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Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nation’s capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

TEACH THE PUBLIC, MADAM CHAIRMAN: Most candidates for elective office tend to go out of their way to court voters, but D.C. City Council Chairman Linda Cropp appears to be taking a road less traveled in her quest to become mayor. Some might say her performance near the end of a public hearing she chaired March 14 on her proposal to sell or lease public property to developers did more to drive voters to her opponents' camps rather than into her own.

"Cropp is way out of line," commented Andrea Rosen during an online discussion among D.C. public school parents and activists, who were decidedly appalled at the council chairman's on-the-record grilling of Crystal Sylvia during the Deal Junior High School social worker's testimony.

Sylvia characterized the plan to sell air rights for building above, below or adjacent to public facilities as "giveaways" of public assets. She likened it to the council's recent decision to spend $611 million for a new baseball stadium that is expected to spur other retail/office development in the already-booming Navy Yard area.

"The developers are the ones that run this city," Sylvia testified, adding that city leaders appeared more concerned with helping the business community than improving schools and other public facilities. When Cropp responded that her proposal was an effort to "get money to pay for those things," Sylvia asserted: "I'm not buying it. A lot of people aren't buying it. You may surround yourself with people who are buying it, but a lot of people aren't."

Sylvia's comments apparently touched a nerve for Cropp, who was recently criticized for accepting thousands in campaign contributions from well-connected developers. Rather than maintaining the hearing's decorum, Cropp began forcefully lecturing Sylvia about revenue generated by the business community and, as Sylvia tried to respond with her opinion, the chairman then started badgering the witness about how the baseball stadium is being funded and attacking Sylvia's lack of precise knowledge.

Cropp should take a lesson from the answers that the politically active Sylvia was able to provide about how the new stadium will be funded: The chairman needs to stop holding closed-door council meetings, so the public can learn all of the details of the public's business, not just those that elected officials want the public to know.

"Of course the community is going to be shut out of the decision-making process," Sylvia opined as part of the online discussion of her exchange with Cropp. "Sure they'll hold community meetings for appearance sake but, as usual, all decisions will be made behind closed doors when we are not at the table."

At its February legislative meeting, the council reversed its rejection of the stadium deal after recessing to rehash the deal out of public earshot and without an official transcript of what was discussed.

Sylvia generated agreement from several residents when she wrote that she's tired of hearing the mayor and council talk for years about the city's need to "expand its tax base" to generate funding for schools, health care, affordable housing and other community needs.

"The economy is booming. …Where is all the money that is being generated from the increased tourism and new businesses? Hasn't our tax base been expanded? The trickle-down theory is not trickling down to us. Now we are being told that we have to give more…. It seems apparent that there is a con game going on here and Cropp and her buddies think they can keep fooling us," Sylvia wrote.

Cropp will have a hard time answering those critics or persuading them to change their minds if she continues to shut the public out of council discussions and to attack people who disagree with her.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator