After generations of struggling to win some respectable measure of local self-government, will the District of Columbia lose it by default? That's a terrible prospect, but a series of actions and reactions -- as well as some serious inaction -- do give us pause. Look at what has been happening to the homeless, to housing and to the jails and prisons in this city -- and you have the ingredients for renewed federal controls over local policies in ways that are as repugnant as they are disturbing to those who cherish their hard-won franchise. In some instances, the local government seems content to throw itself and the city into the arms of the federal government: for money and facilities. In others, city hall has either refused to act in a timely and effective way or has done too little too late, while insisting on going it alone.
Corrections. After 15 years of legal battles over the operation of the this city's prisons, jails and other correctional facilities, U.S. District Judge June L. Green has ordered that an independent "special master" be appointed to oversee the operation of Lorton Reformatory's Central facility -- which lawyers for inmates have described as filthy and hazardous. Under the order, the special master will report only to the court and will have sweeping powers, including authority to ask the court to remove any employee or even the head of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Judge Green also held the city, Mayor Barry and Corrections Director James F. Palmer in contempt of court for failing to meet deadlines for renovating dormitories at Central; and she fined the city $7,500.
All of this is doubly troubling: 1) the city government never should have let things deteriorate to this stage, after all the orders and warnings from the courts over the years, and 2) the court should not be in the business of running prisons. In a late attempt to address both points, an attorney for the city said the District would name a senior official to monitor compliance with a four-year-old consent decree covering almost all operations of the prison.
While we share Judge Green's concern about "having the fox watching the henhouse," it has been -- and should be -- the city government's responsibility to run a system in a humane fashion and in compliance with all court orders. If city officials cannot do this and remain in contempt of court, the court has plenty of sanctions.
When it comes to overcrowding and the need to build a new prison, you can spread the blame around. At least now Mayor Barry has agreed to take advantage of an offer of federal money and a site; but it is the D.C. Council that is refusing to face the issue courageously and recognize that a prison is necessary somewhere in the city. It is an abdication of home rule authority to beg the Justice Department for federal space for prisoners while refusing to accept its help in building a new prison. Yet while council members twiddle their thumbs, we read about a top council aide outlining in a memo a bizarre strategy for waging a political war in Pennsylvania against Sen. Arlen Specter -- the chief mover behind the federal help for a prison.
Housing. U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr. has found this city's housing program so mismanaged that he has directed one of his top officials to step in and shape it up. These, too, were not new troubles: HUD officials cited the city's failure to resolve difficulties pointed out in a 1984 HUD audit, in addition to serious maintenance and operational troubles. Mayor Barry has said he welcomes the change in authority, commenting that "it always helps to be in the national office, because you can get more done . . . We never said we have all the answers." Sure, it's wonderful right here in the lion's mouth, where home rule can get some teeth into things. . . .
The Homeless. While Mitch Snyder, the federal government and various private local groups have been battling and negotiating to provide various forms of shelter for Washington's homeless, the city government has been content to abdicate most responsibility for taking charge until it's time to show up for the end of a fast and the start of a federal grant.
Marion Barry and the 13 members of the D.C. Council surely know the possible consequence of continued inaction and mismanagement, particularly if it is coupled with local pleas for federal help whenever there's trouble and rejections of federal cooperation when it may be politically uncomfortable. The reassertion of federal control over this city would be wrong and should be resisted. After all, home rule includes the right of locally elected governments to make mistakes. But Uncle Sam still holds the ultimate card -- and it is reckless to govern in such a way as to seem to be asking for a return of the colonial system.