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March 4, 2009


Dear Reporters:

In the last issue of themail, Dorothy wrote ( about how daily newspapers in DC, like those in other cities, are cutting back on their reporting staffs and reducing the print space that they dedicated to local news. She speculated about the possibility of citywide and neighborhood web sites, blogs, and listservs filling the gap that newspapers are leaving. Marc Fisher, in one of the articles that Dorothy cited, wrote that they can’t:: “Bloggers Can’t Fill the Gap Left by Shrinking Press Corps,” Fisher gave basically the same two reasons for his pessimism that two reporters gave her when they sent not-for-publication replies to Dorothy’s article. First, newspapers are more balanced and objective than bloggers and independent journalists. Second, newspapers have the resources to report in depth in a way that independent Internet sites can’t.

I don’t buy either of those arguments. Anybody who reads The Washington Post and The Washington Times regularly recognizes that they both have biases, prejudices, and agendas. The Post leans to the left and favors Democrats; the Times leans to the right and favors Republicans; and this is reflected not just on their editorial pages but in their editorial choices for the news pages. The difference between newspapers and neighborhood web sites and blogs is not balance and objectivity, but that web sites and blogs are usually more open and explicit about their viewpoints. Web sites provide balance by allowing comments and links to opposing viewpoints, and their readers search out balance by reading a variety of web sites, just as reading both the Post and the Times provides balance.

Newspapers can devote greater resources to local reporting than individual bloggers, but that ability counts for nothing unless it is used. In a typical year, the Post may do one or two large-scale investigative series on local issues, and these series are unlikely to be duplicated by any other news source. But aside from that, newspapers get their stories the same three ways bloggers get them: news release handouts, leaks from insiders, and tips from people who are concerned about particular issues. The neighborhood news source will reprint the news release with attribution, rather than rewriting it and pretending it’s a straight news story. It will protect the insider leaker, just as the newspaper will, and pass the story through to the public. It will let tipsters tell their stories straight, in their own words — and if the tipsters don’t get the story right, somebody will correct them, or at least challenge them, immediately. The substitute for more resources and more paid reporters is to give greater access to a greater number of people to report the news themselves.

News industry philosopher and blogger Jeff Jarvis answered Marc Fisher’s column on the same day it was published in “Who’ll Cover the State,” Jarvis writes, “I don’t have a buttoned-up plan to replace the coverage of newspaper statehouse bureaus. But it’s already true that they are shrinking and so rather than just complaining about that — and pointing out for the Nth time that bloggers won’t replace their headcount — we need to look at how the functions of covering state government can be fulfilled in new ways.” Instead of more paid reporters, Jarvis recommends more government openness: “I think transparency as a default for governments at every level is the first answer: every piece of legislation online and every debate and committee meeting recorded and shared. That alone won’t yield reporting but it would enable journalists and citizens anywhere in a state to monitor bills and topics and share what’s notable.” In DC, we have a city government in which openness and transparency are avoided as much as possible, and in which even the Freedom of Information Act has been subverted into a tool to deny access to government documents. As daily newspapers retract, we need to place renewed emphasis on government transparency to make it possible for citizen journalists to do their jobs.

Speaking of citizen journalists, it’s an opportune time to honor Sam Smith, who has been an active independent citizen journalist for decades, paying close critical attention to the details of local government long before any Internet newbies were out of their nappies. Back in the 1960’s, Sam published a print journal reporting on the activities of the city council that was more detailed and informative than any of the “major” media, and his web site,, has continued his reporting on local as well as national affairs. This week, Sam announced that he will be moving full-time to what has been his summer vacation house in Maine, and that, while he will continue his national reporting, he will be discontinuing reporting on local DC affairs. Now, that’s a real loss to local journalism.

Gary Imhoff


Harry Thomas Threatens the Brookland Heartbeat
Jason Lee-Bakke,

Harry Thomas, Jr., apparently doesn’t like what the Brookland Heartbeat has been writing, and responds in an open letter posted at, which is fine, but am I the only one disturbed by his closing the letter with, “Long and Foster will be held accountable for its role in underwriting the Brookland Heartbeat, as well as the businesses that support the publication.” Ambiguous prepositional phrase aside, is Mr. Thomas publicly threatening businesses in his ward?


