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Brizill, Imhoff work to keep politicians honest
(Published September 2, 2002)
By THOMAS A. NEELEY
A case of flu almost let the largest petition scandal in D.C. history go unnoticed by one of the District’s best-known government watchdogs.
On July 6, Dorothy Brizill planned on going to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics offices at One Judiciary Square to peruse the recently submitted mayoral campaign petitions. Instead, she woke up with the flu and stayed at home.
Brizill, along with her husband Gary Imhoff, are the founders of D.C. Watch and operate the organization’s Web site, www.dcwatch.com, for about $20 a month. Brizill attends numerous government meetings and spends most of her time in and out of government buildings while Imhoff maintains and updates the Web site.
D.C. Watch was formed to serve as a better government association, similar to organizations in Chicago and Philadelphia that sought to hold local governments more accountable. Most recently, D.C Watch was one of the groups that brought allegations of fraud against Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ campaign petitions and, ultimately, had the mayor’s name kept off the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot.
D.C. Watch had filed petition challenges before, so checking the mayoral ones was not uncharacteristic of the organization. Brizill said she had heard that some members of the Williams campaign were concerned about the petitions, but was unable to discern what the concerns were about.
On the morning of July 8, Brizill received a call from Sean Snyder, a Georgetown law student, who told Brizill he saw the mayor’s petitions and they were filled with forgeries. Brizill went to the see for herself.
"I called Gary from downtown and said, ‘Gary, the petitions are really awful, they’re just awful.’" Hesitant of the price, which was about $100, she decided to purchase copies of the petitions and the pair began going over as many pages as they could before the deadline to file a challenge.
If a challenge was to be filed, they had until July 13, which was 10 days after the submission day. When the Republican Party decided at the last minute not to file a challenge, she, Snyder and Mark Sibley filed a joint challenge.
The rest, they say, is history.
When Imhoff and Brizill originally launched D.C. Watch in August 1997, they intended only to serve in the absence of an official District of Columbia web site, and publish items such as the city council calendar and announcements from the mayor’s office. Since the D.C. government launched its own web site, D.C. Watch now serves more as a way of organizing all the information available online, as well as supplementing it with information and documents not available on the Web.
"I think that’s what D.C. Watch has become, is something of a network that has been lacking out there," Brizill said, adding how it connects groups across the city.
The idea for the Web site inevitably came from the pair’s experience dealing with the D.C. government in the 1980s shortly after purchasing a home in Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington.
Soon after moving there in 1982, the area began to be overrun by drug dealers, drug abusers and prostitutes.
"We were hearing gunshots every night, dead bodies being found," Brizill said.
A police officer, Lt. Karl Turner, brought together all the residents who had been complaining to the police at the same time, and the residents, including Imhoff and Brizill, founded the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Coalition.
"I went from a person focused on international relations and national issues to have to look to my immediate community," Brizill said.
Problems were so bad that the group met twice a week during the period of worst activity.
Together, and sharing ideas with other neighborhood groups, residents including Imhoff and Brizill learned to use the D.C. bureaucracy to their advantage in fighting the problems endemic to their neighborhoods.
"For example, we found that one very effective way to deal with a drug house was the fire marshal," Brizill said. "Normally a drug house, people become so consumed with drug dealing that they allow the exterior of the house to deteriorate."
One particular house, which happened to be located across the street from Imhoff and Brizill, was the sight of frequent police raids, which only cleared the house for new dealers to move in.
Enlisting the help of the fire marshal, who has authority to condemn a house on the spot without a warrant, the coalition was able to use government to their advantage.
The type and value of information which Imhoff and Brizill had learned inspired the couple to make access to government information easier for all D.C. residents.
At times, the pair becomes disheartened with the process and hours of largely thankless work they dedicate to the Web site, yet they continue to run the organization.
"When I get really tired and feel really beaten up and I look around and say, ‘Well, I’m out of here. I’m tired of doing this,’" Brizill said. "Then I say, ‘If we didn’t do it, who else would do it?’ I don’t think I’m being egotistical in saying that there’s really not anybody or any organization that I can see on the horizon that’s willing to step up to bat right now and do something like this. In that sense, to me, it keeps my batteries recharged and we keep on doing this."
Added Imhoff: "What we left out is at times this is a lot of fun, and that can be gratifying. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t get some gratitude out of it."
While one might assume that the two have a negative view of the government, the pair is split in their opinions of the government. Brizill thinks most people assume she’s the pessimist, and Imhoff is the optimist. The reverse is true, they say.
"I have always believed that when you find out there is a problem or an issue, just bring it to the attention (of someone). I mean, the head of DCRA can’t realize how bad this is," she said in reference to their experience in Columbia Heights in the 1980s.
"Invariably, I’m always proven wrong. In many instances I’ve gone to people, whether or not it is the mayor or the head of a department or agency. They know about these problems, and they have no intention of solving them," Brizill said. "I expect government to work."
Imhoff, who smiled as he answered, feels the opposite.
"I can keep a sunnier disposition because I am less often disappointed," Imhoff said, laughing afterward. "And it really is the way it works. Dorothy still expects people to do the right thing."
"I expect government to work," she said.
"I’m rather pleasantly surprised you do," Imhoff said.
Brizill said she is accused of being a critic of the mayor – more so now, after the petition scandal – but denies it. Her criticisms of the mayor stem from her experiences, which she said taught her that problems arise when government fails in its duties.
"I say, ‘I’m not a critic of the mayor.’ Indeed, I want government to function. My neighborhood and neighborhoods like Columbia Heights need government to function, need government to deliver the services, whether that’s police or picking up the trash or dealing with a vacant property," she said.
Brizill said she first met Mayor Williams when he was nominated for the job as chief financial officer of the District. By the time he was elected mayor in 1998, she said she knew him and was familiar with him seeking input of community groups, as he did as CFO. By the eighth month of his administration as mayor, she said she felt the administration had disenfranchised itself from community groups.
"It was as if the Great Wall of China got erected," she recalled. "They did not want to communicate. They didn’t want to hear from people."
"I get no joy at all from what has happened during [former mayor Sharon Pratt] Kelly’s term of office, during [former mayor Marion] Barry’s term of office, and now Williams’ term of office, where the shortcomings of their administration are so obvious," Brizill said.
Looking back on the petition scandal, Brizill said she often asked herself and speculated how the mayor and his campaign thought their actions would go unnoticed.
"The one thing that does seem to make some sense — and until I come up with a better answer, I’ll accept it — is arrogance," she said. "And by arrogance, I mean, I think the mayor and the people around him thought that, ‘Well, we only need 2,000 signatures. We’ll come in with 10,000. Who’s going to look at them?’"
Given their recent success and publicity, many are wondering what’s next for D.C. Watch.
"We’re looking to incorporate," Brizill stated, describing how she wanted make D.C. Watch a nonprofit organization.
"The real stumbling block is that in order to expand, we will need to do fund-raising, because I don’t expect other people to be as foolish as we are and to do the work for nothing," Imhoff said. "You’d have to pay people to do it."
Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator