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November 27, 2005

Good Business

Dear Businessmen:

I can get dull and repetitive on this subject, so at least I won’t be long-winded. Government and business are different, and good for different things. A democratic government isn’t an efficient or cost-effective way to do anything, because democracy requires a protracted, open, public process at all stages. A private business can make decisions quickly and move quickly on those decisions; it can award contracts on the basis of contacts, friendships, and relationships. A democratic government can’t, or at least it shouldn’t — it should have safeguards against the influence of special interests and private relationships. Politicians and bureaucrats in government are often jealous of the way businesses operate, and frequently propose a business model for governmental operations, with the citizens demoted to the role of “customers,” and governmental officials answerable only to their departmental superiors.

But citizens are not government’s customers; they are its owners, its board of directors, and its bosses, and public servants are answerable to them. When a government forgets that, and tries to operate as a business would, it leads inevitably to corruption. Four stories in The Washington Post in the past few days illustrate how favoritism and sloppy, if not outright illegal, contracting practices are growing problems in our “business-minded” city government: Yolanda Woodlee, “Ex-D.C. Worker’s City Contract Under Scrutiny: Technology Official Served on Panel Advocating Job,” November 25, (; and the two-part article by Dan Keating and David Fallis on how “District Dodges Spending Laws: Companies Snare Contracts with Connections, Not Competition,” November 27 (, and about the District’s “Lavish Spending, Little Reward,” November 28 (, along with the sidebar article, “Funds in Health Contract Shifted to Pay Consultants,” (

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and that cliché is too apt for me to apologize for it; most of the problem is still hidden underwater. As the elections season proceeds, you may want to ask the candidates where they were when this irregular and illegal contracting was going on, and what they will do about it in the future.

Gary Imhoff


WASA’s Usurious Charge for Late Payment
Pat Taylor,

WASA has found a new, backdoor way to extract more money from DC residents. It has adopted a nine percent late payment charge on monthly payments more than seven days late! This is usury.


Basic Public Safety
Dorothy Brizill,

The phone operators who answer 911 emergency calls are the true “first responders” in the District. They answer and route calls for fire, police, and medical emergencies; they dispatch the appropriate emergency vehicles; and they are the first to be alerted to any emergency, accident, incident, or terrorist threat. Over the years, there have been numerous recurring problems with the District’s 911 system: calls have gone unanswered or been put on hold; vehicles have been dispatched to the wrong addresses; some 911 operators have been surly or rude; the 911 communications equipment has broken down or lost power; and the various emergency services have been unable to communicate with each other because they operated on different radio frequencies.

To address these and other problems with 911, in February 2004 Mayor Williams hired E. Michael Latessa, who came to DC from Philadelphia, presumably with extensive experience in emergency communications. Latessa was brought in with the idea of unifying the police and fire/EMS 911 operators in one agency, and coordinating emergency communications under a new separate agency. That agency, the Office of Unified Communications, was created in October 2004 by provisions in the Fiscal Year 2005 Budget Support Act of 2004.

However, serious problems persist over a year since the OUC was created, and more than 21 months after Latessa was hired. An oversight hearing by the city council’s Judiciary Committee on November 17 elicited testimony by OUC employees and union representatives that personnel and management problems plague the agency, and that there is tremendous animosity between Director Latessa and the 911 work force that has resulted in occasional protest "work actions" that have threatened the operations of the 911 system. At the hearing, Latessa testified as the “Interim Director of the Office of Unified Communications,” a position he has held since the OUC became an independent agency on October 1, 2004. However, Mayor Williams has never forwarded Latessa’s nomination to the council for confirmation. District law (DC Code 1-523.01) prohibits an individual from serving in an interim or acting capacity for more than 180 days. The code further provides that if the mayor fails to nominate a person within 180 days, “no District funds may be expended to compensate any person serving in the position.” Latessa has had no legal authority to head his agency for the past half year; no personnel or contracting actions he has taken during that period would have any legal force if challenged in a lawsuit; and any salary he was paid was illegally paid and collected. So why is he still serving as the Interim Director of OUC, drawing a salary, and making key management decisions? The answer lies both with the failure of Mayor Williams to forward Latessa’s appointment to the council and with the failure of At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, chair of the Judiciary Committee, to exercise his oversight responsibility and to ensure that an agency under his committee’s jurisdiction has the proper leadership.


DCRA and Affirmative Action
Clyde E. Howard, Jr.,

It seems that DCRA has now placed an emphasis on hiring persons who have a proficiency in Spanish. Does that mean that if you do not have such a proficiency you will not be hired, or if you have proficiency and no degree you will be hired? Could this be a new twist on affirmative action?


