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April 30, 2014

Greedy and Jealous

Dear Downtowners:

Jack McKay, below, asks whether DC is “becoming a traffic enforcement police state.” This may be an overstatement, but I wouldn’t quarrel too much with it. At a minimum, DC is becoming the big city equivalent of the sleepy southern towns of bygone decades that gained fame as speed traps. A speed trap town would take advantage of the highway that came through it, erect well-hidden speed limit signs that suddenly reduced the highway speed to twenty or twenty-five miles for the few blocks within their jurisdiction, and station patrol cars to catch unwary out-of-town motorists and impose outsized fines on them. Those fines would pay for the town’s budget, or at least the police department’s budget, and the locals could laugh at the tourists who paid their expenses. Of course, the speed trap towns would never admit they were targeting drivers for money. They argued that they were merely enforcing traffic laws to promote safety, and protecting pedestrians who walked on the sidewalks of the few downtown blocks between the Ace Hardware store and the A&W Root Beer stand. (I was going to write “the Piggly Wiggly store,” but most of these towns weren’t big enough to have a grocery as large as a Piggly Wiggly.)

Tourists, even in the days before the Internet, eventually learned about the speed trap towns, and learned to avoid them. The AAA guides and the Mobil travel guides would print warnings about them, and the days of financing city government with $250 fines for driving over twenty miles an hour came to an end. In the small, sleepy towns, that is; not in DC.

For an article on how DC is planning new ways to discourage driving into town and to make it unattractive and expensive, read Deborah Simmons’ article in The Washington Times, “A Hot DC Is Point of No Return,”, which begins, “DC officials are downright greedy and jealous.” And shortsighted. An urban center stays healthy if it makes itself attractive to people from throughout the region, not if it makes people from the suburbs think they’re better off staying in their malls instead of coming downtown.

Gary Imhoff


Fixing DC’s Board of Elections
Dorothy Brizill,

On Tuesday, April 28, the council’s Government Operations Committee held a public oversight roundtable on the DC Board of Elections’ (BOE’s) performance in the April 1 primary election. The video of the hearing can be viewed at Deborah Nichols, chairman of the BOE’s board, and Clifford Tatum, the BOE’s executive director, testified. They largely tried to deny that there were any serious problems regarding how the board conducted the election, both at the polls and with respect to the tabulation of election returns. In her written testimony, Nichols argued that, “the BOE’s performance during the April 1 primary election and early voting, although not perfect, was, in my assessment, successful and met all statutory requirement and obligations applicable to the Board. We achieved our statutory mission with a reasonable time. . . .”

For a more objective assessment, see the Washington Post article by Julie Zauzmer, “A Timeline: What Went Wrong on Election Night in the District,” During the lengthy hearing, both Nichols and Tatum frequently contradicted themselves and had to acknowledge discrepancies in their testimony. Aaron Davis wrote an article on the hearing that said that, “DC elections officials offered an entirely new explanation Tuesday for the major vote-counting delays that plagued the city’s April 1 Democratic primary. The issue was not five mishandled electronic voting machines, but a broad computer network failure. . . . Deborah Nichols, chairwoman of the elections Board, said that at least $2 million in new electronic voting machines and server upgrades — and perhaps another $2 million in computers and other office improvements, would be needed to ensure timely reporting of results in future citywide elections,”

In my testimony on behalf DCWatch, I stated that, “In the aftermath of the primary, angry and frustrated District residents have demanded that the DC Council hold an oversight hearing. . . . As a longtime observer and monitor of elections in the District, however, I have come to the conclusion that more is needed to investigate and fix the long-standing problems at the DC Board of Elections. To that end, I would like to formally inform the council Committee on Government Relations that a small group of prominent DC residents are in the process of establishing a Citizens Committee for Election Reform in the District of Columbia. The group will focus on the DC Board of Elections and Office of Campaign Finance, and will be similar to that of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration that was established in March 2013 to improve the conduct of federal elections ( The committee itself will be small, nonpartisan, diverse (eight to ten members), and of short duration (eight to ten months). In the course of its deliberations, the committee will receive research assistance from law and graduate school students and also reach out and seek input from a wide variety of individuals and organizations concerned about the conduct of District elections (e.g., the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Pew Center, the Federation of Citizens Associations, the DC Federation of Civic Associations, the DC Bar, Rock the Vote, AARP, Common Cause, unions, and political parties).”


