Crisis in Washington: DC reverses decline to win back home rule

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS much seasonal rejoicing in Washington yesterday at the announcement that after three years of outside management, the capital of the United States, otherwise known as the District of Columbia, would be permitted to govern itself again. From 2 January, when the new mayor, Anthony Williams, takes office, the elected council will take back responsibility for running the city.

In a symbolic gesture, the announcement of a return to what is known locally as "home rule" came not from the federally appointed Control Board, which is currently responsible for running the city, but from the office of the mayor-elect, which is preparing the transition.

The city council was stripped of most of its financial authority in 1995 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. In August 1997 it lost most of its administrative authority as well, after management and city services had continued to decline.

From next month, most city agencies, including those responsible for public works, social services, rubbish collection and health clinics for the poor, will report to the mayor, via the city manager, Camille Barnett.

Ms Barnett, a formidably energetic Texan, took over as city manager last year, but answered to the Control Board. She will now answer to the mayor. The DC police, which has one of the lowest clear-up rates for murders in the whole of the United States, will be under the direct authority of the mayor.

The Control Board will remain in place for the time being, but will shift its attention from actual management of services to overseeing the city's finances. According to Alice Rivlin, its chairman, the board's new role will be to "oversee Williams and try to keep him on track".

Mr Williams said that he believed the changes would result in a cleaner, safer city within six months.

The decision to return the bulk of power to the mayor is a direct response to two developments: the reluctant acceptance of the present mayor, the controversial Marion Barry, that he should heed "friendly" advice not to seek re-election, and the voters' choice of Anthony Williams to succeed him. Mr Williams, an adopted child who was brought up in Los Angeles, has been Washington's chief accountant for the past two years and is credited with turning around the city's finances to the point where it will be in the black this year.

The fact that Mr Williams received well over 50 per cent of the vote made him the first mayor of this racially divided city to have a mandate from black and white voters alike. Mr Barry, who was re-elected in 1994 after resigning because of a drugs conviction two years before, had exacerbated the city's division, attracting - until they too started to find the mismanagement intolerable - the devoted support of the District's black majority and the fierce resentment of whites.

To the general amazement of residents, the improvement in the city's finances has been accompanied by belated manifestations of the economic boom that has benefited many other parts of the United States. The city centre is currently the scene of frenetic building and refurbishment, some, but by no means all, spawned by the MCI sports stadium, which opened a year ago.

Decaying sites, which were used as car parks, are being vacated by the day as builders move in with earth-moving equipment and huge cranes to start the construction of office blocks and hotels.

The boom is even helping suburbs inside the District border, where property values, which had been falling for almost a decade, are increasing, empty areas of land are sprouting new developments and smaller, older houses are being razed by their owners to make way for new homes.