Washington, D.C.'s other mayor Power: Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. may be Washington's elected mayor but the power now resides with a five-member board headed by unelected, unpaid Andrew F. Brimmer, a 71-year-old former member of the Federal Reserve Board.

Sun Journal

September 26, 1997|By ELLEN GAMERMAN

WASHINGTON -- When the nation's capital was facing bankruptcy in 1995, President Clinton appointed Andrew F. Brimmer, a respected economist, to help turn around the city's government.

Brimmer's stage has been the district's financial control board, a federally appointed panel with authority over everything from the budget to school lunches. Brimmer, 71, is the unpaid chairman of that five-member board, whose reach over city management was made even broader by a federal plan approved this summer.

Many residents see Brimmer as the district's de facto mayor, and much of his work has been devoted to chipping away the bureaucracy built under the elected mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr. It is now Brimmer, not Barry, who controls key city departments and will handle most of next year's $4.2 billion city budget.

Shortly after taking office, Brimmer ordered the elimination of 2,000 jobs in city government. Since then, he has removed the school superintendent, diminished the powers of the school board and replaced them with a new chief of public schools. He has also reduced Barry's control over the Police Department's ,, day-to-day business.

A Harvard-educated economist who served on the Federal Reserve Board, Brimmer is scheduled to leave his part-time job as chairman in 1998, after a three-year term. The control board is to stay in place at least four years after that, and is required to prepare balanced budgets.

Ellen Gamerman of The Sun's Washington Bureau spoke with Brimmer this week about the present and future of Washington's local government.

Are you satisfied so far? Are you realizing your goals for the district?

No. We made a good bit of progress initially about dealing with the obvious big issues -- the one thing that was driving the deficit in the district was the size of the payroll, so we had to get some reduction in the number of persons on the payroll. But we made a number of other recommendations which were not implemented.

We basically made recommendations to the mayor and the council and we got very little response.

What are some of the problems?

We undertook a major study of the schools and concluded that the schools were in crisis and that there was widespread failure on the part of the elected school board superintendent.

I remember having the president of the school board [then Karen Shook] on the witness stand at a hearing with the [board's] vice president, and it was clear they were not giving guidance or direction. So I was reading [from the board's policy directive], and I asked her how they handled the following responsibilities. I read this passage, and she said, 'By the way, what are you reading from?' I said, 'This is your statute, these are your marching orders.' (Laughs) It was clear she didn't even recognize what she was supposed to be doing.

Are there times when your powers are undercut by this city's entrenched bureaucracy?

It is not entrenched bureaucracy -- it's leadership. Let me give you an example. One day, a staff member came in and said to me, 'D.C. General Hospital has to have an emergency contract signed because they have three vendors that are about to walk out because they haven't been paid.' The nurses were not paid and were about to walk out.

This was in June -- the food vendor had not been paid since October, the MRI people had not been paid since March, so I had to sign emergency contracts.

What happened? They simply let the ball drop, and that was a management problem. The head of the hospital has to be held responsible. It wasn't just a bureaucracy that willfully opposes. It is a failure to perform, to carry out tasks.

What can be done? Can you look to any other city governments for inspiration?

I don't see any. We are unique. We start from the fact that the governing structure here is quite different.

The mayor and City Council had very limited authority, and what authority they had was delegated to them from Congress. But Congress never delegated some of the most vital powers -- the power to legislate, the right to appropriate funds, the ability to tax. Congress has also passed a law prohibiting the district from taxing income that is earned by nonresidents, and that is the most severe constraint the district faces because that is the one revenue source, the one tax base, that is growing.

In 1995, jobs in the district generated $30 billion in income -- $19 billion of that was accruing to people outside the district. That's almost two-thirds. Other cities can tax that income. We can't.

Now that the control board is exercising more power, and actually doing more city management, how has your role changed?

When I accepted this position in the summer of 1995, I thought I would be required to spend about two to three days a week initially to get the organization set up and under way, and over time I would be able to cut back to a day, day-and-a-half a week. I've never been able to spend a day a week here.

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