Best Columnist

Jonetta Rose Barras (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Best: Marc Fisher, Washington Post

Second-Best: Jonetta Rose Barras, Examiner

The second-best columnist in town is Jonetta Rose Barras. If you don’t recognize that byline, you don’t know much about D.C. politics. Barras has been exposing the wasteful and hypocritical ways of local politicians in this town since 1982. Her reporting and often-ranty opinion pieces run in the Examiner, and she also tees off on her very own

Barras has a lot of “formers” in her bio. Former Washington Afro American reporter; former Washington Times reporter; former Washington City Paper reporter; former political analyst for WAMU-FM’s D.C. Politics Hour with Kojo and Jonetta. Upon her dismissal from that last gig, Barras spat fire in an interview with this publication. “They changed the name of the show and scope of the show and then were pissed off because I was asking for more money,” said Barras, who also alleged discrimination.

Classic Jonetta Rose Barras there. At a time when everyone, led by this city’s mayor, is competing to produce sound bites culled from the PR professional’s handbook, Barras brings a refreshing ready-fire-aim approach to her job. She loves to tell the truth the way she sees it, even if the way she sees it is a touch baffling.

On that front, there is a paper trail. Barras’ Examiner Barras’ Examiner columns sometimes come off as five separate blog rants. Example: A few months ago, Barras wrote a column that started like this:

“For days now, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has been running around in your head—figuratively speaking. Couplets fall from your lips and you repeat, like a mantra, ‘Keep hope alive.’

Is something seriously wrong with you? Everyone else is suffering Obamania while you’ve developed Jackson-itis.”

That was a lead-up to a discussion of committee assignments on the D.C. Council.

Oh, well—if Barras sometimes comes off as a bit off, that’s not always a bad thing. Because we don’t want our newspaper columnists to be level-headed, hunky-dory types. We want them to be hopped up on anger and prone to crusades. By this standard, Barras qualifies quite nicely, especially when it comes to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).

No municipal agency in the country, it is fair to suppose, gets drilled by a single columnist the way DPR gets it from Barras. She is all over their Web site, in their operating and capital budgets, on their salaries, up their annual reports, all over everything. If a toilet overflows at a neighborhood rec center, Barras has got the scoop.

Take this lead graph from an October 2007 Barras column: “The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) can barely maintain its facilities and fields; it can barely finance decent and exciting programs for youth and adults; and it’s so short of staff that it does an absolutely lousy job of overseeing independent contractors and consultants. Yet, it’s poised to construct at $80,000 each dog parks throughout the city for people too lazy to exercise their animals and for dog-walking companies exploiting this laziness. Further, it will be forced to monitor use at each site.”

There you have it—accountability reporting and resentment toward yuppies in the same breath.

One of Barras’ obsessions is well-paid civil servants. Years back, she reported that a staffer at DPR had inflated her résumé en route to a six-figure salary. She got the relevant documents and let the story fly. The staffer was fired and in 2007 sued Barras, among others, for the damages. The suit was dismissed earlier this year.

“I do become slightly obsessed with waste and fraud,” says Barras. “I do believe that government, even a small, lean government, has an important role to play in advancing a community. That’s where I’m coming from.”

If not for oddballs like Barras, the Washington Post’s Colbert I. King, and DC Watch’s Dorothy Brizill, local government could operate in a much larger comfort zone. Beat reporters at the Post, the Examiner, and this publication, among others, have never had the time to dig deep on every city agency. And their numbers are shrinking, too. At some point soon, the mayor and schools chancellor could become be the only figures getting regular coverage from the media.

Good thing that Barras will still be on DPR.