Your Council at Work
Dorothy Brizill,

In Washington, there are all sorts of real dangers facing District residents. For example, crime, lead in the drinking water, the lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poorly performing schools, high taxes, etc. To this list of real concerns, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Michael Brown are adding “light pollution.” At Tuesday’s legislative session of the city council, Cheh and Brown introduced the “Smart Lighting Act of 2009.” The bill calls for the District’s Department of the Environment to study and prepare a report regarding “standards for outdoor light fixtures in the District” in order to “minimize light pollution, energy waste, and improve public safety.” In a media advisory sent by Cheh’s office, she indicates that the bill “seeks to reduce light pollution produced by the District of Columbia.” According to the legislation, the danger of light pollution arises because of “the use of unshielded light fixtures and excessive lighting intensity.”

The legislation claims that “light pollution” has serious consequences, which it details to justify the legislation. It claims that light pollution, “Jeopardizes human life and property because it produces glare, reducing visual acuity and distracting drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians; causes excessive consumption of electricity, resulting in greater amount of spending and air pollution than necessary; increases safety risks by keeping human eyes from properly adjusting for night vision; causes other human health impact, including contributing to insomnia and, by interruption the human body’s production of melatonin, possibly increasing the risk of certain cancers; affects worker productivity by causing discomfort and distraction; interrupts animals’ breeding cycles and migration patterns by disorienting their sense of direction; and detracts from the aesthetic beauty of not only the night sky, but the District’s local environment.”

Under the bill, the DC Department of the Environment will be required to submit a report to the council within 180 days “recommending strategies and methods to reduce the production of luminescence to the lowest amount necessary. . . .” DDOE, however, is the same District agency that, more than a year ago, was tasked by the council to conduct an independent study of lead in the District’s drinking water. To date, DDOE’s Task Force on Water Quality has met only three times, and has not begun the study. It is still debating the parameters of it. As the representative for Ward 3, the chair of the council’s Government Operations and Environment Committee, and the chair of the Special Investigation Committee on the DC Board of Elections and Ethics, Cheh has important oversight and budgetary responsibility for twenty-one District agencies, boards, and departments, as well as a large number of issues that should occupy her time. Are brightly lit streets and sidewalks such a danger, and is making the city darker such a major issue, that establishing a government regime to reduce and regulate lighting is a high priority for District residents? The legislation has been referred to Cheh’s Government Operations and Environment Committee, where it is likely to receive expedited consideration, and to be enacted into legislation before the council goes on summer recess.

The concepts of artificial light’s being “light pollution” and of “light trespass,” as well as much of the language in the Cheh-Brown bill, originate with an Arizona organization known as the International Dark-Sky Association, The preference for dark skies began with astronomers whose observatories were near large cities; the night-sky glow from those cities interfered with their observations. Now the issue is being framed as an environmental issue. The rationale is that nighttime is naturally dark and that man-made lighting disturbs the natural order, and is therefore a form of pollution. According to them, if artificial lighting cannot be entirely eliminated, it should at least be strictly controlled.


Legislation That Makes Sense
Ralph J. Chittams, Sr.,

Kwame Brown’s “Get DC Residents Training for Jobs Now Act of 2009” is legislation that makes sense. Making adult training and education opportunities available during nontraditional hours (evenings and weekends) will make such opportunities available to a larger universe of people. In addition to seeking funding through the Workforce Investment Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, funds allocated to the District via President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (the “stimulus package”) can also be used in this effort. The stimulus package signed by President Obama provides funding for “shovel-ready” projects. Funding is also provided for future “green” projects, infrastructure improvements, and school construction. Nothing more needs to be done other than disbursing those stimulus funds after they have been received.

Within the District of Columbia there are numerous community development and construction projects either planned, currently underway, or “shovel ready.” Contained in the contracts for almost all of these projects is the requirement that the developer’s workforce comprise a certain percentage of DC residents. However, if past experience is any indicator, those figures will not be met. Contractors will argue that they couldn’t find qualified District residents to hire. That may well be true. When vocational education was removed from the public school system, the pathway to these types of jobs was made exponentially more difficult. As a result, within certain demographic segments of Washington, DC there has been an ongoing problem of unemployment and underemployment. Kwame Brown’s bill provides a unique opportunity to address this situation.

