Control board meets--and hears--the people

The supplicants gathered from throughout the District yesterday to beg from, plead to and challenge the legitimacy of the new D.C. financial control board, which opened its tenure in charge of city finances with a bare-knuckled assault on 5,600 municipal jobs.

For 2 1/2 hours -- twice as long as scheduled -- Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer, an economist, allowed all comers to tell him and four other presidentially appointed board members what they should and should not do to remake the District's government and finances.

Some argued over broad principles such as democracy and self-determination. Others sought protection for personal priorities: trash pickup, AIDS funding, public schools. Several voiced frustration about poor services and mismanagement in city government.

Underlying it all was a shared perception that the rules of engagement in the District have changed, as if calling the mayor's office or the D.C. Council were suddenly passe. They had come to meet the new boss.

"You go to where the power is," said Steve Michael, who attended on behalf of ACT UP Washington to ask that the board increase funding for AIDS and establish a task force on the disease. "This is where the power is going to be for the next few years."

Michael was one of about 200 people who attended the board's debut. Since the board's appointment in May by President Clinton, there have been numerous private meetings with city officials and hours spent digesting analyses prepared by the General Accounting Office. Yesterday, it was time to take off the wraps.

What appeared was a bureaucracy in the process of creating itself, still unsure of its own ground rules, its place in the city's life and the expectations it should raise among residents. It did not take long for the board members to define their interests. Real estate executive Stephen D. Harlan focused on the need for sound management in government, and former Howard University interim president Joyce A. Ladner appeared committed to the school system and emphasized the need for improved city services.

For his part, the professorial Brimmer tried to balance the public import of the board's work with his own clipped and no-nonsense manner. The former Federal Reserve Board member has been criticized for saying he would hold many of his important discussions behind closed doors, and he tried to allay worries over secrecy by scheduling time for public comment.

Two and a half hours later, the man who had hoped to keep the discussion on a broad "macro" level had promised to forward one woman's disability claim to "the proper officials," had been quizzed by a road contractor about the city's payment of overdue bills and had his own integrity challenged by a union representative.

"I ask you to resign from {the board of} Carr Realty" because of potential conflicts of interest, said Manny Pastreich, representing a janitors union that has been trying to organize Carr workers. He also asked that Harlan resign from the H.G. Smithy Co., a real estate management and services firm that Harlan owns.

Both board members refused.

There was a sedate air to the session that contrasted with the normal hustle and grind of District politics. The two dozen or so speakers were kept to a strict three-minute limit. The normally rowdy janitors group, which has laid siege to D.C. Council offices, stuck to subdued applause for its members.

The location helped. The meeting took place in a 370-seat auditorium in the Department of Agriculture building, a setting that emphasized the federally appointed board's reign over municipal affairs. The members sat on a stage dozens of feet above and beyond the audience, bathed in lights, their voices amplified.

"I see no way for this board to exist and local self-government to exist," Lawrence Guyout, a community activist, said as he surveyed the scene from a podium.

When the board broke for lunch, the auditorium curtain closed.

End of act one.

An hour later the curtain opened. If Brimmer and the other members were ready to listen in the morning, by afternoon they were all business. They raced through a discussion of the board's bylaws and clarified that when it comes to conflicts of interest, they have power to police themselves.

They then took up the city's budget for the next fiscal year and within minutes did what members of Congress and locally elected officials have been talking about for years: They moved to cut thousands of jobs from the government payroll.

It was 5,600 positions to be exact, although because of vacancies and an existing buyout program, the number of people who might lose their jobs is only about 2,000. It was a quick and deep leap into the thick of the city's financial troubles, a sign that the board will not be shy about using its authority. The board approved 11 other recommendations before ending its first session late in the afternoon. All votes were unanimous.

"This is the first step in a series of steps," said Harlan, who emphasized that the city should immediately set up an outplacement program for the people who lose their jobs.

The recommendations must be ratified by the D.C. Council over the next two weeks and could be rejected. But in doing so, local officials would run the risk of simply being rebuffed when Congress reviews the budget in the fall and of facing even tougher scrutiny from board members.

"There is going to be a fine line," board member Constance B. Newman said, "between our role and . . . the role of elected officials."

Washington Post
Publication Date: 
July 14, 1995