When Too Much Isn’t Enough

When’s The Best Time To Push Through An Unpopular Initiative? Bingo!

Writing in this Sunday’s Washington Post, WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi tries to put his finger on the source of DC government corruption and mismanagement – DC’s original sin, if you will. It’s a good effort, but from this perspective, misses the mark just a bit.

In more ways than one, buddy.

For Nnamdi, much of the problem lies in both the youth of District self-government, and its limited scope. By youth, he means we’ve only had self-rule for a short while now, and even then we’re still the handmaiden to Congressional oversight. As a result, DC has just not developed a mature culture of democratic self-governance.

On the second note, every where else there’s political room to grow, but not here. Across the rest of America, school board members might become city councilmen, then mayors or county executives, who graduate to state House reps, or maybe move to a state commissioner or even the Governor’s office, and then…well, who can say? Whether you see it as government by Peter Principle or legitimate reward for higher service, people with an appetite and a skill for politics and public service have a path to grow and advance.

But not in the District. Maybe you get a seat on an ANC and quickly learn you can pretty much do whatever you want, to hell with your constituent’s sentiments. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to win a City Council seat, where you ripen for decades fiddling with the margins of government. Who knows – maybe somehow you get elected to (or purchase) the Mayor’s office. And then what? One or two terms of prudent government and quietly improving services and you’re out on your keister. Natwar Gandhi has had more longevity and better service (arguably) than just about any other publicly elected official in this town – and he’s not even elected!

Nnamdi’s correct about these two issues, but there’s a third that he misses; namely, the complete lack of accountability and transparency across local government. Just take a look at our little corner of the District. Did any of the ten new restaurants, those who are pushing out any other business, get their liquor service request? Who knows? Certainly not ABRA, assuming the committee is even staffed or bothers to hold public meetings. The parking agreement L2 negotiated with the local community? Good luck getting someone to answer where that is now that the City Council mucked them up. The behemoth JBG insists must be 9 floors at 13 & U? The BZA thinks HPRB is dealing with that, while HPRB thinks it’s the BZA, and all the while the ANC, meetings filled with opponents of the current proposal, blithely votes it forward.

Across all these, and many other levels, local government in the District is not working. In fact, it’s actively obfuscating and preventing the reasonable exercise of what limited self-rule we have here. Like Nnamdi asks – Quick, name your ANC chair! – I’ll go him one better. Quick – tell me who ultimately approves a building? A restaurant? A liquor moratorium?  We have layers upon layers of government but nobody seems to know what they’re supposed to do, what the rules are, and what (if any) role just plain folks are supposed to play in the process. Worse, in a town filled with journalists, if something doesn’t happen at the Wilson building, it’s like it never happened at all. Of course, it probably did, but it will be too late for you to do anything about it.

So I’d ask Mr. Nnamdi this question: who’s in charge, here? Because it’s certainly no the residents.



1 Comment

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One response to “When Too Much Isn’t Enough

  1. Belmont Streeter

    I appreciated reading this post. I’d add something to your point re the layers of gov’t that don’t operate transparently or efficiently. I think the overlapping and confusing jurisdictions of ANCs, liquor boards, etc. creates a situation where only the most well-heeled investors and developers can play in the game since only they have the resources and scale to do it effectively. This, in turn, means that only very large scale investments can realistically come to fruition since that it the focus of the JBGs of the world. It’s a bit of a vicious circle. A more efficient permitting, public comment, and approval system will not only serve the neighborhood that hosts a prospective development, but it will also encourage smaller, less “corporate” developers to advance projects that are more right-sized for their surroundings.

    As for Kojo’s attempt to lay blame for corruption on structural or historical issues, I say he’s missed the mark. If a city official commits fraud, it’s because he’s a crook. Period.

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