D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is organizing an unprecedented citywide network of "community service" volunteers--one for every 200 voters--who will be expected to take care of complaints about city services on behalf of the mayor and spread the word about what a good job Barry is doing.
The volunteers--as many as 500, who would work out of their homes--are being organized by Anita Bonds, a former Barry staff aide who served as chief community organizer in his reelection campaign last year. Bonds is now director of the city's Office of Community Services and is paid $43,681 a year.
Critics of the network, including some supporters of the mayor, complained they have not been told about the system, and some said it appears to be a thinly veiled effort to establish a taxpayer-financed extension of Barry's campaign.
"This smacks of Chicago," said one Barry supporter in Ward 3 who is opposed to the plan and asked not to be identified. "It's obvious what they are doing under the guise of community service."
At a reception last week, Barry dismissed criticisms of the operation.
"As long as the citizens get delivery of service, I don't care what it looks like," Barry said. "You can call it what you want."
No specific budget is set aside for the network, which will be financed through the community services office, which operates as part of the mayor's office and currently spends about $375,000 annually. The network will be run by city employes under Bonds, many of whom worked in Barry's re-election campaign. A staff member is assigned as ward coordinator in each of the wards.
As volunteers are chosen for the program, Bonds said, they will be expected to make themselves known in their communities and to encourage residents to bring them complaints about city services, such as poor trash collection, potholes that need repair or alleys that need cleaning.
The volunteers would then call city agencies or their ward coordinator in the community services office to get the problem taken care of. Once that is done, Bonds said, the volunteers would be expected to go back to the residents to make sure they were satisfied and to let them know that the mayor had taken care of their problem.
The staff aides will be allowed to reimburse the volunteers for minor expenses incurred in their duties, such as the cost of sympathy or birthday cards or "tea and cookie" expenses for meetings, according to Bonds.
Bonds has been conducting private meetings between Barry and invited citizens in each of the city's eight wards for the past several months to explain the program and describe the kind of volunteers she is seeking. No volunteers have yet been chosen, and she said the system may not be fully in place until late next year.
Bonds said in an interview Friday that the chief job of the operation would be "to set up a system for the regular exchange of information" among citizens and citizen groups.
She said its purpose is not political, and that it is needed because the news media do not do enough to tell the good things about the Barry admininstration or inform residents about governmental actions.
"I knew when we got started we would get criticism," Bonds said. "We are trying to communicate with citizens. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing."
"I have not heard about the community operation ; I am perplexed about why it is needed," said Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). Jarvis said the operation appears to overlap the functions of the council offices, which handle a lot of constitutent service, and the community-based Advisory Neighborhood Commission members who are elected and by law are required to make government information available. In addition she said, city departments usually handle complaints from citizens.
"We didn't hear a thing about it until we got calls from people who were asked to attend a meeting," said an aide to another council member who is considered close to Barry. "I don't think anyone was excluded, I think some were just not invited. It was mostly the mayor's campaign workers."
Bonds said her office would try to bring in a broad section of the community to take part in the network, but acknowledged she started with Barry's own list of campaign supporters and friendly civic groups.
A participant at one of the organizing meetings in Ward 3 near Foxhall Road last week quoted Bonds as saying, "You cannot be in this group if you are not a supporter of the mayor."
Bonds denied making that comment, but confirmed that the structure of the organization--one volunteer per 200 voters in the city--is based only on lists of voters in last September's Democratic Primary. She said a list of qualified voters from the November election, which would include Republicans and Independents, would be taken into account when it is available.
Bonds said that during the campaign last year Barry's aides found that citizens didn't have enough information about the mayor's policies.
"Ninety percent of our problems were simply people not knowing what the administration had done or was doing," Bonds said. "If nothing else comes from this shop, they citizens can expect reasonably accurate information about government."
She said her office has already coordinated ward level meetings on such topics as the city's proposed comprehensive plan and the 1984 budget.
Bonds, who is widely respected for her talents in organizing political campaigns, said Barry decided after last year's elections to revamp the community services office--which largely played a ceremonial role by standing in for the mayor or serving as his advance team--into a broad-ranging operation.
"We're going to be more sophisticated about this," Bonds said, adding that her staff is required to attend ANC meetings, community events and meetings with other departments.
She acknowledged the political benefits for the mayor, but said there also were potential drawbacks as well because disgruntled citizens could use information gained through the program against the mayor "if he doesn't follow through."
"By doing good service work," she said, "you enhance your chance of staying in office."
Some of the city workers involved the program include Ward 2 coordinator James Zais, who is paid $29,142 for work in the community services office; Lorraine Bennett, whose salary is $20,096, and Sybil Hammond, a longtime aide to Barry who, with a salary of $30,113, is the highest paid person on the staff next to Bonds.
Eight of the 15 regular community service office staff members--who represent about half of the $300,000 in salaries paid in the office--are not part of the mayor's payroll and do not show up on the $1 million budget to run his office. The aides are officially "detailed" from other city departments, which continue to pay their salaries.