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December 17, 2008

Last Session

Dear Sessionists:

The last legislative session of the seventeenth city council period was held yesterday. You’ve read about most of the results, I’m sure. But I haven’t griped about it yet, so I’ll get my licks in. One thing I won’t complain about is that, by a vote of five to eight, the council rejected the lottery contract championed by Mayor Fenty. The mayor and the Washington Post wanted the contract to be awarded to Fenty’s cronies, rather than to the longtime cronies of several councilmembers. Neither group got it, so the contract to operate the DC Lottery will be put up for rebid. Perhaps this time it will be awarded on merit, rather than on the basis of whose friends make the best sounding unverifiable promises about future performance.

Councilmember Mary Cheh turned in an unexplainable performance for a constitutional professor who in the past had championed civil liberties. She introduced an unconstitutional bill to limit free speech and the right to protest by forbidding picketing in residential neighborhoods, and then withdrew it at the last minute. And she amended the gun licensing bill by adding an unnecessary and useless training requirement that guarantees that anyone who files a lawsuit challenging DC’s new gun regulations will win, regardless of Attorney General Peter Nickles’ characteristic bluster that he will successfully defend them in court.

You know that the council doubled parking meter rates downtown (of course, councilmembers don’t have to pay the meters, since they’ve exempted themselves from the parking regulations), and you know what happened to the bill about lengthening bar hours during inauguration week. The bar hours bill got most of the press and public attention, but that bill will affect the city for just one week. A much more important bill, passed by a unanimous vote, disposed of sixteen acres of city land on the southwest waterfront for ninety-nine years, at a charge to the developer of a dollar a year. Here’s what one correspondent, who wants to remain anonymous, wrote about it: “We need the project, but the deal’s terms and details were opaque. This was the worst and sloppiest year-end rush job ever, and the deal is third in size only to the stadium and the convention center. What’s the scope of the subsidy? Who knows? What’s the sweep of indemnifications? Who knows? What’s the recurring added annual subsidy? Who knows? This was emergency legislation, passed in a way that totally denied the public access to the full terms of the deal. Most councilmembers and their staffs don’t know and can’t articulate even in the simplest terms the outline of the deal or the financial returns on it. You should ask the council members, ‘What was the deal? What did DC give and what did DC get? What was the net all-in cost? What is the net financial return to the district?’ See what you get as a response. Such a megadeal should not be ramrodded through with such a rush and lack of consideration, certainly not in this fiscal environment.”

Washington has lost two popular longtime restaurants with which nearly everyone has a history. Les Halles, serving thin French-style steaks and fries on a key corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, is already gone, and the historic Market Inn, part of Capitol Hill since 1959, is closing on New Year’s Eve. And I have to note the sad passing of Steve Pozniak, and give thanks to his family for the good he did for this city as an ANC Commissioner.

Gary Imhoff


Apathy and Silence
Dorothy Brizill,

On Monday, Council Chairman Vincent Gray held a press conference to release a 123-page “Report of Investigation” regarding the embezzlement of funds by Harriet Walters at the DC Office of Tax and Revenue. The report concludes a yearlong investigation conducted for the council by the law firm of Wilmer Culter Pickering Hale and Dorr and the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The entire report will be posted on DCWatch by the end of this week, look for the link on the home page.

In addition to detailing “the mechanics of Walters’ scheme,” the report summarizes the “failures that allowed her scheme to succeed for nearly twenty years and to drain more than $48 million from District coffers.” The report concludes that “Walters was able to perpetuate this long-standing fraud because of a failure of controls, a dysfunctional work environment, and a lack of oversight.”

Commenting on the report, Council Chairman Gray was highly critical of the dysfunctional work environment and the “culture of apathy and silence” that existed at OTR. However, when he was repeated asked during the press conference to comment on the growing controversy regarding Jim Graham’s plan to use fire department cadets and recruits at this holiday party that afternoon, Gray claimed that he wasn’t aware of the issue, despite numerous press reports, and wouldn’t offer any public opinion criticizing a colleague. It seems as though the council also suffers from a culture of apathy and silence.


Made the List
Ed T. Barron, edtb1@macdotcom

Think that Illinois is one the top ten states with the most corruption? You’re wrong. Florida heads the list and non-state District of Columbia made the list of the top ten most corrupt in the US. That’s what was published in the Sunday Times (which takes me about two days to read, without even trying the crossword puzzle). This info might influence the Obama crowd if they have any inklings of granting representation to DC.


Charter Schools
William Haskett,

[Re: “Charter Schools Make Gains on Tests: Headway by Poor Children Linked to Rigorous Methods, Ample Funds,”] Surely, the twelve (or whatever number it assigned the task) Post reporters forgot or ignored the most basic rule of comparison — that is, to compare “like with like.” They may have forgotten (or did not refer) to a long-ago industrial study that attempted to generalize a rule of what was taken to be “efficiency” by separating out an (unsorted) group of production-line workers to find out if the manipulation of surroundings would make a difference to what this group produced. One test was to improve or to worsen the simple lighting of the workplace. They found that whichever way the lighting was moved, productivity increased. The investigators concluded that was at stake was not the physical condition, but the mere fact of being selected, noticed, and focused on: i.e., that being informed that you were special, and taken as an example of something good, was enough to produce useful productive performance.

