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fixation’ sidetracks mayor
(Published September 24, 2001)
By JONETTA ROSE BARRAS
At least 1,000 D.C. residents will soon converge on the Washington Convention Center for another of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ summits: Already there have been Citizen Summit I, The Return of Citizen Summit I, City of Mine Youth Summit and The Return of Youth Summit 1.
Citizen Summit II will be held on Oct. 6; a pre-summit awards program is scheduled for Oct. 4. The administration expects to spend $1 million, including $38,000 for a marketing insert in The Washington Post. Although the administration is attempting to tap corporate and foundation support, only the Annie Casey Foundation has pledged a contribution. Most of the money will come from taxpayer dollars, says Neighborhood Action Executive Director Beverly Wheeler.
As in the past, Summit II will demonstrate Williams’ devotion to process. Paid facilitators will herd participants to round tables, accented by laptop computers, colored placards and bright little booklets containing nebulous goals and objectives. Throughout the day, attendees will be asked to rank in order of importance issues such as public education, parks and recreation programs, public safety and neighborhood economic development. Finally, administration officials will promise citizens that their responses will be built into the fiscal 2003 budget.
While there was great enthusiasm for the first summit in 1999, this year’s event is getting a lukewarm reception. Some residents say they have seen few tangible results. They believe that promises made by D.C. officials are cheap, sold to the unsuspecting, the gullible and the hopeful at bargain-basement prices.
"As a neighborhood activist, I have not seen the level of services I was hoping to see in terms of safety and cleanliness," says Terrence Lynch, a 20-year resident of Mount Pleasant whom many know for his downtown activism.
"The general view here," says one Ward 7 resident, who requested anonymity, "is that we are waiting to see the promises of the last summit come to fruition.
"We wanted to see things done; instead they added more bureaucrats," the resident continues. "You have neighborhood service managers, neighborhood coordinators, ward planners and ward representatives from the Office of the Public Advocate."
"I think people are still trying to digest whether it was a good thing or a bad thing," says Ward 8’s Eugene DeWitt Kinlow, adding: "It was a new thing. Now we have to figure out how to focus like a laser beam; this second one has to be better."
In 1999, when Williams called for the unprecedented gathering, slightly more than 3,000 citizens and government workers responded. They believed that the mayor was making a giant step toward reviving the civic culture. In the previous years, they had become disillusioned; every branch of government had failed miserably. The congressionally created financial control board had made only slight improvements, despite its reform rhetoric. And receivers appointed by federal judges to operate city agencies produced mostly disastrous results.
As the former chief financial officer (CFO), Williams won citizen admiration not only for the quality of his work but also because he was accessible. During his first year as mayor, he seemed ready to take resurrection of the city to a higher level. It wasn’t enough in Mussolini-esque fashion to ensure that garbage was collected on time. He wanted to re-engage residents, understanding that even a quasi-democratic government like the District’s couldn’t survive without a sturdy third leg — citizen participation.
But along the way, Williams became a slave to tabletop computers, red and yellow placards, giant video screens that flashed his image and consultants whose primary goal was to enable the mayor’s process obsession, ensuring they would retain their nice fat paychecks. The result is that the revival of the civic culture has been nearly abandoned.
No one expected Williams to achieve his stated goal of "one community, coming together, working together, succeeding together" in that first summit. "You wouldn’t think that right off the tee [the summit] would be a textbook example of public engagement," says Kinlow.
Still, the mayor has squandered opportunities to achieve his goal – from poor staffing choices in his Office of the Public Advocate, to the cumbersome layering of his neighborhood services system and the decision to insulate himself. Even with planning this second summit, the administration faltered. Wheeler reports that the advisory committee didn’t meet until after Labor Day, and then only to rubber-stamp the staff-produced program.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Kelvin Robinson, cautions against labeling the Citizen Summit a failure. He asserts that Williams has been building a foundation, pulling together a government that for many years was polycentric. He says the dream of a revived civic culture has never been off the mayor’s radar. "It’s just a question of timing — at what point do you engage?" Answer: Yesterday.
The civic culture of the District can’t be revived from a convention center stage – even if the mayor dresses in casual, bird-watching attire and walks the floor a la Oprah Winfrey. It won’t be resurrected by a bevy of bureaucrats who lack intimacy with the mayor’s vision for the nation’s capital.
If the mayor can’t rid himself of his process fixation, maybe he can return to another proven methodology: clear, unquestionable improvements in service delivery, and the effective selling of his vision through the use of small, intimate briefing sessions with civic activists, advisory neighborhood commissioners and civic groups. Most important, he could reinstate the celebrated open-door policy of CFO Williams – which frequently was accompanied by frank, honest discussions with citizens. That’s what galvanized the voters in 1998 and that’s what will revive the civic culture, while providing the mayor with the voter-mandate he undoubtedly will seek in 2002.
Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator