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It’s going to take more than Melinda Bolling’s departure to “unsuck” the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
“It’s not that Melinda Bolling was the problem,” says Mark Eckenwiler, a Ward 6 ANC commissioner, DCRA crusader, and proud owner of the Twitter handle @unsuckDCRA. “The agency was the problem, and Bolling did next to nothing to solve it. It’s remarkable to me to see how little has changed in the past three years.”
Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s hand-picked director of the garbage fire of an agency—DCRA—left under vague circumstances. Susana Castillo, a spokesperson for the mayor, tells LL that Bolling left for another job outside the D.C. government but could not elaborate.
Bolling is being replaced by Ernest Chrappah, who, in addition to his current position as head of the Department of For-Hire Vehicles, will now also lead the $60 million, 437-person agency, responsible for everything from issuing building permits, to monitoring illegal construction to handing out business licenses. Castillo says there is no timeline for when a permanent replacement will be installed.
And just this week, three more high-level DCRA employees left their jobs, Castillo confirms. A D.C. government source tells City Paper that Deputy Director Lori Parris, Chief Administrative Officer Walter Crawford, and Kevin Edwards, the agency’s director of information systems, were all fired.
Bowser appointed Bolling in 2015 to reform the troubled agency. Yet what followed was a steady stream of more trouble. There were news reports of DCRA’s failure to enforce housing code violations and improperly issued building permits; official findings from the Office of Open Government pointed to public records law violations, and at least one DCRA employee pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.
Earlier this year, the Council considered a bill to split the massive agency in two. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says Bolling’s exit is not a surprise and intends to reintroduce the bill to split DCRA during the next Council period.
“DCRA has proven over the decades it is too cumbersome and unwieldy and does not have adequate focus on its different missions,” Mendelson says in an email. “In particular, housing code enforcement and preventing illegal construction.”
Eckenwiler, who is an attorney, has pushed DCRA to improve for at least the past three years. In addition to what he describes as mismanagement that empowers shady house flippers, he sees obstruction and stall tactics that hide information from the public.
Indeed, a lawsuit filed this year by Genet Amare, a Freedom of Information Act officer at DCRA, accuses Bolling of hamstringing DCRA’s ability to respond to records requests in a timely manner in an agency where a backlog already existed. Amare also claims Bolling retaliated against her for speaking out against Bolling’s unethical directives.
DCRA hired Amare in September 2017 but provided little training on how to gather public records from within the massive agency, according to the lawsuit Amare filed against Bolling and the D.C. government in August.
Castillo declined to comment on the lawsuit because the case is still pending, but says Bolling’s departure was not related to Amare’s complaint. Efforts to reach Bolling for comment were unsuccessful.
For Amare, the first red flag was Bolling’s directive to DCRA division managers and their staff to not assist in collecting public records, according to her lawsuit. Without adequate training for FOIA officers and without assistance from employees who are more familiar with DCRA’s internal databases, Bolling risked exposing the agency to litigation, according to an opinion from D.C.’s Office of Open Government.
Bolling also directed Amare to lie about how public records were gathered, according to the lawsuit. Doing so could jeopardize her license to practice law, argues Amare’s attorney, David Branch.
Amare sought assistance from the Office of Open Government and the Mayor’s Office of Legal Affairs. Both agencies stressed to Bolling the importance of complying with the public records laws, including the requirement to provide records by the deadline spelled out in the statute. Bolling “made it known that she was not concerned about strict adherence to the FOIA deadlines or with any lawsuits or appeals which may be filed as a result of FOIA violations,” the lawsuit says.
By November 2017, Betsy Cavendish, the mayor’s general counsel, emailed Bolling telling her that Amare’s concerns were “a potentially embarrassing and serious situation for the Mayor and the administration,” according to the lawsuit.
Further, Cavendish wrote that FOIA is “one of the few statutes that has clear, statutory deadlines and DCRA needs a process to ensure that it is successful in complying with FOIA law. The penalties and potential lawsuits are serious, and efforts to comply will greatly mitigate the rise of any claims that the Department is arbitrarily engaging in non-compliance. We do not view lawsuits as risking merely a slap on the wrist.”
For three months after Cavendish’s email, Amare believes that Bolling targeted her, and the agency fired Amare in February of this year. But a week later, the D.C. human resources department overturned her termination. Amare is still working as a FOIA officer, but according to her lawsuit, believes she’s been passed over for multiple promotions and subjected to a hostile work environment due to her speaking out against dysfunction and unethical directives.
The District has until Dec. 7 to respond to Amare’s accusations. A hearing is scheduled for January 2019.
“There are quite a few employees who believe Director Bolling abused her authority in running the agency,” says Branch, who has handled other employment related cases against the government. “Anyone who challenged her authority was dealt with severely.”
For Eckenwiler, the ANC commissioner, DCRA’s opacity is no surprise. He’s been pushing DCRA to publish building permit files on its website, as required by law, since at least 2015.
A 2016 finding by the D.C. Office of Open Government notes that Bolling and Brandon Bass, a FOIA officer in 2015, claimed to be unaware that the agency was required to publish permit documents on its website. But Traci Hughes, former director for the Office of Open Government, called bullshit.
In her finding, Hughes notes that Bolling was the DCRA general counsel before Bowser appointed her as director. And Bass had attended two FOIA trainings conducted by Hughes in which she personally instructed him on what documents are subject to mandatory disclosure.
Hughes ordered DCRA to publish those documents online, but also noted that the “antiquated” legacy IT systems are a significant hurdle to complying.
“To be fair, there have been some improvements on the margins, and there is more information online today than there used to be,” says Eckenwiler. “But they’re still not in compliance with the law.”
For former DCRA employees Gary and Delaine Englebert, the problems at DCRA transcend Bolling’s tenure. Gary Englebert sees Bolling as someone caught between a mayor’s priorities and bad advice from underlings.
“She might not be a good manager, but she’s a good individual,” says Gary Englebert, who worked for DCRA for a total of six years.
Delaine Englebert, who worked for DCRA during three mayoral administrations, says that each new regime brings its own agenda for the agency.
“That should not happen,” she says, “not as far as permits and inspections go. Those are objective processes. Or they should be.”