District Daily is a new D.C.-oriented web publication. The goal of this site is to provide thoughtful and original analysis and reporting about the District of Columbia. District Daily will also serve as a springboard for further development of citizen journalism in the Washington, D.C. area.

Items of Note

A look at the cuts to homeless services in the District

Ed. Note: This piece comes to us from Amber Harding, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. In an effort to provide more information on social services in the city, District Daily is reaching out to those impacted the most to tell their stories. This will be the first part of an on-going look at social services in the District. As winter takes hold, this story will be even more important.

franklin.jpgThere has been quite a bit of confusion lately about whether DC has cut homeless services spending, by how much, and what the effects will be on people who depend on those services (the short answers are yes, by $12 million, and devastating).  Mayor Fenty's Administration has only exacerbated the confusion by giving conflicting information to the press, the DC Council, and the community.  While we are still a little confused ourselves, let's look at what we do know.

Is there a cut or not?
Yes.  A big one: about $12 million or 20% of homeless services funding has been cut.  Despite Mayor Fenty's statement that the concern about cuts was "either a miscommunication or a distortment of the facts," we think the Mayor is the one distorting facts here.  In Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, DC's Department of Human Services (DHS) spent $50.8 million on homeless services through its contract with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), approving about $12 million in additional funding above the $38.5 million in the initial contract in order to provide much-needed homeless services.  (This is not as unusual as it may sound--DHS had done the same thing the year before.)  The programs covered in this contract include emergency shelters, severe weather shelter, street outreach services, transitional housing programs, and other key, often lifesaving, services.  For FY 2010, DHS decided to cap homeless services spending at $38.5 million instead of $50.8 million, choosing to spend that $12 million "supplement" elsewhere.  That's a severe cut--no matter how much the Mayor may wish to spin his way out of this one.

How will the cut affect DC residents this winter?
After providers, advocates, and recipients of services protested that shelters would have to close and lives would be lost if these drastic cuts went into effect at the beginning of the cold weather season, DHS announced a short and partial reprieve--to hold off on instituting major cuts until April 1 and to keep expenditures in the winter at the same level as last year.  Unfortunately, DC may still be in trouble this winter.  First, demand for shelter has increased significantly over the last year.  Every DC-funded shelter is at or over capacity and there are 382 families on the waiting list for shelter (111 more than at the beginning of this year).  Second, DC's Winter Plan includes a modest (and perhaps inadequate) increase in beds for this winter. Common sense dictates, though, that DHS cannot fund a planned increase in capacity without an increase in their winter shelter budget.   

How will DC residents be affected the rest of the year?
If DHS is unable to find more than $12 million to fill the spending gap before April 1, we anticipate that homeless services providers will be asked to cut their spending by 50-75% for the remaining half of the fiscal year (April 1-September 30), because more than half of the $38.5 million available to direct services will already have been spent by April 1.  Cutting each direct-services program by 50-75% will result in severe reductions in beds, housing and services, if not complete closures of programs. 

Who dropped the ball here?
DHS was responsible for both the additional spending (good for them) and the subsequent cuts (bad for everyone).  DHS Director Clarence Carter, testifying at the DC Council oversight hearing on October 14, stated that the increased funding from prior years came from roughly $10 million in federal money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant and $2.5 million from a local source.  Director Carter later stated in an email exchange that he made the decision to use these funds to supplement homeless services spending, expand the program and meet the needs of the community, particularly homeless families: "[t]he gap in spending is the additional dollars I added to homeless services during my tenure."  None of the $12 million used last year for homeless services was cut by the DC Council or the federal government.  Rather, the Administration has chosen to use the funding for other as-yet unspecified purposes.

Why didn't anyone know about these cuts until now?
Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, said that the Council had been repeatedly assured by Clarence Carter at oversight and budget hearings that homeless services would be "held harmless" by any FY10 budget cuts to DHS.  Mr. Wells also said that he had no idea that DHS planned to divert some of its federal TANF dollars used in previous years for homeless families away from homeless services this year.  Finally, he has made clear that if he and his colleagues on the Council had known about the planned cuts, they would have found the necessary dollars to fill the gap.  We may never know if Director Carter purposefully misled the Council and community.  We do know that a decision to cut 20% of homeless services funding should never have happened behind closed doors.

What does the Administration need to do to fix this now?
Restore the money.  Although we are certainly open to other possibilities to fill the gap, here are two that would work: 1) DC kept a $50 million pot aside for critical spending needs in FY10 and we believe that the $12 million gap is a critical spending need; 2) DHS should apply for all possible TANF Emergency Contingency Funds (about $45 million) from the federal government and use at least $12 million of these funds for shelter.