Is DC Becoming a Traffic Enforcement Police State?
Jack McKay,

For forty years my wife and I have been driving cars in DC, with not a single moving violation citation between us. That is, until now, and suddenly we’ve both had our perfect driving records ruined by aggressive Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) enforcement. It’s not that our driving has changed — like most senior citizens, we’re increasingly cautious, being very aware of our declining physical abilities — it’s DC’s enforcement that has, clearly, changed.

My mistake was a minor stumble at a stop sign, a consequence of this 71-year-old’s reflexes not being what they used to be. The MPD officer who happened to be right behind me was intent on inflicting punishment, and had no interest in explanations for why I didn’t quite come to a full stop. My wife got nailed by the speed camera at the bottom of the K Street underpass. The problem there isn’t the speed camera, it’s the absurd speed limit, 25 mph at a location where there are no pedestrians, no cross traffic, no crosswalks, no parked cars, and you’re going to have to work very hard to bring about a collision with anything. But there, at the very bottom of the pit, is a speed camera, adroitly positioned for maximum ticketing. As NBC4 headlined, “DC Mayor Vincent Gray Proposes More Speed Cameras to Balance Budget.” Can anyone claim, with a straight face, that that K Street speed camera is about anything but collecting cash for the District?

Believe me, my 69-year-old wife, physically disabled, is no “aggressive speeder.” This speed-camera location fits the very definition of “speed trap.” Between the two of us, we had eighty years of driving in DC without a single moving violation ticket. What’s changed? It seems that the MPD is making DC a traffic enforcement police state, aggressively enforcing speed limits, however unreasonable, and showing “zero tolerance” for minor mistakes by imperfect drivers.

By the way, I examined historical traffic fatality data in DC, and in two comparable cities that have no speed cameras, namely New York City and Philadelphia. Guess what, the decline in New York and Philadelphia, from 1995 to 2011, is about the same as in DC, despite their having no speed cameras, versus eighty-seven cameras in operation here. The MPD claim that their “photo enforcement” devices are reducing traffic fatalities here is false. Speed cameras may well save lives out on high-speed highways, but they accomplish little in urban environments, except to make careful drivers resent the MPD.


New Group to Support DC Archives
Bill Rice,

At a recent meeting in historic Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, NW, a group of individuals interested in DC government and history came together to form the Friends of the District of Columbia Archives (FDCA). The attendees shared a deep concern that the physical and digital records of the Nation’s Capital are at risk due to the poor physical conditions at the DC Archives and District-wide inattention to record-keeping. The FDCA agreed to three immediate goals: 1) bring public attention and support for the DC Archives though activism in the District government and with the general public; 2) offer direct support for the forty-four million dollars the District government committed last year for a new Archives, including for more funding if needed to create a world-class facility; and 3) spotlight the Archives’ treasures, the dangers posed by current conditions, and the importance of saving the digital records of the city government.

The FDCA includes archivists, historians, DC government employees, and anyone interested in recovering and preserving the stories of the District’s past. Participants at the founding meeting had current and former affiliations with the Historical Society of Washington, DC, the Society of American Archivists, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, the National Archives, The George Washington University, and the DC Archives. The FDCA plans to solicit membership from all who want to support the Archives. One of its first actions will be to testify before the Council’s Committee on Government Operations on May 1st.


