WASHINGTON, A SYMBOL OF CIVIC FAILURE - The Buffalo News
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WASHINGTON, A SYMBOL OF CIVIC FAILURE

It is a strange coincidence that found the two highest elected executives in Washington, D.C., explaining American democracy to the people of the Pacific nations at the same time this past week.

President Clinton was taking his first international trip since winning a second term from slightly less than half the voters who bothered to cast ballots in an election with the lowest turnout -- 49 percent of the eligibles -- since 1924.

District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry was on a 12-day trip to South Korea and China when the experiment in self-government for the nation's capital was in effect being ended as a failure. The city's elected school board and its choice for superintendent were supplanted by an outside appointed panel because of their failure to meet their most basic responsibilities to the city's children. Police, welfare and higher education functions may also soon be stripped from the city government.

These twin symbols of civic failure -- the mass abstention from voting and the collapse of elected government in the nation's capital -- speak volumes about the sorry condition of our glorious experiment in self-rule as we near the end of the 20th century.

The decline in voting has been discussed often -- and will be again, I'm sure, in this space. The failure of home rule in Washington deserves more national attention than it has received.

It is too easy to blame it all on Barry, although he clearly is at the center of many problems. As the man who has run city government for 14 of the last 18 years, he has presided over the physical and social ruination of a magnificent capital. Early on in the period of home rule that began in 1974, Barry and others in city government emulated the pattern of other big-city politicians by making their peace with the downtown developers, who supplied the cash for their campaigns.

Then he built a political machine, largely by expanding the bureaucracy and providing patronage jobs with good salaries for supporters who coveted the security of the public payroll. Supervisory ranks swelled with people of questionable competence, while front-line workers struggled with antiquated equipment and inadequate supplies.

Last year, with the city on the verge of bankruptcy and Barry back in office, after a brief hiatus caused by his imprisonment for drug abuse, Congress set up a financial control board to supervise the district's spending. In truth, home rule would have been ended at that point, had Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and others not been sensitive to the racial implications of the first Republican Congress in 40 years eliminating the local government in a predominantly black city.

The purpose of the financial control board was to give Barry and other city officials political cover for weeding out the overgrown bureaucracy, to let them say, "We hate to fire you, but they (the control board members) are adamant." Instead, Barry fought Andrew Brimmer and others on the predominantly black control board every step of the way.

So now the board has begun what will likely be a step-by-step takeover of city government functions, starting with the school system. Before moving on the schools, it issued a devastating report on them, showing that while per pupil spending is 20 percent higher than the national average, the longer students remain in district schools, "the less likely they are to succeed educationally." Books and other essentials are in short supply, but the ratio of administrators to teachers is more than twice as high as comparable systems, and the school board's own budget dwarfs that of nearby jurisdictions.

But don't just blame the district. Like most old cities, it is surrounded by more affluent suburbs which resist efforts to share the responsibilities on a metropolitan areawide basis. And do not exonerate the Democratic Party. It pushed the home-rule cause, but it never gave the district the tough love or the leadership it needed. As my colleague Mary McGrory has pointed out frequently, the Clintons have been less engaged with the city than Gingrich, who finds time to work and worry with local parents' groups.

For years, the Democrats' only answer to the growing dysfunction in the nation's capital has been to advocate statehood for the District of Columbia, as if one more layer of bureaucracy would help. A Republican Congress finally stepped in to provide an alternative government in the financial control board. It's not democracy, but at this point, the first task is just to save the city and its children.

Washington Post

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