Mayor serves up answer to city's woes

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The Independent Online
It was the week in Washington DC when tragedy turned to farce - when the limited home rule it has been permitted for 20 years was effectively taken away, while its nominal mayor was returning from a boondoggle in the Orient, brandishing the prize of a new crispy duck fast food restaurant for his crumbling city.

Washington has always been a constitutional and jurisdictional aberration: a diamond shaped enclave carved out of Maryland and Virginia, inhabited by 550,000 American citizens who pay federal taxes, yet are denied representation in the Congress which ultimately runs its affairs, and who had to wait almost two centuries after the Declaration of Independence to be allowed to elect their first mayor in 1974.

To that must be now added a paradox: of the richest and most powerful country on earth whose capital is bankrupt, its public services and infrastructure visibly decaying by the day, whose population is fleeing for the suburbs; and which two years ago, to national and international amazement, chose to re-elect a convicted crack cocaine user and ex-alcoholic to lead it.

This week the chickens - or rather the ducks - came home to roost for Marion Barry. As he dallied in Korea and China, engaging in bouts of mutual admiration with the city fathers of Seoul and Peking, the control board which was installed in 1995 to put Washington's finances to rights sacked the city school administration in its entirety. The board brought in a retired army general and noted disciplinarian Julius Becton to revolutionise a system deemed by the board to be "dysfunctional and a total failure," running schools with the worst student grades in America, riddled by crime and drugs.

Schools of course are among the biggest responsibilities of elected local government in the US. But if reports circulating here are correct, Mr Barry could be on the point of losing two other key functions as well. The DC Police Department, by most accounts almost as shambolic as the school system, may be placed under federal authority while the Mayor's own power to make municipal appointments may be sharply curbed.

But it was an oddly truculent Mr Barry who returned to face his tormentors at a press conference on Thursday. "You shouldn't expect the world out of these trips," he told reporters, sidestepping questions about the further disintegration of the city he theoretically administers. "But the culture of these countries is that they want governors and mayors to go there. How can I get that through y'all's heads. I'm really getting angry here."

And with good reason: had he not brought back with him a pledge from the Chinese government to open an outlet of the Quanjude Roast Duck Group chain in the US capital? - not to mention the less tangible benefits to Washington's image and tourism prospects conferred by a visit from Marion Barry in person. Of mayoral tongue in cheek, there was not a sign.

And so Washingtonians watch in impotence, yet secretly relieved, as their democratic rights disappear anew before their eyes. Not long ago, a campaign for statehood was all the rage. Now people pray merely that someone will come regularly to collect garbage, remove leaves and - miracle of miracles - send snowploughs to clear the streets when the first winter storm arrives.

Just maybe however, help is on the way. At long last, the First Citizen himself is finding time for Washington. Fearful of being seen with a mayor who for all his notoriety is a fellow Democrat, President Clinton has shunned Mr Barry like the plague. But after four years of deafening silence, White House aides now promise he will "have something to say" about the city before the end of the year.