As of November 10, 2009 there were 434 families on the waiting list for emergency shelter at the Family Resource Center.

This piece also appeared on the Washington Area Women's Foundation blog.

Photo credit: Flickr user tnewms via franklinshelter.org.

by Amber Harding, filed under Homeless Services, Social Services at 7:00AM   0 

Moving Ahead

Things have been quiet around here for a bit, but for good reason. There's been a lot of movement behind the scenes here, and I'm pleased to announce a few developments.

First off, the vision for the future of District Daily is coming together. We're aiming to provide thoughtful and compelling reporting and analysis of local news in the D.C. area. At first, as the name implies, we will be focused on the District. As we grow, we'll likely look to Virginia and Maryland as well.

We've got a small, but growing group of contributors. There's still plenty of room to get involved, though, so don't hesitate to get in touch with us. We're aiming big, and this is your chance to get in on the ground floor.

So what's next? We're developing the areas we will cover, which will mostly begin with the big 'hard news' areas: crime, city hall, education, social services, housing, and so forth. I'll likely also be continuing the Price of Safety series about Metro. We aim to have writers who can distill complicated stories into something understandable, and with a human face.

To sum it all up, it's difficult to keep tabs on the news in D.C. The concept of 'news cycles' is outdated, and we want to build on the models established by other blogs and news sites. We want to combine news reporting with the fast-paced style of blogs. We want to present the reader with a 'dashboard' of what's happening in the city.

We're very excited, and we think this could be big. Please join us on this journey. We'll likely be testing some new content this week, with some bigger announcements after Thanksgiving.

by Dave Stroup, filed under Site News at 5:07PM   0 

Let's work together to build something

When I started building District Daily last month, I did not have a clear vision in mind. Part of it was the need to have an outlet for longer-form, more researched pieces. I see a lot of stories unfolding in the city that don't always get the sort of analysis they deserve. A good example of this would be the coverage of Metro. In the past month or so, the Post has had some good coverage of some problems within Metro. This week there was a front page story about safety. However, there have been stories about Metro safety for years. Decades, even. What is needed is someone to put all of those stories together, mix with some analysis, and try to draw some larger conclusions.

I see a lot of possibilities for a site such as this. However, nothing can be accomplished in a vacuum. Since the launch of District Daily, I have been in touch with people who are interested in the future of journalism. I've read examples about non-profit media outlets finding ways to thrive in this "new era" of reporting. I have no idea what the future of journalism in Washington will be. What I know is there is a need for more community-level reporting, and more on-the-ground coverage of news.

As such, I'd love to expand this mission to include these stories. Stories about communities and people. I'm not looking to exactly duplicate what the blogs are doing--but rather build on that. Take the stories on the blogs a few steps further. Find out more, and build. At first I was reluctant to even discuss 'bigger picture' ideas, afraid that someone else would start building something first. However, if we are to learn by example, getting there first doesn't mean much these days. Getting it done right is what matters.

Does any of this resonate with you? Do you see stories in your community that you think deserve coverage? Do you want an outlet to comment on this issues, and investigate them further? Well, let's work together. Let's build something new. Each and every day there is a demand for better local news coverage. Whether it's analyzing a rash of crimes in a neighborhood, or working together to keep the government honest and open, this is something that can make a difference.

Interested? Let's get in touch. We've got a little group going and we'd love you to be a part of it. Drop me a line at inbox@districtdaily.com and we can get moving. You don't need any prior experience, or any qualifications beyond an interest in your community and your city.

by Dave Stroup, filed under Site News at 9:29PM   0 

The intriguing candidacy of Leo Alexander

In August, former NBC4 television reporter Leo Alexander announced his candidacy for Mayor of the District of Columbia. At the time, Alexander's announcement received some press coverage, as he was the first to step in the ring against incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty (D). Over the past few months, however, Alexander's campaign has mostly been off the radar. With Fenty's office embroiled in multiple scandals--from the teacher firings to the parks and recreation contracts--now seemed a good time to look at the Mayor's only official challenger.

leo-alexander.jpgLeo Alexander is not a household name in D.C. politics. After leaving WRC-TV (NBC4), Alexander worked for D.C. General Hospital and the D.C. Housing Authority. Both of these positions were related to public affairs and communications. He has volunteered with political campaigns, but has not held public office.

