Michael Bindner's DC Blog

In this blog, I discuss DC politics and other issues of import to local government. I have posted several essays from my book, Musings from the Christian Left, on blog entreies dated June 2004.

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Location: Alexandria, Virginia, United States

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

D.C. Government (Geocities Rescue)

To say Congress must butt out is not to say that the District of Columbia Government is not in need of reform. It simply says that reform must come from within. Two areas are in need of reform if there is to be any hope for statehood. The first is the day-to-day structure of government. The second is the proposed Constitution for the new state. The basic departmental structure has never worked. While there have been some changes since the advent of home rule, much more can be done. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is a favorite target for budget cuts. It was especially gutted during the mayoralty of Sharon Pratt Kelly. The number of inspectors was cut drastically, although the effect of these cuts actually hurt business more than it helped it, by increasing waiting time and increasing the propensity for graft. I have offered a few basic changes to the current administration on several occasions, both publicly and privately, but to no avail. I summarize a few of them here.

Parks and Recreation
The most obvious candidate for reorganization is the Department of Parks and Recreation. Aside from swimming pools, recreation centers and programs for youth and the inherent need to raise grant funds, Parks and Recreation must contend with community gardens, trash removal from park facilities and grounds maintenance. This includes cutting the grass at all of those little triangle parks resulting from L'Enfant's diagonal avenues.

Many municipalities have separate sanitation departments, which remove the trash and cut the grass on all city property. In the District, Parks and Recreation shares these responsibilities with the Public Works Department's Solid Waste Management Administration. Perhaps now is a good time to consider consolidating these operations in a new, cabinet-level, Department of Sanitation.

One of the other responsibilities currently housed in DPW Solid Waste is the sanitary inspection of both homes and business. Separate these; with the inspection of homes remaining in the new Department of Sanitation and the inspection of business transferred to the Department of Health, which then forms a unified strategy for restaurant hygiene, a major source of our current rat problem. Transfer zoning enforcement for restaurants to Health from DCRA. Cross training is then possible between sanitation, alcoholic beverage control, food safety and zoning. Imagine an adequately staffed corps of well-trained and highly visible inspectors. Additionally, use a portion of the sales taxes collected by these establishments toward funding these activities. The result is a cleaner District.

Transfer the remainder of Parks and Recreation to a Mayor’s Office on Youth, the same way the Office on Aging was created. This Office contains parts of Human Services and Employment Services, as well as the Mayor’s Youth Initiative. Consolidate operations for youth and coordinate with D.C. Public Schools and Metropolitan Police Department’s Youth and Family Services Division.

Community Services
Services for communities are also scattered throughout the government. Consolidate them and raise their visibility through the creation of a Department of Community Services. Create it from the Office of Planning, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Department of Housing and Community Development. A Department of Community Services includes planning, housing inspection, residential building permitting and inspection, rental property enforcement and residential community development.

Economic Development
A companion Department of Economic Development includes commercial non-residential building permitting and inspection, as well as commercial development activities. Such reorganization benefits both the residential and commercial sectors, providing a much needed focus to the needs of each.

Charter and Constitution Reform
The political structure of the District Government is partly to blame for its dysfunction. The District is a essentially a one-party state. While there is the occasional investigation into the conduct of the Executive Branch by the legislative, by and large abuses go unexamined. More importantly, a culture of unanimity has emerged in the legislative branch. Such unanimity is ultimately damaging, since it encourages the kind of cooperation that sweeps the hard questions under the rug.

It is way past time to devise ways to increase the debate in the legislature. Do this by increasing the number of wards, making the Councilmembers more responsive, and by providing the same diversity at the ward level that exists among the at-large members. In the District, at least two of the four at-large members are of a different party than the majority. This results in token diversity. Real diversity occurs if each ward had three members, with no party nominating more than two candidates.

A final legislative reform is to have the Chair elected by the body from among the five at-large members, rather than having the voters select the Chair directly. This assures that the Chair has the backing of the majority without the need to pursue consensus at all costs. The selection process itself is healthy, as it creates at least two factions, which most likely endure and provide for real debate. Of course, this body is no longer just a city council. Give it the more state-like name House of Delegates, since it exercises state functions.

For the same reason, replace the Mayoralty with a Governorship. The names the District uses for its officers affect how it is treated. If it elects state officers, it is treated like a state. Also make these changes to the proposed state constitution for New Columbia.


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