One City of Neighborhood Schools or School Choice and Chance “Roulette”?
Erich Martel, ehmartel at starpower dot net

I attended the Round 2 community meetings on DCPS school boundaries, feeder patterns, and student assignment at Coolidge High School on April 24 and at Dunbar High School on April 26 that were called by Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) Abigail Smith. The general sentiment at both meetings favored neighborhood schools with predictable access. Some criticized the lack of a cap on charter expansion, including a few angry comments at charters for drawing off more proficient students. When it became obvious to Smith that predominantly white participants at Dunbar were not in favor of “choice” and chance, she pulled out the race card — of course, speaking in euphemisms and abstractions: Since these meetings have not represented the city’s population, she’s going to organize more meetings in unrepresented neighborhoods.

With these proposals, Deputy Mayor Smith and Mayor Gray have given residents of all eight wards a taste of the uncertainty and disregard for community building that, till now, have been reserved for wards 5, 7, and 8 and parts of wards 1, 2, 4, and 6. All three “Policy Examples” (A, B, C) would assure uncapped charter school growth and more DCPS closures through “set asides for children from low quality neighborhood schools, in an effort to increase equitable access.” Consider what this really means. What happens to a school and the children left behind, when the more engaged parents pull their children out? Mayor Gray and Deputy Mayor for Education Smith want us to imagine that they don’t exist. “Low quality school” in reform-speak really means “low quality children” and “low quality teachers.” It’s easier to marginalize people if they are first turned into statistics or abstractions; after that, their disappearance will be welcomed. And how would the “high quality schools” set aside 10 percent or 15 percent of their slots for students from “low quality schools”? More overcrowding and more temporary classrooms — and more charter growth — as “low quality schools” are shut down.

The mayor and chancellor will close more schools, blame (or praise) “choice,” and transfer buildings to waiting charter operators. Instead of ensuring that each school is safe and orderly with a range of engaging subjects beyond core requirements and staffed to meet the range of readiness that students bring, DME Smith’s options will skim off the more engaged families, causing further enrollment decline.

The dismantling of DCPS schools and promotion of charters is facilitated by “Big Lie” euphemisms: “quality school,” “low-performing school,” etc. Since a school is a building where teachers teach and students learn, how does a “school” “perform” or be “a quality school”? For example, how is Deal Middle School (Ward 3) a “high performing school,” when 197 students (104 African American, 47 Hispanic) were not proficient in reading in 2013? How is Hart Middle School (Ward 8) a “low performing school” when 139 students tested proficient in reading”? Is the school’s percentage of all students in all grades that tested proficient (Deal, 83 percent; Hart, 30 percent) a true measure of each teacher’s effectiveness and each student’s mastery? By using the “school” as a measurable performance unit, mayor and chancellor abdicate their responsibility for failure, passing it on to the teachers, principals and, ultimately, students and communities.

As Chief of Transformation for Chancellors Rhee and Henderson (2007-2011), DME Smith oversaw the 2008 closure of twenty-three schools and helped institute policies based on untested management theories that students and teachers will improve, if paid for behavior and grades. Her “Capital Gains” fiasco quietly died, but the failed teacher bonus and excessing policies tied to IMPACT evaluations continue. They were funded by a three-year 64.5 million-dollar grant from the Arnold, Broad, Robertson, and Walton foundations through the DC Public Education Fund (DCPEF), which she helped set up and manage. Despite their failure to improve student learning or even show a correlation to student test results, their considerable costs were moved to the tax revenue supported budget (an example of how foundation grants “buy” DCPS policy).

Not only are taxpayers expected to fund bonuses, excessing, IMPACT, and their staff, the chancellor and mayor also inflated the FY15 teacher cost, $94,626, by over $5200. When multiplied by over 4000 teachers, it represents approximately 235 lost teaching positions, 2 or 3 per school. A genuine One City sees our children’s futures tied to the futures of children across the city, not misled by Orwellian language that labels the chancellor’s loss of students as evidence of the success of choice.


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