Last Thursday I spoke with Mr. Alexander about his experience and his campaign. Prior to talking with the candidate, the only information I had about him came from news reports from August, and the brief biography on the campaign's web site. My initial perception of Alexander's campaign was mostly shaped by his comments on attracting Marion Barry supports and regarding curbing illegal immigration. There is more to Alexander's campaign, though, and in the current D.C. political climate his candidacy could prove appealing to many District voters.

Alexander, who lives in the Brightwood neighborhood in Ward 4, will tell you that he has no big name supporters. He insists that he came to the decision to run after attending ward and ANC meetings. His support comes from the grassroots level. He points to a recent endorsement by the D.C. Taxicab Association, and talks about an event held at the Diamond Cab company. Given the recent taxicab bribery scandal, that's not exactly the sort of endorsement you emblazon on campaign signs.

It's the ideas that make Alexander's campaign worth noting. Alexander approaches the current situation in D.C. without any sugarcoating. He is blunt. You will not hear him praise commercial development in Columbia Heights. Rather, you will hear about the ongoing social problems plaguing the District. You will also hear about how Fenty has failed his constituents and produced "the most corrupt administration in the city's history." 

Alexander believes that many problems in the city, from the extreme poverty in Ward 8 to unemployment and crime, can be traced back to the brutal crack epidemic in the 1980s. An entire generation grew up during a wave of crime and drug use unlike anything seen previously. Today, the children of the crack epidemic are raising their own kids. "It's not the teachers, and it's not the kids," says Alexander, "it's the homes they are coming from." The solution, or at least an attempt, is to employ an army of social workers. Responsibility must be taught, so the saying goes. He wants jobs training, but to teach skills and trades. "People want to work," Alexander says, but notes that just giving them a summer job and forgetting about them isn't working.

"No one wants to talk about it, but..." is a good way to sum up Leo Alexander. He talks about parental responsibility in the black community. He openly talks about illegal immigration. Not so much about the greater ideological issues, but that fighting illegal immigration costs the District $86 million each year. He wants to send that bill to the Federal government. Alexander personally doesn't support gay marriage, and politically he takes an even more interesting position. Civil unions for all, if it was up to Leo Alexander. "The government," says Alexander, "should not be in that [marriage] business."

When pressed as to how he can attract voters in Wards 2 and 3, Alexander recounts a conversation he had with a young man at 14th and U Streets, NW. "I know why I'd vote for you, Mr. Alexander," he recalls the youth saying, "but why would white people across the park vote for you?" His response is that everyone understands good government, and everyone understands crime. As long as you have violent criminals in the District, they will travel and commit crimes. Alexander recognizes, though, that this is a tale of two cities. Unemployment is at "depression-era highs" in Ward 8, which he calls a "state of emergency." It will be a high wire act to portray himself as the candidate for those without jobs or hope and still court voters who are concerned about artificial exfoliant beads harming marine wildlife.

Alexander wants a "bold vision" for the District. He wants to approach government with transparency, accountability, and compassion. He agrees that change is needed in DCPS, but doesn't agree with Rhee's slash and burn tactics. He wants to set lofty goals, and points to Jeff Canada's Children Zone program in Harlem. He wants to build a District government complex across from Children's hospital. He wants to escape the $140 million spent leasing office space from the developers who have built a system to stay wealthy for perpetuity without competition. This is certainly a bold vision for the District, and he's excellent at selling it to you. However, in politics, having thought-provoking ideas is never enough.

Currently, Alexander's campaign, like its web site is best described as "under construction." He hasn't generated much buzz, and isn't locking up many endorsements. Alexander's ideas are worth talking about, though. If he can get his message out, we may see some interesting debate in 2010. He says he understands the role the Internet will play in this campaign, but he has a long way to go with embracing social media. Also, without a legislative record, it's difficult to know how much his words will translate into action. He certainly faces an uphill battle, and one of the most difficult parts will be convincing people to be pro-Alexander, rather than simply anti-Fenty.

by Dave Stroup, filed under Decision 2010 at 7:00AM   0 

What's next at District Daily

As you may have noticed, there's been some light posting here this week. You may also have noticed the over 1,500 word piece on Metro safety. The Price of Safety is an on-going series, which requires a good deal of research. It is not simply a series of posts for blogs, but rather a comprehensive look at safety within Metro. This is an important story to be told, and it's taking up a good chunk of my time. However, it is not all that I am working on. This brings us to...


