"WE ARE TRYING to communicate with citizens. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing." So says Anita Bonds, the director of Washington's Office of Community Services, in discussing the network of "community service" volunteers she is organizing. The idea is to get a corps of as many as 500 volunteers--one for each 200 voters in the city--to help resolve problems citizens have with city government and to spread the word about all the good things Mayor Barry is doing for the city.
Naturally a lot of people--some of them Barry supporters--smell a political machine Ma la Chicago in the making. They have some legitimate questions. Will city money be used to pay for volunteers spreading what amounts to pro-Barry propaganda? Will city money go directly to voters in return for support? Will city employees and appointees be spending most of their time on what amounts to political organizing?
Fortunately, the city council has both the governmental powers and the political incentives to get the answers, and prevent any shenanigans. The council has to approve the budget and can investigate city spending. And the council has any number of members who would like Mr. Barry's job themselves-- and who are likely to be alert to see that he doesn't abuse the powers of his office in order to retain it.
So we don't see much to be alarmed about here. If the mayor and Anita Bonds are giving citizens another means of solving their problems with city government, fine. If that overlaps with the authority of the council or that of the advisory neighborhood commissions, so what? It's always going to be hard for the ordinary citizen to understand just how his government works, and the more help he can get the better. A healthy competition between the mayor, the council and the ANCs can only help the ordinary citizen. Our hunch is that Anita Bonds is going to find it harder than she imagines to keep 500 volunteers motivated and busy. But there is nothing wrong with trying, so long as no illegal use of public funds is involved.