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Government and People
members of the Commission. I am Gary Imhoff. I am the Vice President of
DCWatch, and a resident and citizen of the District of Columbia.
I am here today in what I expect to be a quixotic and futile effort to ask you to take a commonsense position on the issue of an official residence for the Mayor of the District of Columbia: there shouldn’t be one. The effort to establish a residence is wrong-headed, based on the assumption that an elected official, a public servant, should be elevated above the common people, exalted; that his private living expenses should be subsidized, and that he should be isolated and insulated from the cares of daily life in a cocoon of luxury.
Mrs. Eugene B. Casey, in her letter to Mayor Anthony Williams offering what she requires to be called the “Casey Mansion” to him, says that the house and grounds will offer “serenity and privacy for its occupants.” Mayor Washington, as you well know, the last two things a Mayor of the District of Columbia will have, or should have, are serenity and privacy. The best Mayor is one of the people; he knows what the people are experiencing because he experiences it himself. A Mayor should have to pay his mortgage or his rent out of his own pocket, out of his own paycheck. He should experience the shock of his house’s new tax assessment, along with everyone else. He should take out his garbage, along with everyone else, and have to bring the garbage back in when it isn’t collected, along with everyone else.
We have all heard the stories of how the first President Bush was surprised at the demonstration of a grocery scanner, of how in the past few months President Clinton had to learn how to use an ATM card. That kind of insulation from the cares and duties of daily life is bad for a Mayor. A Mayor whose chief personal concern is choosing between having the foundation that supports him hire another upstairs maid or another gardener is not likely to understand or sympathize much with the concerns of the poor sucker who is scraping together the money to pay his property tax bill.
Let me remind you of the story of a Mayor from our neighboring city, Baltimore. William Donald Schaeffer, who may have been the most beloved Mayor of that city in the last century, as well as its most effective one, can give a good portion of the credit for his popularity to the modesty of his life, to the fact that he continued to live in his childhood house, and never thought that a common brownstone in a modest neighborhood was beneath him. He never thought that the people owed him a grander residence so that he could entertain important personages in ambassadorial style, or that he should withdraw from his daily involvement in the life of the city or his neighborhood. He would have laughed at such a notion, and his neighbors would have laughed along with him. Mayor Washington, I think you understand the value of having roots in a neighborhood, and of maintaining your home and your connections to your neighbors — for your own sake as well as for the welfare of the people whom you govern.
Versailles and Buckingham Palace are European ideals, not American ideals. The American ideal is William Donald Schaeffer’s modest brownstone; it is the Mayor as public servant, not as royalty.
Not too many years ago, there was public outrage when it was revealed that in One Judiciary Square a penthouse apartment had been built above the Mayor’s offices as his private living quarters. Today, hardly anyone even recalls that this penthouse apartment exists, and certainly no one in the public has a clue as to how it is being used. A few years ago there was a tremendous public scandal and outcry when then Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly hired a make-up artist. Today, as we contemplate providing our Mayors with an outrageously expensive and grand mansion and with a retinue of private servants, a scandal over a mere few hours of a make-up artist’s time seems quaint.
In the quest for grandeur, pomp and circumstance, perquisites and privileges, we have lost both our sense of priorities and our sense of propriety, of what a proper reward for a public servant is. In the past week, we have had the scandal of the Mayor, or of someone from the Mayor’s office, paying for the Mayor’s private living expenses — paying for a driver for his mother. Now, these funds were not from the public treasury. They were from nonprofit shell organizations that were illegally set up by the Mayor’s office to receive donations from corporations that did business with the city. In a letter to the Washington Post, former Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer claimed, falsely, that these funds could have been legally and properly paid, and the Mayor’s personal expenses defrayed, by the Mayor’s constituent service fund. But the mere fact that the Mayor’s personal expenses are paid by private donors rather than by the public treasury does not make the case better; it makes it even more suspect — as it will in the future when companies and individuals who want to do business with the city are asked for donations to supplement the endowment of the mansion, so that the Mayor can live more grandly.
Mayor Washington, members of the Commission, if you approve of an official residence for the Mayor, if you approve of a retinue of personal servants for the Mayor, whether they are paid for by public funds or by private donations, you are creating a huge ethical problem for future Mayors. Our priorities and our sense of propriety may be blunted now, but they will return, and at some future date we shall have renewed outrage at the hiring of the Mayor’s second sous-chef, or at the ordering of a foolishly expensive set of dinnerware (remember Nancy Reagan), or at a quarter-million-dollar bill for exotic shrubbery. And that future Mayor, living in privacy, seclusion, and serenity, in his cocoon of luxury, will not understand what all the fuss is about.
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