The aim of District Daily is to provide thoughtful analysis of local news, and Metro is but one part of that. It may still be 2009, but Monday will mark the launch of Decision 2010 coverage here on District Daily. I will be covering every major District election, with candidate interviews and analysis. I hope you'll join me for a rather exhaustive look at the candidates.

I am also interested in covering other stories that may fall off the mainstream media's radar. These are matters that begin at an ANC meeting, or with a neighborhood association meeting.  If you have a tip on a story that might be worth covering, please free free to drop me a line and I will look into it.

I hope you'll join me as we embark on what will hopefully prove to be a very interesting year in DC local news and politics.

by Dave Stroup, filed under Site News at 8:15PM   0 

The Price of Safety: Part III, Prior investigations show organizational weakness

This is the third portion of a series about safety within Metrorail. The Price of Safety is an ongoing feature at Greater Greater Washington.

Prior to the June 22, 2009 crash on the Red Line, Metro had experienced two other serious collisions.

These incidents both occurred on the Red Line, one in 1996 near Shady Grove, and another in 2004 at the Woodley Park station. The crashes raised several concerns, including questions about the crashworthiness of Metro's railcars. In both of these collisions, the impacting railcar "telescoped," causing significant damage. The topic of retiring the Series 1000 railcars has been discussed previously at length. However, other questions were raised in the 1996 and 2004 crashes that are worthy of analysis.


Final positions of the January 6, 1996 collision. NTSB photo.

January 6, 1996 was a cold and snowy evening in the Washington, D.C. region. Metrorail train T-111 was traveling on the Red Line in the direction of Shady Grove, operated by Darel W. Callands. At 10:27 PM, Callands alerted Metro's Operations Control Center (OCC) that his train had overrun the platform at Twinbrook. He was directed to continue on to the Rockville station, where his train overran the platform by one car. Callands was able to service the station, and continued on to the final station stop at Shady Grove. The train, operating in full automatic mode, did not slow as it approached Shady Grove. It passed through the station, slowing to 35 mph only as it passed the north end of the platform. About 500 feet past the platform the train struck a standing out-of-service train. Two passengers on board escaped without injury, but Callands was killed.

The official NTSB report would identify several probable causes for the crash. The immediate cause was decreased braking performance due to weather conditions. The automatic train control system did not account for this loss in braking efficiency and resulted in the train's inability to slow down properly.

Looking at the bigger picture, the NTSB identified several problems that led to the tragic outcome. Prior to the collision, after experiencing multiple station overruns, Callands should have been advised to operate the train in manual mode. However, Metro had instituted a policy that required full automatic operation at all times. Metro had also abolished the practice of train operators running on manual mode with frequency in order to stay in practice. All of this caused on Metrorail to depend completely on automatic mode under all circumstances. Furthermore, the gap train should not have been located on the same track as an inbound train. Overall, the conclusion was that Metro implemented new policies without understanding the possible safety ramifications, and without providing proper training to control center employees and train operators.

The NTSB issued a series of recommendations dealing with the specific circumstances surrounding this crash. However, the organizational concerns would be harder to address. Ultimately, none of the individual failures that occurred on January should have resulted in a collision. Rather, a lack of coherent procedures and an established atmosphere of safety allowed these failures to compound, resulting in a serious accident. From the NTSB report:

The Safety Board found WMATA management policies and methods to be inconsistent with the needs of a technically complex automated rail system. Systematic analyses of organizational processes reveal that managers operating highly automated systems must successfully contend with unique demands presented by the automation itself. One fundamental requirement for managing automated systems is to contend effectively with "tight coupling" between different operating elements in the system. That is, in organizations operating highly technical automated systems, decisions that affect one activity in the organization will probably affect other activities and will sometimes produce unanticipated hazards.

High-technology organizations must also be capable of both centralized and decentralized control. Operating activities need to be controlled within "tightly prescribed steps and invariant sequences," thereby ensuring that actions suitable in one circumstance or departmental area do not conflict with other activities in the system. At the same time, operating personnel occasionally have to be able to take "independent and sometimes...creative actions" in order to prevent the development of unsafe conditions. Finally, high-technology organizations must have safeguards to prevent unsafe conditions that may result when the automation compensates temporarily for deficient operation and then fails to protect the system when unforeseen factors combine and breach the system's safeguards. This condition poses the greatest threat to the safety of a complex system and must be addressed in well conceived system planning.

Given the extent to which WMATA executive management was found to depart from these essential organizational characteristics, it is not surprising that flawed decisions, inadequate or ambiguous train control procedures, and poorly understood or unenforced rules had proliferated.

