The District of Columbia may be the nation's poster child for a city in crisis. Population plummeted 20 percent between 1970 and 1990 and is expected to continue to decline through 2000. The assessed value of taxable property has declined by 6 percent since 1990 and commercial-property valuation has declined by 20.8 percent. The district's public-school system arguably is the nation's worst, as well as the most expensive. Crime rates, particularly for violent crime, are among the nation's highest. Entrenched corruption and mismanagement are legendary.
Most revitalization plans show little evidence for a significant turnaround despite the efforts of the congressionally mandated Financial Control Board and creative managers such as the city's public-works director, Cellerino Bernardino. Indeed, for many district residents, the term "public services" is an oxymoron: Roads are in disrepair, city-owned trees fall on buildings and people and trash collection is behind schedule. A report from the Financial Control Board recently observed that the Department of Public Works still functions -- but barely.
The Financial Control Board's focus on financial accountability is a refreshing change of pace, but neither elected city officials nor congressionally appointed managers are grappling with the key issue: whether the district is just too big and diverse to be managed through a centralized city government.
The key to restoring home rule and revitalizing the district may have less to do with finding the right management formula at the top than devising a way truly to empower local residents. This can be accomplished by abandoning the current top-down reform effort and restructuring city government to create competitive neighborhoods.
The concept of competitive neighborhoods shifts the authority and responsibility for local government to the neighborhood level. Independent, neighborhood-based councils or associations provide public services tailored to the needs of residents and local communities.
The government of the District of Columbia would continue to exist, but its role would be restricted to five primary functions: providing a unified court and legal system; resolving interneighborhood disputes; coordinating and setting policy for citywide initiatives and projects; providing contract services to local neighborhood councils; and administering federal programs and grants.
With competitive neighborhoods, virtually all public functions and services -- including garbage collection, road maintenance, licensing, development, regulation and planning, schools, parks and recreation programs, housing assistance, rent control and welfare -- would be delegated to the neighborhood councils.
Thus, the competitive-neighborhoods system could create between 10 and 20 independent cities within a city, each with between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Each neighborhood council would govern a section of the city equivalent to a small town, fostering local cohesiveness while nurturing the diversity of the district's existing neighborhoods.
This approach has several advantages over the current system. First, local community priorities will be reflected in public policy. One of the greatest strengths of the district is its diversity, from the eclectic vibrancy of Adams Morgan and the urbane funk of Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington, to the quiet stability of Fort Lincoln in Northeast Washington. …