Photo by afagen on Flickr.
Many people speculated, incorrectly, about my motivations for writing an article suspicious of Adrian Fenty on Friday. The simple fact is this. By all rights, I should love Adrian Fenty. He’s aligned with me on most policy issues. However, I don’t love him. Why?
Maybe it’s the way he seems to show contempt for the legislature, even when they try to work with him. Maybe it’s the way he has an attorney general who stonewalls anyone who asks questions about anything. Maybe it’s the way he just refused to implement the Inclusionary Zoning law for two years.
Or maybe it’s the way that whenever he’s personally involved in something instead of leaving it to his people, it’s been for the worse. On Friday, I asked why this is the case. Why does Mayor Fenty seem to stand behind every Michelle Rhee decision but not every Gabe Klein one? How does he choose when to intervene politically in a decision of a cabinet official and when doesn’t he?
After Friday’s piece, a government insider pointed out one counterexample where the Mayor didn’t stand behind Rhee either. In January, the administration floated the idea of moving the Duke Ellington School from Georgetown. Many people objected, including co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and DCPS quickly backed down.
Update: DCPS emailed us to dispute the facts of this case. Their response is here.
Now, maybe that was fine. Officials suggest an idea, people don’t like the idea, they decide not to go ahead. If Vince Gray becomes Mayor, that might happen more, since more decisions would probably get run by the community (perhaps in a medium besides the Washington Post). It’s appropriate to use community reactions as a factor in the decision, though it shouldn’t be the only one.
But what I was trying to put my finger on is, why does the Mayor intervene when he does, and not at other times, like when Rhee replaced the principal of Hardy, also in Georgetown, around the same time? When does he listen to community reaction and when doesn’t he?
I didn’t feel that his answers to these questions were particularly enlightening or even particularly honest. “Measure three times, cut once”? For real?
Sure, most political leaders have to make political decisions. But in a good leader, the decisions aren’t always political, or they’re based on a bigger picture political calculus instead of just what some influential people are saying today. In education, he has that bigger picture, but in other areas he doesn’t.
Fenty has some great cabinet members, but he’s also fired some other great cabinet members because they clashed with him, or some have left because they didn’t like working for him. People close to current or former cabinet officials say that Fenty often yells at his people if he doesn’t like what they’ve done. Coupled with his lack of policy depth in these issues, I’m told that makes many cabinet officials constantly deciding based on what they can get through the Mayor instead of what they think is best.
The best solution would be to listen to community reaction and then make a decision fairly quickly based on facts. Listen to reactions and input, and then if the experts are still persuaded it’s the right policy, move ahead. If the input has persuaded officials or the dissent outweighs the value, don’t do it. This is what Gray says he will do, but many worry he would be long on the listening and short on the action part.
But Fenty’s interventions don’t follow this pattern. Instead, they follow the pattern of meddling when really powerful political insiders have objections. Developers argued that inclusionary zoning was risky, so it got put on ice. DDOE wanted to push some stormwater regulations, but suddenly Fenty stepped in and stopped it.
Besides North Portal, DDOT also wanted to put in sidewalks on University Terrace in the Palisades. The road badly needed repaving. The road was wide enough to include sidewalks without taking away any front yards. The professionals at DDOT decided on a plan. But suddenly Fenty overrode it. Why here? Does it have to do with one of the numerous powerful people who live on University Terrace?
And then there was the time DDOT wanted to cut back the Circulator to M and Wisconsin, because the Wisconsin Avenue segment to Whitehaven was only carrying 2% of the riders while costing 15% of the operating cost. DDOT made the decision, some Georgetowners complained, and suddenly they found money somewhere to keep it going.
Maybe this is okay. After all, if the Mayor lets his good department heads get their way 98% of the time and meddles 2% of the time, that’s a pretty good track record. On the other hand, it’s some of the more impactful policies, like IZ or stormwater, that get shelved. Back on the flip side, though, those impactful decisions are the ones that ought to get more consideration since it’s a bigger deal to get them wrong.
However, if the impactful decisions get a bigger review process, then that should be a good process, and that’s not what’s happening. Ideally, Fenty would be in charge of the items like rec centers which should just go ahead, and Gray whould be in charge of the bigger policy issues that need thoughtful and participatory deliberation.
Actually, that’s pretty much what we could have had when Gray was in charge of the Council. The Council could have decided some of the big policy questions, and the Mayor implemented them and handled the smaller stuff. It’s too bad he took such a confrontational stance with the Council. According to Council insiders, at times the Council would propose a win-win way to work together to the Mayor, and his administration would just do the opposite anyway.
Here’s the problem. The Fenty Administration has done a lot of good, but whenever Adrian Fenty himself seems to be involved personally in some way, it’s been a poorer outcome. Fenty argues that the role of the Mayor is just to hire “A+ people.” Maybe so. And if Fenty basically spent all his time on vacation, or doing photo ops, and never paid attention to actual governing, and also fired Peter Nickles, he’d be a great mayor.
But is there something wrong with voting for someone you actually wish were essentially replaced with a cardboard cutout? Thinking the government is just fine, except for the head? What does that say, exactly?
Update: Perhaps justifying our title of Best News Source Unlikely to Be Distracted by News, this article was originally written on Friday, before the Washington Post released its poll showing Gray in the lead. Personally, I’m not deciding whom to vote for based on any polls.