While Metro may have responded with targeted fixes to the immediate problems, the 1996 accident would not prove to be a catalyst for widespread safety improvements. As noted in the previous installments, time and again similar concerns would be echoed by the NTSB and other observers.


Final positions of the November 3, 2004 collision. NTSB photo.

On November 3, 2004 at 12:49 pm, an out-of-service Red Line train rolled backwards into the Woodley Park station, striking an in-service train that was servicing the platform. Twenty people were injured in the incident. The NTSB would identify the cause of the crash as a lack of rollback technology, coupled with a lack of attentiveness on the part of the operator of the out-of-service train. This lack of attentiveness would be attributed to a lack of proper time off between shifts. Had this accident occurred with two fully-loaded trains, the casualty count would have been much greater. Concern persists to this day within Metrorail about operators not having enough time off between shifts for adequate rest.

The NTSB report for this incident also once again raises questions about Metro's organizational structure. The NTSB notes that Metro had made improvements following the 1996 crash, but that some of those changes were short lived:

WMATA's organizational structure was not an issue in the November 3, 2004, accident at the Woodley Park station. However, following the 2004 accident, WMATA restructured its organization again, reverting back to the safety department having a disconnected responsibility and accountability reporting chain. In effect, this restructuring maneuver rescinded the direct reporting link between the safety department and the GM that had been established as result of the Shady Grove accident. This post accident reorganization could recreate the systemic information isolation that existed within WMATA prior to the Shady Grove accident, which in turn could inhibit serious safety problems from being identified or adequately addressed.
The NTSB would direct the Federal Transit Administration to assess Metro's organizational structure, with safety recommendation R-06-04. This recommendation was marked as Closed-Acceptable Action in 2007. On July 14, 2009, Peter M. Rogoff, the FTA administrator, testified before a House subcommittee regarding the June 22, 2009 crash. In his testimony, Rogoff discussed R-06-04 as well as some more recent developments within Metro. From his testimony:
The FTA has conducted several SSO program audits of TOC since Part 659 went into effect on January 1, 1997. The most recent audit was conducted in October 2007. Previous audits took place in 2000 and 2005. FTA also conducted a Safety Review in 1997. The 2007 audit was conducted as part of FTA's three-year audit cycle for all 27 SSO agencies in the audit program. During this audit, while on-site at TOC and WMATA, FTA also reviewed the progress made by TOC and WMATA to address two findings that were still open from FTA's 2005 SSO Program audit of TOC. In addition, FTA used this opportunity to assess WMATA's response to Safety Recommendation R-06-4 from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which addressed the adequacy of WMATA's organizational structure and its ability to effectively identify safety issues. Prior to the Woodley Park-Zoo accident, the WMATA Safety Department reported to the General Manager through a Deputy. Shortly after, WMATA changed its organization so that the Chief Safety Officer and head of System Safety and Risk Management (SSRM) was a direct report to the General Manager. NTSB correspondingly classified this recommendation as "Closed - Acceptable Action".

However, in recent months, WMATA has re-organized the Chief Safety Officer position to report to the Chief Administrative Officer, who reports to the General Manager. FTA asked the TOC to follow up with WMATA. WMATA has assured the TOC that the organizational changes do not adversely affect safety and that the "visibility and importance of the safety department will not diminish". FTA continues to view the NTSB recommendation as a sound safety model and the current structure at WMATA causes us concern.

The 2006 Woodley Park crash illustrated, in a very vivid way, the potential for the catastrophic structural failure of Metro's railcars in a collision. This has become the legacy of the incident, and less attention has been paid to the problem of operator attentiveness. The NTSB noted "the low task demands and unremarkable operating environment during the accident trip were conducive to the train operator becoming disengaged from some critical train operations." This is a good example of multiple causes compounding to result in a serious incident.

To be clear, the prior collisions on the Red Line were not caused directly by problems with the Automatic Train Control system. The direct causes of both the 1996 and 2004 collisions were identified by the NTSB, and steps were taken by Metro to avoid re-occurrence. As discussed previously, Metro does have a good track record of addressing very targeted safety recommendations. It is very unlikely that the specific set of circumstances that caused the 1996 or 2004 collisions will happen again on Metro. However, that is not the larger issue. As the NTSB identified, there are organizational problems at play, problems that seem to be difficult for Metro to resolve.