In addition, I am willing to go even farther than Councilmember Brown. I would be willing to have the District of Columbia Government enter into partnership with, among others, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers to increase apprenticeship opportunities for residents of the District of Columbia. This would also increase the pool of qualified candidates from whom the developers could hire District of Columbia residents. This partnership would take the form of direct payments to help defray the cost of the apprenticeship program for residents of the District of Columbia. Funds provided by the District could only be used for the apprenticeship program, and not for any other purpose, including political. In addition, if someone is accepted into an apprenticeship program and does not have a high school diploma or GED, the District would provide assistance to that person to obtain the necessary education credentials. The initial outlay of funds at the front-end would be more than covered by the economic benefits at the back-end (i.e., increased income taxes, reduced unemployment benefit payments, reduction in WIC and other payments, to name a few). Councilmember Kwame Brown, good show!


Two Banned, and Counting
Pete Tucker,

Councilmember David Catania is experimenting on sixth grade girls with a dangerously under-tested HPV vaccine. When two concerned citizens spoke out last week, Mr. Catania silenced them by prohibiting them from testifying. First Mr. Catania, who chairs the Health Committee, removed me from the witness list for last Friday’s Department of Health oversight hearing. On Monday, I called his office for an explanation, and was given none. I asked Mr. Catania’s staffer, Jen Barry, to add my name to the witness list for the Monday, March 9, Department of Health Care Finance oversight hearing. She refused, informing me that I have been banned from testifying at all future Health Committee hearings. I asked that she send me an E-mail stating this, but I have received none, and when I placed a follow-up call to Ms. Barry, she hung up on me. Two days later, Miguel Rosario, an independent chef who testified against the required vaccination at Friday’s hearing, called Mr. Catania’s office to sign up for Monday’s hearing. After keeping him on hold for seven minutes, a staffer told Miguel he wouldn’t be allowed to testify. Again the staffer offered no explanation.

Are we being banned from testifying before the Health Committee because of our opposition to Mr. Catania’s experimental use of the HPV vaccine on eleven- and twelve-year-old girls for this upcoming school year (for more information please visit If so, as Gary has written previously, “Catania is not just insulting Tucker, and by extension all citizens, by commanding that someone who disagrees with his policy preferences not be allowed to testify before his committee; he is also flouting a rule of the city council. If Catania stands by his position, will he be disciplined by the city council? If he is not disciplined, can citizens rely on any guarantee by the council that they will be treated fairly by it?”

On Friday, Miguel and I will testify before the Committee of the Whole and ask Chair Vincent Gray to investigate whether Mr. Catania is violating the council’s rules by banning witnesses with whom he does not agree. As the District pushes for voting rights from Congress and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is it not hypocritical that at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue basic democratic principles are being disregarded?


Cleveland Park Assessments for TY 2010
Peter S. Craig,

Jack Evans’ Committee on Finance and Revenue will be holding oversight hearings on the performance of the Office of Tax and Revenue and the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals on Friday, March 6, at 10:00 a.m. Persons wishing to testify should contact Sarina Loy at 724-7058 or by E-mail at sloy@dccouncilus. There has been no effective oversight of the city’s assessment process for years. The same chronic problems arising from residential assessments still plague the system and, indeed, have become worse since the DC Court of Appeals rejected the efforts of citizens to correct the system last year, describing the lawsuit as an attempt to enjoin the collection of taxes, which it was not. The careful review of assessment practices by Judge Eugene Hamilton thus came to naught.