The article itself adds all the elements which make certainly direct comparison of the overall public school population and that of the typical charter school population at least partially invalid. In terms of the simplest element of all, that of available monies, the two groups each have available to them $12,000.00 of public monies. But this is rendered not so useful as an index of effectiveness by the variation in access to private funds not readily available to the fully public counterpart, and referred to in the article itself as the charter schools’ “ability to tap into private donors, bankers, and developers [which] has made it possible to fund impressive facilities, expand facilities, expand programs, and reduce class sizes.” And charters have “freedom to experiment,” which is given to no public school in anything like this degree of direct effectiveness.

An adjunct article (“DC Prep’s Founder Emphasizes Financing, Staff,” describes the success of Ms. Emily Lawson in establishing such a school. It is now six years old, and has 740 middle and elementary school students, with an additional $1,500 added to the public school allotment of $12,000 per student, provided by “philanthropy, as well as loans and other sources.” With the additional funding, she has been able “to hire more staff workers so the school can have longer days, and teachers have more time to compare. She also pays teachers competitive salaries [compared with whom?], subsidizes their cell-phones, and provides them with laptop computers.” The original building was an empty warehouse, offered 37,000 square-foot of space, and Ms. Lawson was able to buy and renovate it with five million dollars in loans and one million dollars in donations. The school is presently buying another building for twelve million dollars, and “plans to have ten campuses in Northeast and Southeast.” “DC Prep is one of about more than a dozen charter schools that have qualified for bond deals with the city by showing that they are financially sound and can attract students.” While DC Prep is supposed to be one of the best examples of charter school success, it is worth noting that it has taken four years to achieve it, and that, the Public Charter School Board, in its assessment of the school’s performance on the 2007 city tests, “praised the program but warned that despite high scores, it had not met the Board’s requirements on its 2007 tests, and that the Board will reevaluate the program in 2009.”

I might add that none of what I have said (drawn solely from the Post’s stories themselves) is meant to compare like with unlike, and certainly not to criticize any charter school program for things it cannot help. It is merely meant to draw attention to the oversimplified notion that things can be done without resources, and to emphasize that good ideas need substantial nourishment before they can get to the point of what they have undertaken to do.


YIMBY for a Supermarket
Gabe Fineman,

It is easy to stop development in DC. All you seem to need are a few neighbors that yell loudly enough and the bureaucracy mires everything down in red tape. At last we are seeing neighbors saying Yes, Build It In My Back Yard. Last Saturday, on a cold December day, a group of neighbors spent five hours gathering hundreds of signatures on petitions asking the zoning commission to approve an application by Giant to rebuild their property at Newark and Wisconsin to include a much larger store, underground parking, and condos to pay for the expansion.

The Giant project started in 2000 and ground to a halt several times because of NIMBY neighbors that yelled and even moved to declare the mundane buildings as “historic.” The new group (Advocates of Wisconsin Avenue Renewal, AWARE) is not affiliated with Giant but is just a bunch of people that shop at the Giant and got tired of never hearing their desires being articulated. The surprising thing was the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception they received. At least 90 percent of the people passing by only asked where to sign and why the process was taking so long. It looks as though the “silent majority” is finding its voice. Perhaps YIMBYism will spread to other parts of the community.


Operation Inauguration
Phil Lepanto, ANC 1D-01,

While several readers of this publication decried Councilmember Graham’s emergency legislation allowing operational leniency during inauguration week, many others saw an opportunity for the hospitality industry to shine. DC is home to many fine establishments that would love to serve District residents and visitors responsibly during this period of momentous celebration.

Unfortunately, the council decided on Tuesday that it would be more effective to legislate than to lead. Small business owners are already greatly stymied and perplexed by the Byzantine gauntlet of rules and regulations in this city. Now, instead of helping our businesses offer world class hospitality, they’ve created yet another hoop for them to jump through. Instead of bringing businesses, government, and residents together to roll out the red carpet cooperatively, they tried to solve a problem with a pen rather than rolling up their sleeves, talking to their constituents, and leading the city forward. Yes we can? Apparently only if you fill out this form, pay this fee, and operate a business in the downtown area.

I know this city has a deep preference for the Democratic Party, but inauguration week should be DC’s quadrennial Mardi Gras. This is not a time to sit on our hands or hamstring our local merchants. This a time to say “Welcome America, we’re open for business!”



Historical Society of Washington, DC, December 21
Ed Bruske,

Sunday, December 21, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Historical Society of Washington, DC, 801 K Street, NW. Free admission. Jewish storytelling: “Chanukah Gift” with Jeanne Leckert. The “Chanukah Gift” tells the story of Chanukah through the sweet tale of a boy trying to find the right present for his mother. On a walk through the woods, David meets a variety of characters with whom he relates the story of Chanukah, piece by piece. They, in turn, humorously help him discover the perfect gift. This show features music, audience participation, and shadow puppets. Ages three and up. or 383-1828.



Request for Inauguration Housing
Joan Eisenstodt,

A colleague sent this to me. If you can be of help, please contact the person whose E-mail appears at the end of the note.

I just found out that our San Francisco Boys Choir was chosen to sing at the inauguration. Here’s the problem — they need a place(s) to stay from January 17 to 21. There will be forty-three boys, aged 9-12 and twelve to fifteen adults. Are there any readers out there close to DC who could offer a floor in their homes. (We would need a few families in a neighborhood.) Does anyone have any suggestions on other sources of places to stay (all the hotels are either sold out or a thousand dollars a night). Any suggestions would be helpful. Please respond to Lesli Mays at


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