The common thread that has emerged in this series is Metro's reactive, rather than proactive stance on safety. Time and again there have been indicators that safety is not always the highest priority within the organization. The NTSB identified this as a problem, both in 1996 and again in 2004. In the wake of the 2009 crash, the Federal Transit Administration testified about continued concerns regarding Metro's organizational structure. The fact that the safety department has been "overhauled" many times since the 1996 incident underscores the problem. A safety department that is in flux and experiences turnover at the highest level will likely not be able to instill the kind of work culture that is required for a complex organization.

In Part IV of this series, we will look more closely at the concept of a culture of safety.

by Dave Stroup, filed under Metro at 9:42AM   0 

Four years ago: A contracts scandal and a similiar cast of characters

Mayor Anthony Williams.jpgIn 2005, the District of Columbia government was rocked by a procurement scandal. The Washington Post ran a series outlining vast abuses of the District's contracting processes. The Post found the city had spent over $425 million in 2004 through unauthorized backdoor deals and improper no-bid contracts.

The specifics of the 2005 scandal were a bit different than the current Parks and Recreation spending hubbub. However, there are a few disturbing parallels. On Friday, the Fenty administration sent City Administrator Neil Albert and District CFO Natwar Gandhi to testify before the Council. The Council also heard from some of the contractors involved. The picture that was painted was not a pretty one. The Fenty administration essentially relied on arguing that the ends justified the means. The claim is that things got done more efficiently through bypassing the Council and the normal DPR procurement process and handing money to preferred groups without transparency.

Four years ago, Gandhi was District CFO and was making similar arguments. Gandhi told the Washington Post that if he did everything by the book, a lot of work would not get done. The self-described bean counter said "I will be damned if a child is without textbooks or an AIDS patient is without medicine just because some bureaucrat did not file the paperwork right."

In 2005, the District's financial situation was vastly different. Overspending was often ignored, as the city ran record surpluses. Agencies could offer no-contract payments to preferred vendors without drawing scrutiny, and the use of no-bid contracts had proliferated. Back then, as now, lack of competition and transparency resulted in waste. It also resulted in political strife.

Also just like now, the scandal in 2005 arrived as an election year approached. The big players in the 2006 mayoral election all spoke of their outrage, and demanded investigations. Council Chairperson Linda Cropp (D), Kwame Brown (D-At Large), David Catania (I-At Large) and Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) all promised to hold hearings and get to the bottom of the allegations. Gandhi promised more transparency and better methods of tracking funding. The Williams administration assured the public, and the Council that the problems would be resolved, and were not indicative of any ongoing trouble.

In 2009, we again have a procurement mess. The Fenty administration is claiming that they had to get creative with spending in order to get things done. They claim that DPR could not get the work done efficiently enough, so they went through DCHA. We'll ignore for now the fact that DPR is under the purview of the Mayor, and thus any problems there are also Fenty's responsibility. The D.C. Council is again outraged, holding hearings and demanding investigation and oversight. And again we have Natwar Gandhi overseeing the whole mess.

So what did then-Councilmember Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4) have to say about the contracts scandal in 2005? He called the regulatory violations "completely intolerable," and said "the people involved need to be fired."

Photo of Anthony Williams by Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

by Dave Stroup, filed under City Hall at 7:00AM   1 

The District Weekly: Teacher layoffs, parks and recreation and "PostKiller.com"

Ed. note: Apologies for the light posting the past few days, I've been under the weather. As of now, this is a one-man part-time operation, so "daily" might not always happen.

It's been a headline week for the D.C. Council, with a hearing about the D.C. Public Schools layoffs and more discussion of the parks and recreation contracts. Aside from that, the media world has been dominated with talks of the new local news site for D.C.

D.C. Council holds hearing on the controversial teacher layoffs. This was the big cannot-miss local news story for the week. There's a whole ton of analysis floating around the Internet, so I'm not going to spend too much time rehashing it right now. The main story here is the same story we're seeing with the Parks and Recreation hubub, a lack of communication, oversight and respect between the Council and the rest of the D.C. government. Yesterday's hearing stretched for several hours, and the tone of animosity between the Council and DCPS was hard to ignore. There's significant discontent between many on the Council and Rhee. Those who have a bone to pick with Fenty are going to continue pressing this. It looks likely that Rhee did go around the Council's directives in order to get her way. But, she's smart, and knows how to testify at a hearing. The same can't be said for her CFO, Noah Wepman. Wepman appeared unprepared and shaken by the questioning.