Current residential assessments highlight the problems: 1) OTR ignores its duty to assess the “estimated market value” of residential properties on the “valuation date,” which for TY 2010 taxes means January 1, 2009. A review of all sales of detached, single-family houses throughout the District of Columbia in December 2008 and January 2009 shows that the proposed assessments for TY 2010 are, on average, 25 percent too high. There is also severe discrimination, with more expensive houses favored, at the expense of lower value houses. 2) Similarly, in Cleveland Park, a comparison of the sales of all houses in Cleveland Park during 2008 (adjusted for the downward trend in prices as shown by the Case-Shiller DC house price index) shows that, on average, Cleveland Park houses of all types (except houses selling over two million dollars) are over-assessed by 25 percent. (Houses selling over $2 million are, in general, under-assessed.) 3) The fundamental reason for this overassessment of residential properties is that the Office of Tax and Revenue willfully violates the law as written. a) First, it assumes that the selling price shown on a deed is the same as “estimated market value,” which is the legal standard for assessment. They are not the same. “Estimated market value” excludes the value of personal property involved in the sale (washers, dryers, stoves, dishwashers, refrigerators, etc.), services involved in the sale (agents’ 6 percent commission, legal fees, closing costs, staging costs, fix-up costs) and taxes (DC transfer taxes). In general, “estimated market value” is 85-90 percent of the gross sales price. b) Second, OTR ignores the valuation date (January 1, 2009), thus using unadjusted sales prices of one or two years ago, when, as shown by the Case-Shiller DC house index, housing prices in the District have declined 28.8 percent since their peak on January 1, 2006. 

4) There are many other anomalies in OTR’s assessments: a) Homeowners are assessed costs for unfinished basements at 25 percent of the floor area, but if they have finished basements they are not assessed any costs for their basement. b) OTR carefully hides many factors that affect its costing, such as: i) neighborhood multipliers, ii) its definitions of “grades” of houses, and iii) its definitions of the condition of each house. c) OTR uses a different formula for land values for each of its defined neighborhoods, but within each neighborhood it uses the same formula, based solely on square feet, without regard to other factors such as slope, drainage, traffic, noise. Although some property owners can obtain reductions for these factors, those who benefit from the “one shoe fits all” approach keep their preferential land assessments. d) OTR understates depreciation for virtually all properties, using a maximum depreciation of 16 percent in its formulas, compared with a maximum depreciation of 80 percent for commercial properties.

Persons concerned about their assessments should E-mail the Cleveland Park assessor, Clinton Murphy, at and request a copy of their property record card (free) and a copy of their “cost.dat” sheet (also free), which shows how their assessment was constructed. They should also consult the Internet and read the latest “Appraiser’s Reference Materials” for an explanation of how their assessment was calculated. Unfortunately, the latest issue is last year’s, at With the firing of Thomas Branham as Chief Assessor, Dr. Gandhi appears intent on keeping OTR’s assessment practices as secret as possible.

If you want to obtain property record cards for other properties, for comparison, you must pay $2 for each card. Such information should be on the Internet, as former Chief Assessor Thomas Branham desired to do, but his superiors blocked this improvement. Instead, the Internet listings for each property are woefully inadequate and misleading, which (apparently) is OTR’s intention.


Snow Job
Josh Gibson,

You [Gary Imhoff, themail, March 1] wrote that “Weather forecasters on all the local television and radio stations seem to be annoyingly fond of snow and snow storms, wishing for the worst.”

Hmmmm, Gary and Dorothy, that sure sounds like your attitudes towards dysfunction in the DC government. Finding pleasure in misfortune is no less annoying coming from you two, I assure you.



Department of Parks and Recreation Events, March 7-10
John Stokes,

Saturday, March 7, 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex, 8001 Sheriff Road, Landover, MD. Potomac Valley Association National Invitational Meet will host its last indoor track championship meet for the indoor track season. Ages fourteen and under. For more information, call Edgar Sams at 671-0395.

Saturday, March 7, 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Lederer Gardens, 4801 Nannie Helen Burroughs, NE. Gardening workshop for ages eighteen and up. Join the District Department of the Environment at Twin Oaks Community Gardens to learn helpful eco-friendly tips for gardening, pest control, and general lawn care. For more information, call Kelly Melsted at 671-0396.

Tuesday, March 10, 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., King Greenleaf Recreation Center, 201 N Street, SW. The blood pressure story for ages 55 and up. A great opportunity for seniors to get information regarding their blood pressure. For more information, call Kim Campbell at 645-7454.

Tuesday, March 10, 4:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m., Sherwood Recreation Center, 640 10th Street, NE. Good Luck and Goodie Tuesday for ages five to twelve. Kiddie craft projects and gardening commemorating the beginning of spring. For more information call Karena Houser-Hall, Recreation Specialist, at 698-3075.

Tuesday, March 10, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m., Riggs La Salle Community Center, 501 Riggs Road, NE. In celebration of “March Music Month,” let’s travel from gospel, blues, jazz, soul. to R and B! Ages 21 and up. For more information, call Shirletta Settles at 576-5224.


