Home Commentary Open forum D.C. RESULTS WORTH STUDYING



I, too, understand the angst concerning the recent poll results indicating a
lack of confidence in the local government and a preference for a federal control board. I also understand the position of the Source, that a Federal control board will be insensitive to local needs.
I don't wish to state an opinion on this subject one way or the other, but do strongly encourage anyone interested in this topic to seriously study the recent history of the District of Columbia.
After decades of mismanagement, a withering tax base and fiscal problems inherited from the federal government and exacerbated by the unique responsibilities of being the nation's capital, the district lost its investment grade rating and was in a severe fiscal crisis.
With Medicaid spiraling out of control and court orders mandating improved care for the children, the mentally ill and the elderly, the budget deficit seemed intractable.
Additionally, Mayor Marion Barry did not inspire confidence in the Congress nor in the Republican congressman from Virginia presiding over the sub committee overseeing the district's fiscal affairs. Barry succeeded at playing race and "home rule" politics for some time but the end was clearly in sight.
President Clinton enacted a Federal Control Board in 1994. The board was comprised of many notables including a former Federal Reserve Bank governor.
The control board hired an aggressive Harvard-trained lawyer, Anthony
Williams, to serve as chief financial officer.
Williams served solely at the discretion of the control board and not the mayor. In addition, the Federal Control Board had authority in all fiscal matters, including budgeting, spending and borrowing. In so doing, the Federal government neatly turned a strong mayoral form of city government into a city manager form of government. The benefits of the latter being city managers are professionals trained in public administration and city management, while elected officials need not necessarily pass that same standard.
Williams was aggressive, cut dead wood throughout his finance operation, brought in talented people and made sweeping changes. Plus with the power of the control board to back him, Williams was free from political responsibility actual or implied.
With this freedom and his hard work the district balanced their budget, regained an investment grade rating, regained access to the capital markets, regained home rule and Williams ultimately replaced Barry and is currently the mayor of the district.
Given these strong accomplishments the control board was disbanded and the District was allowed to control its own destiny again.
The challenge is to learn lessons from the cities that have come back from the brink of financial disaster – Philadelphia and the District of Columbia are two clear examples. A control board need not be a bad thing, the district is a clear example of that.


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