All of this, of course, revolves around the controversial firing of teachers. Hundreds of teachers were laid off just as the school year started, with Rhee citing budgetary reasons. The Council had previously slashed $20 million from the DCPS budget. Prior to the firings, DCPS had conducted massive hirings over the summer. Rhee is accused of using the budget excuse to fire tenured teachers and replace them with new, younger hires. Rhee claims she had no choice but to cut jobs. A matter of this much importance, and involving this much money should not come down to a he said/she said argument. Sadly, though, that is where we are. It looks like either Rhee knew exactly what she was doing (likely) or the books at DCPS are so poorly kept no one could have figured out there would be budgeting problems for FY2010.

Right now, Council meets to discuss Parks and Recreations contracts. Today the Council is meeting to discuss the questionable contracts sent through the D.C. Housing Authority. The City Paper has learned the total is now at $120 million. City Administrator Neil Albert is testifying at the moment, and CFO Natwar Gandhi is scheduled to appear as well. Albert is denying any sort of conflict of interest problems, and the Council is trying very hard not to use the "corruption" word. I'll have more on this once the meeting wraps up. Again, it is difficult to make the claim that either Albert or Gandhi didn't realize there was something fishy going on.

Can Allbritton revolutionize local news? Well, it seems they are going to try. The creators of Politico are looking to create a local D.C. news web site. Allbritton also owns local ABC affiliate WJLA-TV as well as the local cable news station NewsChannel8. I spent some time talking about the future of local journalism last week; this is a topic that is not going away anytime soon. Allbritton believes there is still money to be made with a local news web site, and wants to dedicate a staff of 50 to making this work.

Well, as other people have mentioned, it's hard to believe that Allbritton will be able to find some magical advertising market that no one else has been able to tap into. I'm very much in favor of seeing more local news coverage, and I think it would be wonderful if an organization with vast resources would dedicate some time to our city. As it stands now, WJLA and NC8 have resources (even news trucks!) but the only product they put out is a television newscast. Rather than hiring 50 people to start a new web site, it might make more sense to hire a team of a few writers and editors to put out quality web-based versions of the stories already being covered.

We'll see what happens, but I wouldn't hold your breath. The Next Big Thing in journalism will need to take bigger risks than just throwing some money at a new web site. We'll need to see a completely new model. We'll need to see something that stops everyone in their tracks and says "wow, that's gutsy." There's a difference between gutsy and foolish optimism. Unless there's some huge part of this that Allbritton is keeping a secret, this is will not be the future of local news.

by Dave Stroup, filed under District Weekly at 1:00PM   0 

Parks and Recreation contracts bypassed Council, went to friends of Fenty

Last Friday, District Attorney General Peter Nickles made an unexpected statement. He said that the DC Housing Authority must send any contracts over $1 million to the D.C. Council for approval. This came on the heels of the news that Mayor Fenty had directed a dozen parks and recreation contracts, totaling $82 million, to DCHA. The Housing Authority then awarded these contracts to firms with connections to Fenty.

nickles.jpgIt was surprising to hear Nickles purposefully make a statement that was not in the best political interest of Fenty. Previously, Nickles had fallen into the role of de facto spokesman for the Fenty administration, though he often puts his foot in his own mouth. The initial speculation was that Nickles and Fenty were trying to pin the blame on DCHA, which is technically an independent agency. Recall that just last month, DCHA executive director Michael Kelly resigned his post. Rumor had it that Kelly felt the heat from Fenty, and that the DCHA board had been stacked with Fenty allies. A search is underway for Kelly's replacement, but odds are the spot will go to someone in the Fenty administration.

The contracts in question were for the construction of ball fields, parks, and recreation centers. Banneker Ventures, owned by Omar Karim was named the construction manager for all of the projects. Karim is a former fraternity brother of Mayor Fenty. RBK Landscaping and Construction was also among the firms awarded contracts. RBK is owned by Fenty's friend Keith Lomax. You might remember that name from earlier this year, Fenty was in hot water for allowing Lomax to drive his city-owned SUV.

The revelation that $82 million in parks and recreation contracts bypassed Council approval, along with the Ximena Hartsock saga proved to be a political tipping point. Since more than one Councilmember may be considering candidacy for mayor, it's no surprise the battle lines are being drawn. When Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) accused the Fenty administration of acting lawlessly, it's safe to assume she was talking about more than just the Harstock employment extension.

Coming back to his senses, or at least being reigned in by Fenty, Nickles began backpedaling. He changed his tune, and his legal opinion, stating that his comments on Friday were not meant to be applied retroactively. While it was technically against the law for these contracts to bypass the Council, his decision would only apply to future contracts.

