- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Trying to keep the water out of the Titanic after it has already hit the iceberg while simultaneously trying to construct a new ocean liner might be the best description of the position in which Mayor Anthony Williams and his team find themselves. Adding to their dilemma is that most of the passengers don't seem to remember the reason for the rescue operation. Everyone has amnesia.

The lapse of memory may be understandable; most people equate health with money. If the city is showing a surplus, then everything must be fine. But what plagued the District was much deeper, more systemic. Officials had mismanaged the government's financial resources, municipal delivery system and labor force. While some believed the city's near-bankrupt status was the sole reason Congress created the unprecedented control board, the group's formal name the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority debunks that myth.

Here's further proof: Before Mr. Williams assumed office, six District agencies, including public housing, child welfare, mental health, and corrections, were under court order or were being directed by a court-appointed receiver. Mentally retarded and/or disabled residents were dying in government-funded group homes. The federal government had suspended the city's block grant program. A failed computer system had been replaced, but many employees had not received adequate training on it; most agency computers couldn't talk to each other. Timely trash collection was a standing joke.

In a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and one of most poorly trained labor forces, the Department of Employment Services failed to spend millions of dollars budgeted to train employees and residents. The school system was in shambles. Neighborhood economic development was a foreign concept; few officials even talked about it. The health care system was almost nonexistent, even with the creation of the new Public Benefits Corporation.

At the recreation department, residents had been forced to assume management and programming at some centers, most of which were falling apart, needing major capital investments; a fee system had been implemented because taxpayer funds had been mismanaged, and the agency was under investigation. Dysfunction was pervasive. No agency escaped it.

Add to this the chaos created by the control board. It assumed authority over several major agencies and quickly appointed a bunch of incompetents to lead them, who later were terminated or politely asked to leave, taking with them hundreds of thousands of dollars taxpayer dollars as severance. The board spent $8 million on consultants who were supposed to offer advice on how to improve services; the disclosure by The Washington Post and not the consultants of the deaths and mistreatment of retarded or disabled residents living in government-funded group homes is just one example of the quality of work performed. Chief Management Officer (CMO) Camille Cates Barnett effectively robbed the city of nearly half a million dollars and never reformed one agency. A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office on the District's management reform projects attest to the quality of her tenure.

This is the mess Mr. Williams inherited. As mayor, he is trying to effect the kind of reform he started while chief financial officer (CFO). Except that as CFO he was unencumbered by rules or politics. When personnel laws stood in his way, Congress suspended them, enabling him to abandon antiquated retreating rights and fire employees ill-suited for their jobs. Congress placed thousands of workers under his direct authority. When the mayor or D.C. Council refused to accept his budget advice, the control board backed him. Mr. Williams also had the smarts to take his case to residents, who rallied behind him in great numbers.

If the passengers on the Titanic have forgotten the reason for the rescue, Mr. Williams seems to have forgotten how to effect a rescue. He and his team have spent an enormous amount of time making promises and painting a picture of the new ocean liner they want to construct. They have failed to explain the absolutely awful state of the current ship. They have not provided sufficient information on the actions and resources necessary to keep the ship afloat. They have yet to provide details to the public and media about the drastic changes that are needed to effect their vision. And they certainly, haven't forced the control board to use its clout and muscle to raise the right issues for public discussion, to suspend awkward rules and regulations hampering reform, or, in general, to run interference.

Eighteen months into his tenure, Mr. Williams and his team may want to take a break from scooping water and turn to District residents to explain in detail and in clear, concise language the state of the government he found: just how bad things are, where he'd like to go; how long it would take and how much it would cost. This is not the kind of discussion he can afford to have on stage. As CFO, he took his message to Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and civic groups. While everyone else can afford the luxury of amnesia, the mayor can't. He had better remember what got him elected. It wasn't the promise of sleek ocean liners, but the commitment to a lean, well-functioning government nothing fancy, just the basics. At least for now.

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