Disaster On The Potomac: How Not To Run A City
By Tamala M. Edwards
With reporting by James Carney/Washington
(TIME, Aug.18) -- Other cities may boast of innovative, hard-bargaining mayors, but at least one urban center is clattering along in just the opposite direction. Beset by financial woes, high crime and decaying city services, Washington has now suffered the indignity of having its mayor, Marion S. Barry, stripped of nearly all power. As part of a $1 billion federal-aid package included in the new budget agreement, nine of the city's major agencies, covering everything from schools and housing to public works and the police, have been taken away from Barry and placed under the jurisdiction of a financial control board, which was appointed by Congress two years ago to get the city's finances in order and is headed by economist Andrew Brimmer. Only relatively minor agencies (including tourism and parks and recreation) remain under Barry's purview. Asked at a press conference what residents should do if they want to complain about potholes, Barry replied bitterly, "Call Dr. Brimmer--504-3400."
Other countries like to argue that Americans know nothing of life in the rest of the world. Not so in the District, whose government seems to aspire to the standards of a Third World nation. Fecal matter in the water, bodies piled and rotting in the un-air-conditioned morgue, potholes that could kill if the stray bullets don't--these are familiar stories to District dwellers. A recent expose in the Washington Post offered jaw-dropping statistics on the amount of wasted funds and government bloat. Washington spends more money and has more employees than any other city. Yet the high school dropout rate has passed 50%, crime is up 16% since 1991, and tuberculosis and infant-mortality rates are the highest in the nation. Just last week officials announced that the city's public schools would open three weeks late this fall because building repairs haven't been finished.
With such things to commend him, few believed Mayor Barry when he insisted that the congressional moves were "not about Marion Barry." The mayor has turned the city into a machine that would impress Boss Tweed: jobs for all, and once hired, never fired. Money earmarked for services and repairs often found its way to payroll, to put yet more unskilled workers on the clock. Also deterring change is the racial politics of the highly segregated city. For the mostly black District residents, Barry--re-elected in 1993 despite serving jail time for crack use--promised a toehold into the middle class. "It's the ultimate patronage," says a D.C. Council senior aide. "If you have a government check, a refrigerator full of food, who cares about the pothole outside?"
Onto this battlefield steps Brimmer, 71, a former Federal Reserve Board member. Like Barr