The Council is now mulling their options, even contemplating a long-threatened lawsuit against the administration. A group of Councilmembers will be holding a meeting this Friday to discuss the matter, and have asked that the City Administrator Neil Albert and Chief Financial Officer Natwar Ghandi appear to discuss the procurement process, and how contracts were funneled through DCHA.

There aren't many good options on the table here, though the whole thing could prove to be a big mess for Fenty. It depends on how far the Council is willing to take this, and if the matter ends up in court. One possibility is that the contracts be rendered void, because they were drawn up in violation of the law. The other option is for the Council to approve the contracts retroactively. It seems unlikely that the Council would do so.

What will happen? Well, there are a lot of variables at play here. The Council is also pondering what to do about Ximena Hartsock. Council Chair Vincent Gray (D) held a closed-door meeting with other Councilmembers to discuss the matter. The outcome was a decision to send an "envoy" of sorts to Fenty to discuss the matter. Four Councilmembers, two in favor of Hartsock and two opposed, will meet with Fenty this week.

If Fenty and Nickles play hardball on the Hartsock matter, it's easy to see the contracts battle getting as drawn-out as humanly possible. In any event, the whole matter of Fenty cronies getting under-the-table contracts stinks. If Fenty is to face a serious opponent next year, this will be an issue. If that opponent currently serves on the Council, he will have to make a move soon.

It's completely possible that Fenty will compromise regarding Hartsock (perhaps naming a successor to take office very quickly), in exchange for the Council's retroactive approval of the the DCHA contracts. If this does happen, and there is no vocal protest, then I would not expect to see anyone on the Council run for mayor.

by Dave Stroup, filed under City Hall at 8:00AM   1 

Six years later, the legacy of Walter E. Washington remains unmatched

225px-Walterwashington.jpgWalter E. Washington, the first elected mayor of the District under home rule, died six years ago today. I wrote this piece following Washington's death in 2003, and given the perpetual political scandals that persist, I wanted to share it again. While the piece references then-Mayor Anthony Williams, in most cases the same can be said for Mayor Fenty.

Original column follows

J. Edgar Hoover was known as a man who did not take no for an answer. As a result, not many politicians had the courage to stand up to him. One D.C. politician did, however-Walter E. Washington. Washington, who died Monday, was the first elected mayor of the District and the first African-American to lead a major U.S. city. He leaves behind a legacy of integrity and respect and will be remembered as an example of what political leaders should be, although this city has not seen a leader of his caliber since.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Washington as mayor-commissioner of the District in 1974, making him the first African-American to lead a major U.S. city. When Congress approved home rule for the District, Washington became the city's first elected mayor.

Washington knew his politics. He was a man who could get things done for his city and he wasn't afraid to stand up for what he believed was right. During riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., then-FBI chief Hoover wanted Washington to order the shooting of looters. Washington refused, and walked out on Hoover.

Washington's legacy has been unmatched in the 25 years since he left office. The three mayors who have followed have been unremarkable, and many of the problems that troubled the city at the end of Washington's term remain.

Marion Barry, who defeated Washington in 1978, became dubbed "mayor for life." But he was too slick. Employing racial politics whenever possible and becoming embroiled in scandals which made the District the laughingstock of the nation, Barry was quite a contrast from the man who talked tough with J. Edgar Hoover, and who demanded respect from Congress and the president.

Anthony Williams, the current mayor, also falls short of the bar set by Washington. Yet another mayor plagued by scandal, Williams has failed to address many key issues. Williams refuses to discuss race in a city that is 70 percent black. While Washington was a uniting figure on the issue of race, Williams simply stays silent--perhaps an improvement from Barry, who discussed racial issues on a daily basis--but it is not an appropriate compromise.

Many District politicos and columnists believe that the continued cause for expanded home rule in the District died with Washington. "The era of home rule ended today with the passing of Walter Washington," remarked Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's non-voting member of Congress, on Monday. While this point is debatable, it is clear that Washington was one of the major forces behind the home rule movement. Even in the years following his tenure as mayor, he continued to work behind-the-scenes to support causes he felt were important to the District.

Walter E. Washington loved his city and worked hard to accomplish what he felt was needed. Perhaps most of all, he was a man who commanded respect. He knew how to play politics, but he didn't get his hands dirty. It is unfortunate that his legacy of esteem remains an exception in D.C. politics, and not the rule.

First published October 30, 2003

by Dave Stroup, filed under City Hall at 9:00AM   0 


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