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  Rivlin Wants to Aid Home Rule

About the Board
Alice Rivlin
Alice M. Rivlin is the new chairman of the D.C. financial control board. (AP File Photo)

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Alice M. Rivlin
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By David A. Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 1998; Page B01

The head of the D.C. financial control board said yesterday that she wants to share power with the District's soon-to-be elected mayor and D.C. Council and that she intends to put in far fewer hours than her predecessor.

Alice M. Rivlin said that because of her commitment to home rule and her demanding "day job" at the Federal Reserve Board, the control board will "micro-manage" District government less. Rivlin, the number two official at the Fed, said she will meet with the new mayor and D.C. Council after the election this fall to discuss how to put the levers of government back in the hands of elected officials.

"A lot of the detail stuff has got to be back where it belongs," Rivlin said during a lunch meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "I have a very busy full-time job and am not going to be able to spend the amount of time on it that Dr. [Andrew F.] Brimmer did. . . . I think that is appropriate. The board can't run the city and shouldn't run the city. I see the board focusing much more on major policy and bringing the city together."

Rivlin said it appears unlikely that a skeptical Congress will accelerate the return of home rule ahead of the schedule set by law, which calls for two more years of balanced budgets. She also said the District must make visible improvements in services to persuade legislators on Capitol Hill to restore self-government.

 
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"It is not going to be an easy sell on the Hill," Rivlin said.

While emphasizing that the District has made tremendous progress financially -- the city had a budget surplus last year and projects a $305 million surplus for the fiscal year that ends this month -- Rivlin said the city's public schools and other programs still need substantial improvement. She also said the budget surplus has been generated in part by deep cuts in services that may have gone too far.

"We have whole areas of the city that need better schools, better health care and economic development," Rivlin said.

Since joining the presidentially appointed control board this summer and taking charge as chairman on Sept. 1, Rivlin said, she has been pleased by progress in some areas, including reductions in the time it takes to get driver's licenses renewed and cars inspected, and impressed by the caliber of senior-level managers. But she also has been surprised by the substandard conditions that persist in a city that still has too many rotary telephones and decrepit offices, roughly 10 years after she began work on the landmark "Rivlin Report," which highlighted the District government's problems.

Rivlin vividly described wandering through the city recently and getting lost as she tried to find the office of Jearline F. Williams, head of the giant Department of Human Services.

"It is hard to find and in a temporary building at the back of an alley of the St. Elizabeths campus," Rivlin said, referring to the city's mental hospital. "I got lost and ended up in a farm yard." Rivlin said she came upon a man who was hand-pumping water from a well and then saw some rusty old city vehicles nearby that were being repaired.

"It was kind of surreal," Rivlin recalled.

The 67-year-old Rivlin said that she had breakfast yesterday with Wilma R. Harvey, president of the elected D.C. school board, and that she is devising a plan to restore power to that body by June 2000. Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of the city's public schools, currently reports to the control board. Rivlin praised Ackerman but cautioned that "we are not going to see instant success."

Rivlin also expressed confidence in Camille C. Barnett, the city's chief management officer, who has day-to-day authority over running most of the District government. Rivlin said Barnett, who reports to the board, is "doing a very good job" in a "difficult situation."

Barnett's office is the subject of investigations by the FBI, the District's inspector general and the federal General Accounting Office. The FBI probe, sparked by a referral last week by the control board, concerns allegedly phony invoices submitted by a consultant working for the chief management officer. Rivlin said people should remember that the dollars involved are relatively small -- less than $2,000 -- and that the control board never paid the money requested.

Rivlin described Barnett as an experienced city manager and said anyone raising questions about her handling of contracts and personnel must remember that nobody is perfect. The control board chairman said Barnett, moving quickly to accomplish management reforms, naturally turned for help to consultants she knew. Rivlin also said Barnett has acknowledged that she made a mistake regarding the details of an $893,000 no-bid consulting contract with a former associate that the control board canceled last month.

"She was very upset," Rivlin said of Barnett. "Nobody likes to make mistakes."

After the control board era passes, Rivlin said, the District government needs to be run by competent professional managers who report to elected officials. But Rivlin said she has reached no conclusions on precisely how power should be allocated.

The control board chairman said the city's residents, elected leaders and others need to begin a dialogue soon about what type of government structure the District needs and then persuade Congress to approve it by speaking with one voice.

"We ought to have a serious community-wide discussion of those issues," Rivlin said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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