Mayor Gray’s State of the District speech touted how well the city is doing and we are doing great. The reserve fund is at record levels; the economy is booming with 55 cranes dotting the city’s landscape and office buildings and apartments going up across the city. Ground is broken for Skyland Mall in Ward 7 after decades of false starts; the new Coast Guard headquarters is nearly finished in Ward 8 on the west campus of the old Saint Elizabeth’s site and plans are moving forward for a high-tech center on the east campus. A major developer is being sought for the old Walter Reed campus in Northwest.
For the first time in years there is hope for fair agreements with public service unions and the mayor has proposed an additional $100 million investment in affordable housing and a $15 million fund for competitive grants to small non-profits.
The city is regaining control over agencies that for decades have been under court order; 1,100 people a month are moving into the District; and we are making steady if too slow progress on improving our schools. These successes appropriately credited to the Gray administration have been built on changes to the way we do business in the District starting in the Williams administration.
Yet there are still many problems to be solved. Too many children are in homeless shelters and there is still too much violent crime and too many hate crimes. We need even more affordable housing and must continue to lower the unemployment rate especially in the poorer areas of the District.
The successes of the last two years often get lost in the headlines over the questionable ethics of some public officials. We need to rebuild the public’s confidence in the political system. The mayor has submitted comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation to the Council, which awaits action. The Council passed an ethics bill and while it may not have gone far enough it was a start. Despite these lingering issues the city is being run better than it has ever been before.
Meanwhile, the issues surrounding Council member Jim Graham have reached a crescendo. The report by the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability should be seen as a shot across the bow for all public officials. We have to demand better. While the investigation of Council member Graham will not proceed, the report highlighted the issues that many thought while not illegal may have crossed an ethics line.
I disagree with the Washington Post editorial that called on Graham to resign. If nothing illegal occurred then it is up to his constituents, not the Post, to determine his future. His wheeling and dealing pointed out that with so few elected officials in the District, there will be constant conflicts of interest when dealing with constituent requests. Graham worked on Metro issues and, at the same time, worked to help a constituent in his Ward. Jim’s reputation for horse trading when his help is sought possibly created its own problems. Maybe rather than demanding his resignation other officials and the public can learn a valuable lesson from his current travails.
Maybe we should require Council members to post all their contacts and correspondence relating to any city contractor or potential contractor online within 72 hours of it having occurred. This transparency would potentially force our public officials to think twice about what they do or ask for. Legitimate correspondence would still go forward without a problem. Transparency in government is always a good thing and this would allow people to review and question actions as they are happening rather than years later.
There is significant progress being made on a host of issues in our city. Polls and surveys show that services are being delivered more efficiently and faster than ever before. The mayor will be working with the Council on major regulatory reform and on a total review of procurement practices in the District. One thought is to take the Council out of the contracting business altogether. As we build the District’s tax base we will be able to develop and fund programs for those most in need — the poor, children and the disabled.