Fire brings heartwarming efforts

The destruction of the Eastern Market building’s South Hall last week brought out the best of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. In addition to support and fundraising efforts by a number of existing neighborhood organizations, neighbors formed several of their own unofficial groups, such as the Save Our Market Community Action Group. On May 8, area bars committed a share of the day’s profits to support the market. A local graphic designer is selling T-shirts to aid merchants.

Journalists and politicians talked at length about why the market is a great place, usually recounting their own personal experiences there. The most succinct expression of Eastern Market’s place in people’s hearts belonged to Mayor Adrian Fenty and was related to a group of vendors by city administrator (and Hill resident) Dan Tangherlini during a meeting at Tunnicliff’s Tavern: No other neighborhood in the city has a landmark that so identifies it as Eastern Market identifies Capitol Hill.

Some people immediately began to moan about developers swooping in on the property to turn it into a “cookie-cutter” high-end chain. But statements made by Fenty and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells have so committed the city to restoring the market with its original vendors that failure to do so would amount to a betrayal of career-ending proportions.

Some of the people who know the market best don’t want to return to the pre-fire status quo. The situation inside is complicated: The city owns the building and a group called Eastern Market Venture manages it, with totally different and separate arrangements for the North and South halls. South Hall merchants pay rent but have no lease. Weekend operations of the North Hall are managed by different people on Saturday and Sunday.

These arrangements are the result of a 1998 statute intended to give the market coherent management. To that end, the legislation also created the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee (EMCAC), a board that advises the District’s Office of Property Management on market issues. Managerial coherence is still a ways off, but former EMCAC Chairwoman Ellen Opper-Weiner characterizes the de facto arrangements prior to the legislation as “an absurdity beyond imagination.”

Both Opper-Weiner and current EMCAC Chairwoman Donna Scheeder say they hope that when the market is restored and reopened in two years, the North and South halls will be united under the same management. And Opper-Weiner is not alone in hoping that management will be better.

Folks have treaded lightly on the outrageous fact that bureaucratic obstacles prevented sprinkler installation and improvements to electrical wiring — as recommended years ago by EMCAC. Instead people are focusing on positives, such as the managers’ role in the city’s quick securing of the building and initial cleanup efforts.

Nobody from Eastern Market Venture could be reached for comment.

At an April 30 meeting between merchants and government leaders, Mel Inman, owner of Market Poultry, rose from his seat to address the officials: “You mentioned working with Eastern Market Venture — where are they?” he asked. “Who are they?”

The room burst into raucous applause — merchants have long disapproved of the job done by market managers Stuart Smith and Bruce Cook, who are off-site most of the time and have not shown their faces in the city since the fire. Merchants also cheered the suggestion that the city eliminate Eastern Market Venture’s role altogether. Many blame Smith and Cook for the general dilapidation of the market and day-to-day problems like piled-up trash. Cook’s son Brian attended the meeting but made no statement.

“The city can finally come through on longstanding promises” for things like running water, heat, and electricity, said another merchant. “The building’s been in bad shape and the city’s let it fall apart for a long time.”

Conscientious drivers adhere to speed limit

Two days after a 6-year-old girl was struck and killed by a speeding motorist in Northeast Washington on April 23, the District unveiled a new traffic-calming measure: the neighborhood “pace car” program, in which conscientious drivers put a sticker on their rear window indicating that they adhere to speed limits. The program is a joint effort by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

DDOT has long employed other, subtler measures to get people to slow down. One way to do this is by simply planting trees, says the city’s chief forester, John Thomas. It has to do with driver psychology. When there are no trees around, “it feels like you’re in a freeway or interstate type of mode,” Thomas says. Studies have shown that drivers slow down when trees are near.

In 2006, DDOT planted a stretch of 265 trees along the narrow North Capitol Street median, only to see them die from the exhaust and wind generated by speeding cars. Thomas says a similar phenomenon occurred on C Street NE, but that the tree strategy has had some success elsewhere in the city.

Here on Capitol Hill, other efforts to control suburban speeders are underway. On E and F streets NE, signs are up forbidding entry from 2nd Street during rush hour, except for “local traffic” — defined by a nearby police commander as cars with D.C. plates. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Karen Wirt and Terrence Heubert report that the signs have been somewhat effective — this despite the fact that in five minutes at either intersection a half-dozen Marylanders can be seen ignoring the rule.


Complying with FOIA helps government too


In 2005 and 2006, Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) failed to respond to over 1,500 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, responding to roughly one out of every seven. At-large D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson demanded answers from the department in a recent letter to police chief Cathy Lanier.

“This is unacceptable, given the importance of the FOIA as a means to transparency in government,” Mendelson wrote.
What about the fortunate few requests granted a response? At least in one case, a simple request by this reporter was met with an elaborate, months-long series of excuses and evasions, which eventually became insurmountable. Here’s what happened:

On July 7, 2005, Erin DeSabla made a frantic 911 phone call: Some guy had just stolen her money while she was on the job at Zoo Bar in Northwest Washington. The thief hopped into a red pickup truck and sped away. DeSabla hoped the police would try to catch the perp, but a 911 operator told her that that kind of thing only happens “in the movies.” Cops didn’t show up for a while.

To a fledgling and deluded freelance reporter, the flip comment seemed like a great opportunity to stick it to the man, so the MPD received from me a FOIA request for a tape or transcript of the call. Really, at very most, the story might have been a minor embarrassment to the police department.

But the MPD would not suffer a minor embarrassment. First it refused to hand over the requested public document because of an unexplained privacy concern. On appeal, the mayor’s office ordered the MPD to cough it up.
Then, at police headquarters, an official handed over a one-page computer printout totally unresponsive to the request. An MPD lawyer in an adjacent office immediately admitted as much.

That same day, MPD General Counsel Ron Harris said over the phone that the department receives requests for 911 transcripts on a “daily” basis and denies them all until the requester sues. But a few days later, Harris said a transcript would be provided — for a $400 fee! By the time of the government’s final fee-waiver denial in December, Erin DeSabla’s robbery story from July was totally dead.

Also dead were Gregory Snipe, and, soon after that, David Rosenbaum. Heaps of blame landed on the 911 call center for its poor handling of those September 2005 and January 2006 murders. (Just last week another official lost his job over the Rosenbaum debacle.) The whole purpose of any FOIA statute is to provide a modicum of governmental accountability to taxpayers. Maybe if public safety officials hadn’t harbored such a cavalier attitude to D.C.’s FOIA, incompetence could have been rooted out sooner.