Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 03/23/11

At 5 p.m. Friday, an email went out from Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration inviting the public to take part in a budget survey before Gray submits his 2012 proposal to the D.C. Council.


The council will get the budget on April 1. Is there really time left for meaningful, mass input from the public? It looks and feels like window dressing to us. Shouldn't an open invitation like this have gone out weeks ago?

As the days dwindle down, you can take a look at the budget survey at and respond if you like.

At best, the short survey is a gauge of whether people support "revenue enhancements," known among the general public as "tax increases."

You're also invited to rate on a scale from one to five the importance of general services like education, public safety, human services, government operations, public works/transportation and economic development.

Again, really? Aren't all of those general areas important? Are you going to rate education a "five" (the highest) and human services a "one" (the lowest)? And could public safety be only a "three" in your mind, meaning it's kind of important but not a top priority?

In short, the short survey is a bureaucratic feel-good nothing that we predict will have zero impact on any last-minute budget decisions.

We give it a one.

  • More meetings.

Even before the April 1 budget is released, the mayor's office is ginning up an elaborate State of the District address to be delivered March 28 at the newly renovated Eastern High School. It will probably be a predictable speech calling for sacrifice and touching on every issue in the short survey mentioned above.

We've never understood the significance of these speeches, begun by Marion Barry back in the ‘80s. Mayor Adrian Fenty gave short speeches at senior citizens homes or other modest places. But Gray apparently will hold a rather grandiose gathering, though his office shelved original plans to hold the event at the convention center. Who wants to predict whether real news will be made in that speech?

In announcing the address, Gray's office is warning that "seating is limited." The doors will open at 5 p.m. for a program that won't start until 6:45. We suspect there will be plenty of room.

  • More and more meetings?

Once the mayor's budget is out, he's going to go on the road, visiting all eight wards to hold public meetings on the document. He intends to drag City Administrator Allen Lew and other top officials around town for these events.

Again, what's the point? The real action is in the D.C. Council, where the 13 members will pore over agencies, adjust numbers to their political liking and come up with a budget only slightly changed from Gray's original submission (although the specter of possible tax increases could be a flash point).

Does anyone believe that the mayor's penchant for public meetings -- long public meetings -- will sway the council deliberations?

To close the loop here, all of these meetings and surveys and meetings are more legislative than executive. One person involved said the mayor could change the dynamic by actually announcing what he's done, rather than what he will do. And forming commissions and study groups doesn’t count as action.

  • Doing something.

The mayor on Monday did take executive action on something. He challenged the D.C. Transportation Department to fill potholes within 24 hours of being reported. The city established a 48-hour time frame for repairs back when Tony Williams was in charge.

The city's promised "Potholepalooza" is a good example of how the mayor can deal with the annoyances that affect the daily lives of citizens. A mayor must do large and small things. Thank goodness Mayor Gray didn't appoint a commission on potholes.

  • Latest on the staff shakeup.

As the Notebook predicted last week, Mayor Gray dismissed struggling chief of staff Gerri Mason Hall.

Gray gets a plus for acting on a bad personnel situation, but his grade is a bit lower for how he did it.

His chief of staff sat for a couple of hours in a hearing room waiting to testify Wednesday on the general operations of the mayor's office and on the reports of unusually high salaries in the Gray administration.

But committee chair Mary Cheh took a break, and when the hearing resumed, Hall was nowhere to be found. A couple of hours later, Gray held a hastily called news conference to say he had asked for Hall's resignation and she had offered it.

As we said last week, Hall has a good reputation in the world of personnel management, but she was a difficult fit for chief of staff. That's a job for politics, policy and public relations. It's not clear Hall had the instincts for any of that.

Gray appointed deputy mayor Paul Quander as his interim chief of staff and is looking for someone who can steer the ship far better than Hall did. It's a tough assignment, and we wish him well. We're told more upper-level staff changes are in the works. As one adviser told us, "The mayor needs a team to help him, not hinder him."

  • Cherry blossom break.

After all this grousing -- maybe it's the subject matter, or our allergies -- we'll end on an upbeat note.

The cherry blossom crowds are a welcome part of spring. Despite the packed sidewalks and crawling traffic, the sights around the Tidal Basin are worth the aggravation. (Go at night for a different take, but don't expect fewer crowds.)

Living as we do in Southwest, the spectacle is just a short walk away. If you go -- and drive -- please watch out for pedestrians. One of them might be me.

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