Capital Region Touring Program Application Deadline, March 9
Charles Barzon,

The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations for the Capital Region Touring Program (CRT). The program, in collaboration with the Maryland State Arts Council, provides funding to District of Columbia presenters to book performing artists included on the Touring Artist Roster of the Maryland State Arts Council. The program goals include expanding the pool of performing artists presented in the District of Columbia, furthering the artistic development of these performing artists by enhancing their marketability beyond their home states, and promoting the unique cultural traditions of both Washington, DC, and the State of Maryland.

The application deadline is Friday, March 6, at 7:00 p.m. Must be delivered (no postmarks) this date and time to DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 1371 Harvard Street, NW. A link to the program guidelines and the Maryland State Arts Council Artist Roster are currently available on the home page of our web site under “Agency News” at For more information, contact Charles Barzon at 724-5613 and


Abstinence Awareness Week Forum, March 9
Richard Urban,

Abstinence Awareness Week Youth Forum is coming to Howard University School of Business Auditorium, Georgia Avenue and Fairmont Street, NW, on March 9 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. The theme is “Marriage and Family Matter: Abstinence Is a Core Strength of the Community.” This forum will feature a youth panel, parent panel, speakers, recording artist Angelia Robinson, and table space for community organizations and ministries. Register and get more information at, or call Richard at 558-5550.


Environmental Health Group (EHG) Events, March 10
Allen Hengst,

World War I munitions, bottles filled with chemical warfare agents and contaminated soil have been found in and around the Spring Valley neighborhood of northwest DC. The Environmental Health Group (EHG) seeks to raise awareness of the issues and encourage a thorough investigation and cleanup. Every Sunday at 1:30 p.m., please join the Environmental Health Group for an informal discussion about Spring Valley issues. At Glover Park Whole Foods Market, 2323 Wisconsin Avenue, NW (one block south of Calvert Street). To access the content at the EHG web site and participate in the discussion, you may register at

Tuesday, March 10, 7:00 p.m. Joint Restoration Advisory Board/Community meeting on the destruction of chemical munitions at the “Interim Holding Facility” behind Sibley Hospital. At Horace Mann School, 4430 Newark Street, NW (one block south of American University),


The Evolution of Art Deco Jewelry, March 12
Beth Meyer,

Tony Wilner will speak on the evolution of Art Deco jewelry at the Kensington Row Bookshop, 3786 Howard Avenue, Kensington, Maryland, on Thursday March 12, at 7:30 p.m. This slide show program will describe the evolution of jewelry design through the decades of the Art Deco style period (1920’s -1950). Technological advances in engineering, an appreciation for various cultural events and discoveries of the period, and a desire for something new all contributed to the proliferation of this design style. Virtually everything from toasters and appliances to planes, trains, and automobiles manufactured during this time reflected some attributes of the Art Deco style, and handmade jewelry and clothing fashion was no exception. The speaker will compare and contrast various features of the Art Deco style with the preceding Art Nouveau style and explain the rationale for each, which will enhance anyone’s appreciation when they attend antique shows.

Tony Wilner is a native Washingtonian who lives in Pasadena, Maryland. He has been a member of the Art Deco Society of Washington since 1988 and served on the Board’s Preservation Committee for several years. He has been a lapidary artist cutting gemstones for thirty-five years and is active with three gem, mineral, and lapidary organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area.


Cheever: A Life, March 12
John C. Campbell,

DC biography lovers won’t want to miss the appearance Thursday, March 12, of Blake Bailey, author of Cheever: A Life, the universally acclaimed story of the life and work of John Cheever, which will be released March 10.

Bailey will talk about Cheever, read from the book and sign copies at the event beginning at 7:00 p.m. at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Avenue, NW. Now on a national book tour, Bailey is also the author of the definitive biography of Richard Yates. The latter’s best known novel is Revolutionary Road, now a hit movie and the basis for the HBO series Madmen.

The New York Times Magazine had a lengthy article Sunday on Cheever and Bailey’s new book:


Black History Month Literary Arts Events, March 19
Maresha Tadesse,

Thursday, March 19, 7:00 p.m., deadline for submissions to the Larry Neal Writers’ Competition. Larry Neal (1937-1981) was the former executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.


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