Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 27, 2009

DC's culture of corruption

Today's Examiner reports that the U.S. District Attorney's Office is investigating Marion Barry in the context of contracting within his office. See "Federal prosecutors, FBI start probe into Barry’s contracting." Last week, the New York Times reported about a massive sting in New Jersey that netted a number of corrupt local officials. See "Why New Jersey's Culture of Corruption Endures." From the article:

That answer, it turns out, has as many nuances as corruption itself. Interviews with law enforcement officials, prosecutors and, perhaps the best authority on the subject — those arrested in previous sweeps, like Mr. Botti — reveal a culture of corruption so ingrained that it has become impossible to resist when the envelope appears.

A decade-long building boom has flooded towns with millions of development dollars, as well as wealthy businessmen eager to secure sewer permits and zoning waivers. The Democratic Party firmly dominates local politics, turning most elections into sleepy coronations. The state’s news organizations, once vigorous watchdogs, have been decimated by a deep industry downturn.

Add to all that the fact that New Jersey is divided into hundreds of tiny fiefdoms, where part-time elected officials without much education and with small salaries wield considerable power, and the heady mix of arrogance, control and promised payoffs dissolves the will of even the most determined reformer.

For some time I have been marveling over how people like Maryland State Senator Ulysses Currie or Mayor Sheila Dixon of Baltimore get investigated for the kinds of "dirty" dealings that are taken for granted in DC.

DC's culture of corruption has at least ten levers of influence:

- influence and steering of government contracts
- jobs patronage
- earmarks for nonprofit organizations*
- property tax abatement legislation for specific properties
- negotiations concerning zoning matters (approvals, variances, zoning classification changes, and special exceptions)
- special legislation** benefiting particular parties at the expense of other parties
- property disposition***
- exercise of eminent domain authority
- the link between campaign donations and executive branch and legislative branch policy and legislation****
- paying for services rendered by City Councilmembers acting in the capacity of their "second job"*****

I wouldn't argue that it's a matter of money changing hands directly. But it's a matter of promoting mutual interests.

My take on the failure to define open, fair and transparent processes, except within the Executive Branch's contracting function, although this system is regularly gamed to benefit the posse of whomever is in power, is deliberate.

As long as the system is loosey-goosey, you can be dirty but not necessarily legally corrupt. As President Clinton said famously:

"It depends on what the meaning of the words 'is' is."

The "is" here is corruption, and DC is dirty.

* Earmarks are bad, but funding nonprofit organizations isn't necessarily bad. If there was an open process for grants, a common tendering of availability of funds, and a system for fairly evaluating proposals and awarding grants, then it wouldn't be a problem. The problem is that earmarks support patronage and the city would be better served by an open, transparent, and fair process. This goes for both the Executive and Legislative Branches.

** Somehow, City Council, if it passes legislation, is exempt from the normal process of contracting. It can award no-bid contracts for massive amounts of $. This happened with the designation of the Sanh Oh Choi interests as master developer of the Florida Market area, even though no request for proposals was ever issued. Of course, without an RFP, you can't have an open process of reviewing awards. In my experience, this is the dirtiest deal I've witnessed, and I can't see how it's any different from what got all those New Jersey pols arrested...

*** You can complain about the system now that the Executive Branch is following on property disposition--and I do, because it is happening without neighborhood plans for the most part, and with a failure to consider property redevelopment in the context of broader neighborhood and community goals--but at least the tendering process is open and there is a review process.

Still, Councilmembers still initiate bills to award properties to favored developers or nonprofits, although this habit is diminishing somewhat as the property inventory dwindles.

**** This is not just an aspect of capitalism. Unions in particular are big spenders in Council and Mayoral elections, which helps them to curry favor in a variety of ways which may be counter to good government policies and regulations.

***** City Councilmembers other than the Chairman are allowed to have a second job, and many Councilmembers, especially the lawyers, do make money working for local law firms. How can this not be a conflict of interest? Who would want to hire these people otherwise?

Also see ""City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place," by Harvey Molotch. The abstract states:

A city and, more generally, any locality, is conceived as the areal expression of the interests of some land-based elite. Such an elite is seen to profit through the increasing intensification of the land use of the area in which its members hold a common interest. An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another. Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal levels, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities. Conditions of community life are largely a consequence of the social, economic, and political forces embodied in this growth machine.

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