is to reduce infant mortality, Barry said, he would have been more restrained in his campaign pledge.
Another vital part of the city's health care system is ambulance service, which also improved under Barry but is still below national norms.
In Washington, ambulances now respond to distress calls on the average of 8.7 minutes, about two minutes faster than in 1979, but well behind the 5-minute average nationwide.
A major problem has been a shortage of ambulances and qualified personnel. The fire department operates 16 ambulances, only one-third to one-fourth as many as some neighboring jurisdictions that have larger geographic areas to cover but less than half as many runs each year as the 90,000 handled by the D.C. Fire Department.
Since Barry took office, the city has added one ambulance to the fleet. In addition, the department has supplemented its ambulance service with other fire equipment to make sure that some assistance is provided within minutes of an emergency call. Most firemen are trained to administer first aid.
Snow removal and trash pickup are two other highly visible city services that have proved nettlesome for Barry.
Barry was on vacation in Florida when the first major snow storm of his administration struck Washington, in February 1979. Upon his return, the new mayor prompted a public outcry when he said he had more important things to do than worry about snow removal and stranded motorists.
This past winter, as the 1982 election drew nearer, Barry displayed increased interest in the details of snow plowing and pothole repairs, with mixed results.
City crews usually kept most major and secondary streets plowed, salted and sanded. But conditions on side streets often verged on hopeless. Eventually, the city officials gave up trying to clear side streets and simply waited for the temperatures to rise.
"If I said the job couldn't have been done any better," said Thomas Downs, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, "I'd be crazy."
The first time Barry proposed reducing trash collection from twice to once a week in the often neglected neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River as a way of saving money, he was soundly rebuffed by the D.C. Council.
A year later, with a much improved public relations campaign and a citywide approach, Barry revived the proposal, first on an experimental basis and later to stay.
The city paid $2.3 million to purchase more than 62,000 "Super cans"--bulky, 85-gallon green plastic mini-trash bins on wheels, and equipped half the city's 80 garbage trucks with hydraulic lifts to handle the cans.
Initially, there was criticism of the cans as cumbersome and unsafe, trash collectors feared job losses and many citizens complained that the program had not been explained well enough.
But since the program was launched citywide late last year, much of the criticism has dissipated. No jobs have been lost because of the program and officials say they have received few complaints about reduced service.
Walter Washington, the man Barry criticized as inefficient and apologetic, was often the first to admit that his own government, like the best in life, was not perfect. "Even Willie Mays struck out," Washington once said.
After 3 1/2 years of swinging at the same bureaucracy, here's what Barry says:
"See, I don't think any elected official ought to be naive enough to think that you're going to bat a hundred on everything.
"It's like Reggie Jackson . . . He strikes out four or five times during a two- or three-week period. You don't throw him off the team. He struck out, but he keeps hitting a home run every now and then." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, by Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Candidate Barry had pledged to straighten out the water billing system in six months, but until last year it remained a shambles. Then Barry instituted a crash program, doubling the division's budget to $3.2 million and hiring Enrique Jograi, 32, who has been running the agency like a private utility. Despite occasional errors, things are much improved. By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, Getting a building permit can still be a six-month to one-year ordeal, primarily because of inadequate staffing. For two years, Rafael Lopez, was the lone electrical engineerin the D.C. Building and Zoning Regulation Administration. Despite a major building boom, the District's housing department currently employs only 12 full-time engineers and technicians. By Vanessa Barnes Hillian -- The Washington Post