The Whitehurst Freeway Boondoggle
Ed T. Barron, edtb@aoldotcom

About half the consultants I’ve met, or worked with, are dedicated to working themselves out of the job they are working on as quickly and effectively as possible. The other half, like those doing the studies on options for the Whitehurst Freeway, are dedicated to perpetuating their work as long as possible. To begin with, they are studying all the nineteen options, including those that are absolutely impractical and will never be enacted. Instead of culling down the list to the top three that are most cost effective and that will produce the best benefits to those who are impacted by or use the Whitehurst freeway, the consultants will take all the nineteen and go through about six iterations to get to the final choice. They will, of course, recommend further study at the end of each iteration before getting to the final choice. In the meantime, after a millennium or two, and after bleeding the city for untold hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, they will recommend further study to select the best designer and builders of whatever, if anything, will be done. Check the track record of consultants before you hire them to see just how quickly they do the right job.


DC Schools and Voting History
Keith Jarrell,

DC schools are in desperate need of help, if not total reorganization. One thing we must think about in this quickly approaching election year is how did the schools and the school system get in the shape they are in? Not by themselves. Much of what we are experiencing is based on school buildings being left in disrepair and poorly kept, along with the organization itself not being in the forefront of the minds of the very people elected to safeguard both the facilities and the system. Money has been wasted on educating our youth poorly because of a lack of real leadership. We continue to waste taxpayer money.

We experience the results each and every day: crime, drugs, a high dropout rate, and young people on welfare who could work if they had a skill. We have the highest dollar amount spent per student and we get the poorest educated and least productive graduates in the country. The list of things goes on and on. As voters, we have continued to put people into office in this city who have been the real “quarterbacks” of the very problems that they are now talking about — talking about and offering their remedies to fix the problems. When all along they could have been and should have been defining solutions or anticipating the problems.

Some of these people now want to be reelected or even elevated to a higher elected office. What a disgrace! Why should we vote for anyone who has allowed the District of Columbia public school system to be nothing more than a money consuming, national disgrace? In fact, how have these people even been reelected in the past? We are just not savvy voters, yet we want positive changes. Voters need to wake up. Certainly it is time to think about whom we will support for the various elected offices, such as mayor, chair of the council, at-large city councilmembers, and ward councilmember seats. All those seeking election or reelection should openly submit their voting records while they served on the DC Board of Education. I’m not talking just recently, but their records from the past twenty years. Some of these voting records are the reasons why our education system is so bad. Those votes in the Board of Education that were crucial to facility management and upkeep, policy structure, and budgets are important now so we can really learn who was responsible. I want to know, don’t you?


New Stadium Cost Estimates and the NCMC
Frank Zampatori,

In case you missed this article in the Washington Times — “Ballpark Estimates Made Without Data on Area, Design,” — it seems city leaders went forward to the public with cost estimates on the new baseball stadium without knowledge as to where it would be built, and without a stadium design. Assuming the story is correct, I wonder when we’ll see the true story behind the $500 million dollar cost and design estimate for the National Capital Medical Center that the mayor’s office proposes, alters, and changes at the drop of a hat!


Don’t Fold
Ed T. Barron, edtb@aoldotcom

DC’s negotiators should not fold in their negotiations with Selig’s cronies in the negotiations about the Stadium lease. All the cards lie in DC’s corner this time. Where will Selig and Major League Baseball go if they insist that DC eat the more than six million dollar lease? Portland? What a laugher that is. Just try to get five competing ownership teams to bid up the price in Portland. Selig would be lucky to get $350 million for the team out there. That’s a loss of over one hundred million. No, DC should hold out for MLB to pay for the lease and for any of the extras that they want like VIP parking. The new owners should pay for some of the infrastructure costs since they will be the ultimate winners if more fans come to a high quality stadium in a neighborhood that is safe and attractive.


Great Places Are Economic Development
Richard Layman,

Relevant to Gary’s comments about “economic development” driving the school and library planning agenda [themail, November 23], I suggest that people might be interested in reading a couple things I wrote about this after attending the Citizen Summit. “The drumbeat for selling off school property is getting louder and louder” ( and “Citizen’s Summit and libraries” (

The point I make in the first entry is that building great places is economic development. Here’s an excerpt: “In my conversation with that DC government official, he said that 100 years ago, say during the time of the McMillan Commission, urban planning was much different, that it was about quality of life, that today it is about economic development and fiscal realities. I said two things to him. First, that earlier in the week I was in Manhattan and Brooklyn and that probably everyone who lives in either of those boroughs would prefer to live immediately adjacent to Central Park or Prospect Park.

