July 30, 2014 at 4:35 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Are D.C. officials content to do only small stuff?
polystyrene, officials, gay news, Washington Blade

This week, a Council-approved ban on Styrofoam-style polystyrene containers was signed into law by Mayor Vincent Gray, to take effect in 2016. (Photo by Phyrexian; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In a city possessing only a thin and increasingly fragile veneer of economic robustness amid weakened prospects for maintaining the recent pace of private sector growth, the annual D.C. Council summer recess should provide legislators with time to reflect on their intentions upon returning in the fall.

There is scant expectation, however, that longstanding behavior is likely to improve.

Most striking about the performance and priorities of the District’s elected officials is apparent contentment with drifting along devoid of tackling the larger looming issues facing the city. Only the easy “shiny ball” stuff provides fodder for any braggadocio they attempt.

D.C. Council members obsess about middling measures while diddling over bigger things.

This week, for example, a Council-approved ban on Styrofoam-style polystyrene containers was signed into law by Mayor Vincent Gray, to take effect in 2016. A splashy media event signaled that D.C. would be joining a teensy-tiny list of places with such prohibition. It represented an unceasing fascination by local politicians with the trendiest mandates to imitate.

Whether the ban is good or bad, beneficial or baffling, or even inconsequential, it is emblematic of a penchant for laws that run the gamut from foolish to foolhardy or unintentionally counterproductive to essentially crazy. Just ask one of the suburban pest control companies installing more freezers to accommodate tagged and dated dead animals live-trapped, as now required, on District residential properties while awaiting an overdue visit by D.C. officials to inspect the bodies prior to disposal. It’s the type of thing from which bar jokes are made.

Meanwhile, Council members recently threw their hands up high to the sky in resignation over a collective inability to remedy conditions at the now-notorious city-run homeless family shelter at the former D.C. General hospital complex or identify an alternate solution. All while continuing to spend an astounding $53,000-plus per-family per-year to warehouse them in worsening squalid conditions there.

More bang-for-the-buck has again eluded city leaders. The lack of operational oversight or responsible stewardship of public funds is their greatest failure, revealing that none among them has actually run anything other than their mouths during long careers. Nothing like, let’s say, a business.

As one Council member pondered aloud from the dais at the final pre-recess legislative session finalizing the District’s annual budget, “We’re a $12.6 billion organization for only about 650,000 residents. Where is all the money going?”

We witness the audacity of the leading mayoral candidate not having addressed an affordable housing crisis under her Council committee domain offering nothing more than vacuous platitudes, perhaps due to a preoccupation with preventing homeless service facilities from opening in her district.

D.C.’s population increases will likely dissipate – similar to the sudden stagnation in net number of jobs created. The city is technically in a recession, having experienced two consecutive quarters of declining growth.

City leaders herald reductions in the city’s “official” unemployment rate. But when workers so discouraged they have quit looking for jobs and those involuntarily working part-time are added, the “real” rate doubles to 14 percent.

Yet businesses confront old obstacles and encounter new regulations that discourage initiating or expanding commerce and retaining or hiring employees – especially at smaller businesses and affecting low-skill workers in particular. Each new hiring, wage and employment requirement imposed begets an inverse cost, risk and labor disincentive. Lately the list has lengthened.

The homeless, the jobless and those without much hope wonder whether they’re welcome in a city where lazy government officials focus on the frivolous. It isn’t difficult to fathom residents at the bottom of a chasm-deep hole of economic instability and insecurity in a tough-to-afford city rightly feeling that officeholders care little about them, regardless of rhetoric.

D.C. suffers from leaders obsessed with both arrogantly legislating behavior and regulating-to-hindrance the entrepreneurs and businesses that actually enable the city to flourish and prosper.

It’s time to switch from the silliness to fixing the big stuff.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

1 Comment
  • Mark, thank you for speaking the truth. Every encounter with DC City Bureaucrats I have "enjoyed" over the past 4.5 years since I moved into DC from VA, except when working with DC DMV amazingly, has been Kafkaesque. My experience of DC government is that it is run by people who are at best incompetent, solely to benefit the wealthy and powerful.

    I can personally vouch for the fact that DCRA, DHCD, Office of Tax and Revenue, and DHCF are horribly run and prone to horrendously damaging actions, at least for individual DC residents; and I can also confirm that our vaunted MPD, run by Chief Lanier, is riddled with corruption and infected by an overwhelming arrogance towards DC residents who do not regularly ride in black SUV's. As for our City Council, I need only note that I have been waiting for Muriel Bowser to answer two questions I put to her, publicly, during a meeting of her Committee on Economic Development since last May 2. I am writing this on July 31. Those questions were actually for personnel at DHCD. All I asked Ms. Bowser to do is get me answers, and despite her public pledge, I still do not have them.

    Until I can no longer vouch for the fact that our city government agencies are getting it wrong, until that is not my even my perception, I will hold our Mayor and City Council responsible for the fact that nothing works in this city. I am tired of being insulted by elected leaders and bureaucrats alike, when I am constantly forced to observe their tacit acceptance of the fact that a very small number of well-connected individuals can live off the fat of the city, while tens of thousands are left to attempt to game the local system just to survive. I am outraged, daily, by how horrendously this city works, and how poorly this city's elites administer the funds and infrastructure with which they have been entrusted.

    DC's continued dependence on the federal government to grow its economy, and the fact that the federal government is obviously going to shrink in coming years makes me wonder when the economy will bust here, not whether it will happen.

    I wrote in "MIckey Mouse" when voting for city council members in our last Democratic Primary, and I will not be voting for Ms. Bowser in November.

    I plan to vote for David Catania, in hopes that he will act boldly upon taking office, and that he will clean our city bureaucracies of the leeches and hangers on who sap the strength of this city on a daily basis through their petty corruption and mismanagement. He has shown that he is unafraid of taking on his fellow council members when he feels they are behaving in a corrupt or incorrigible manner, and I hope he will start us on a path towards fiscal responsibility and bureaucratic accountability. I may be wrong about Mr. Catania. It would not be the first time I have put my trust in a candidate who disappointed me; but in hearing Mr. Catania speak and in reading about his positions on issues, I have some hope that he would bring reform to DC's government and that he can help us prepare the city for the coming economic downturn.

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