The Morning After The Day Before In Washington, DC

September 15, 2010

Well, the District’s mayoral race is finally over. Thought it would never end.

So many rallies and what were billed as debates but turned out to be mainly speechifying and  mud-slinging.  A glut of news articles and campaign endorsements styled as news articles. (You know what paper I’m talking about.)

Knocks on doors from dutiful “volunteers.” Flyers through the mail slot and incessant robocalls.

Numerous voter guides, i.e., candidates’ responses to questions posed by diverse public interest organizations — or more often copy-paste from campaign materials. And who would blame those who sometimes decided to take a pass when there were so many?

And yet when I walked into the ballot booth, I still didn’t know what differentiated the candidates — except, of course, for personal style. I’m the last person to say that’s not important. But, in a way, I’d have welcomed a clearer choice on substantive policies and priorities.

Maybe differently-run campaigns would have surfaced clear, bright lines. More likely there weren’t any. And that, I think, is a good thing. Because it means we’re closer to being “one city” than the campaign coverage or ward-by-ward results would indicate.

True, there’s a deep economic fault that splits our community into haves and have-nots. There’s an aggrieved sense of neglect among the latter. There are still festering racial hostilities.

But, in general terms, we agree on what needs to get done. No Tea Party upsurge here.

So Vince Gray will face a lot of challenges. But I, for one, am glad that the choice was more on matters of style and judgment than radical policy differences. Because we’re going to face more difficult times and do need to pull together.

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Transparency In DC Has a Long Way To Go

November 1, 2009

We’re hearing a lot these days about transparency and open government.

President Obama launched his administration with a memorandum committing to “an unprecedented level of openness in government.” Transparency, it says, “promotes accountability and information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”

Here in the District of Columbia, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chair of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, held a roundtable on the issue a couple of weeks ago. She too was interested in processes for citizens to gain information, in the interests of “open government in the District.”

So it’s occurred to me to wonder what our leaders have in mind when they talk about transparency and openness. One clue are the focuses on new technologies and disclosure under freedom of information statutes. We see them in both the President’s directive and Cheh’s roundtable announcement.

But transparency ought to mean more than giving us access to documents our government produces. The documents ought to be clear and informative enough for us to know what our government is doing.

Back in March, I ranted on the challenges of understanding Mayor Fenty’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget. They apparently bedeviled even DC Councilmembers. As Jenny Reed at DC Fiscal Policy Institute notes, the Council wound up approving a budget for the Department of Human Services without knowing it would mean a $12 million cut for homeless services.

Would they have known if they’d opened their last round of budget deliberations to the public, as community groups requested? Perhaps taking advantage of a loophole in the District’s open meeting requirements put the Council at a disadvantage.

There’s something even more important than access and clarity. It’s truthfulness. The thing that’s got me most distressed about the saga of the homeless services budget is that we’ve been treated to a stream of half-truths and evasions.

The Fenty administration repeatedly asserted that there’d been virtually no cut in this budget–this apparently because the budget, i.e., the document presented to the Council, dealt only with the proposed local appropriation. What about the federal TANF funds and general revenue funds that had been used to supplement the appropriation? Oh well, they weren’t part of the budget.

Then, when pressed, DHS Director Clarence Carter testified that TANF funds had been transferred to homeles services last year, but that there were “no additional TANF reserve dollars to make available.” More probing needed to surface the fact that the funds hadn’t just vanished. The department decided to use them for something else.

Nevertheless, Mayor Fenty told a TV interviewer that the view that the homeless services budget had been cut was “either a miscommunication or a distortment [sic] of the facts.” The reality, he said, was that a contractor overspent its budget last year and wasn’t going to get extra money this year just because of “inefficiencies.”

The contractor here is apparently the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which manages homeless services for the District. It’s hard to see how the Partnership–or any contractor for that matter–could actually spend more than the District provided unless it used funds from other sources. The purported overrun is instead almost surely the funds Carter testified his department had transferred.

So Fenty’s account is less than a half-truth. It’s a deliberate and harmful “distortment of the facts.” Harmful not only to the Partnership. Harmful to what’s supposed to be a democratic process.

If the Fenty administration had felt it had to cut funding for homeless services, then it should have said so straight out. The Council could have agreed to the cut, adjusted funding priorities or even done more to raise revenues. We would have had an opportunity to say what we wanted our elected representatives to do.

Our local government is bogged down in recriminations, charges and counter-charges and pervasive mistrust. The lack of transparency about homeless services is far from the only reason. But it’s a good example of how far the District has to go to be a genuinely open government and what happens when transparency falls by the wayside.

NOTE: Thanks to Mike DeBonis, a.k.a. Loose Lips, for alerting me and many others to the TV interview and for his acute comments on the Mayor’s assertions.


DC Mayor Discounts Limits On Summer Youth Employment Program

September 10, 2009

When is a budget not a budget? Apparently, when Mayor Fenty doesn’t like it. Yesterday’s Washington Post reports that this year’s Summer Youth Employment Program wound up costing $41 million–considerably more than the City Council originally approved.

The SYEP appropriation for next year is $20 million–for a program limited to six weeks and a maximum of 21,000 participants. But the Mayor reportedly said he’s determined to find a way around the caps.

Set aside the question of whether the SYEP should be expanded or rather refocused on quality instead of quantity, as experts have recommended. Last time I checked, programs were supposed to operate within their approved budgets. If a chief executive wanted more money, he was supposed to go back to the legislature and ask for it.

And last time I checked, the Council had made deep cuts in crucial safety net programs to balance the city’s budget. It might well have to close yet another budget gap. This seems hardly the time for ignoring any expenditure cap–let alone one designed to ensure that D.C. youth have a properly supervised, skill-building work experience.


DC Council Blocks Benefit Cutoffs For TANF Families

August 4, 2009

The City Council took its next-to-final action on the District’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget last Friday. It went along with a lot, though not all, of what Mayor Fenty had proposed. But it choked on his proposal to impose harsher sanctions on families in the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. And a good thing too.

As I’ve written before, the Mayor’s proposed budget included plans to reduce TANF benefits by 50% when the adult recipient had been subject to lesser sanctions and still wasn’t meeting the program’s work requirements. If the adult still didn’t comply, all benefits to the family would have been cut off–even the funds to support the children.

The City Council struck these proposals from the legislation. However, this doesn’t mean that the Income Maintenance Administration, which administers the District’s TANF program, has no tools to encourage compliance.

It’s perfectly free to enforce its existing progressive sanctions rules. These allow the agency to reduce benefits so that they cover only the children in the family and for successively longer periods each time the adult fails to comply with the work requirements. If the money’s there, IMA can provide the proposed bonuses for full compliance too.

Unfortunately, the Council left intact the Mayor’s proposals to make eligibility for TANF contingent on an applicant’s completing an orientation and an assessment.

Some states have used requirements like these to discourage enrollment. That could happen here too. Recall that federal rules give states incentives to reduce their caseloads. At the very least, the requirements could delay delivery of urgently-needed help.

The City Council will take a final vote on the budget legislation in September. It would be well-advised to strike the new eligibility requirements. Let IMA first show that it can ensure all TANF applicants timely, appropriate orientation sessions and timely assessments that accurately identify “skills, prior work experience, employability, and barriers to employment.”

Then IMA should explain why eligibility should hinge on anything more than the criteria it’s been using. What does it hope to gain from creating more hoops for poor people to jump through before they’re even admitted to the program?