“Second, that it is ‘common knowledge’ that houses in places with good schools, parks, and libraries are valued more highly than houses in neighborhoods lacking those amenities. For example, houses in Montgomery County in the geographies of the most successful high schools such as Walt Whitman or Richard Montgomery, cost much more than equivalent houses in areas where the high schools are less successful. Frederick Law Olmsted wrote about this more than 120 years ago, in a letter to city of Boston officials, in pushing forward plans for new public parks. He wrote specifically about the value such parks provide and how adjoining land rises in value, and therefore, generates more property tax revenues.”


Assessment Correction
Ed Dixon,

I’m sorry. I make this mistake a lot. Last week [themail, November 23] I reported, “K-mart is currently paying about $17.40 per square foot of land; much more than Doug Jemal nearby who pays $13 per square foot for his property on Rhode Island Avenue.”

That is incorrect. The land that K-Mart and Doug Jemal have is assessed or valued at that amount. That is to say the government says the land is worth $17.40 and $13 per square foot respectively. This value is what the government then multiplies by the tax rate. For commercial uses that rate is $1.85 per $100 of assessed value.

So really what K-Mart and Jemal are paying is closer to $0.32 and $0.24 per square foot of land respectively.



Mayoral Candidates’ Forum, November 28
George Clark,

On Monday, November 28, the Tenleytown Neighbors Association, the Coalition to Stop Tenleytown Overdevelopment, the Friendship Neighborhood Association, and the Forest Hills Citizens Association are cosponsoring a Mayoral Candidates’ Forum on Neighborhood and Development Issues in the Great Hall at St. Columba’s Church at 42nd and Albemarle Streets, NW, from 7 to 9 p.m. (Tenleytown Metro stop). All candidates have agreed to appear. Questioning will be lead by Nancy MacWood, chair, ANC3C and member, Comprehensive Plan Revision Task Force; Dorn McGrath, professor emeritus, GWU, former chairman of the Departments of Urban and Regional Planning and Geography and former Chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City; and Barbara Zartman, Chair, Committee of 100 on the Federal City (and a past president of the Federation of Citizens Associations). There will then be questions from the floor. I will act as moderator on behalf of the Federation. Hope to see you there.


Gingerbread Houses, December 3
Brie Hensold,

Saturday, December 3, 2:00-4:00 p.m. Home Sweet Home: Gingerbread House Workshop: families assemble their own gingerbread houses and decorate them using an assortment of materials. $40 per house for Museum members; $50 nonmembers. All ages. Prepaid registration required by Monday, November 28. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line.


DC Public Library Events, December 5
Debra Truhart,

Monday, December 5, 6:30 p.m., Northeast Neighborhood Library, 330 7th Street, NE. Capitol Hill Mystery Book Club, monthly chats featuring mystery books. The group will discuss The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Public contact: 698-3320.

Monday, December 5, 6:30 p.m. Chevy Chase Neighborhood Library, 5625 Connecticut Avenue, NW. On the eve of Finland’s Independence Day, Kristiina Helenius of the Embassy of Finland will speak about travel to Finland, as well as recent achievements of this small country. Public contact: 282-0021.

Monday, December 5, 7:00 p.m., Georgetown Neighborhood Library, 3260 R Street, NW. Georgetown Library Book Club will discuss Washington Square by Henry James. Public contact: 282-0220.


Cleveland Park Citizens Association, December 6
George Idelson,

The monthly meeting of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association on Tuesday, December 6, at 6:30 p.m., will cover several timely subjects: coping with sky-high energy costs, high definition television, and neighborhood car sharing. Speakers will include Elizabeth Noel, People’s Counsel; Jennifer Thorne Amann, Senior Association, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy; and Rick Rybeck, Deputy Assistant Director, Transportation and Policy Planning, DC Department of Transportation.

Your heating bills could rise 40 percent this winter. What’s behind this sudden spike in energy costs? Are there steps you can take right now to cut heat loss? Do you know the hidden energy guzzlers in your home, and how to deal with them? And high-definition television (HDTV) is coming soon. When HDTV is fully deployed, your old-fashioned TV won’t work without a costly converter. We’ll also ask you to share your energy-saving experiences. All are welcome. The meeting will be at the Cleveland Park Library, Connecticut Avenue at Newark Street, NW. To see the full notice of this event and lots more, visit or



Mary Boland, Friends’ Action,

Friends’ Action is still collecting contributions for its Scarves for the Homeless project. If you knit, crochet, or weave, we ask that you create a warm winter scarf and send it to us at PO Box 3138, Hagerstown, MD 21741 by December 9. Donations will be given to DC homeless shelters in December. If you are a member of a craft guild, church/synagogue/mosque, or have friends who could contribute, please pass the word. Friends’ Action is a 501(c)(4) charitable organization that advocates Congressional voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia. For IRS purposes donations are not tax deductible.


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