Over the years, D.C. councilmembers have compiled a grand history of raking over bureaucrats who appear before their dais—Valerie Holt, Michael Lorusso, Natwar M. Gandhi, to name a few.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee appears intent on turning that history on its head: She’s raking over the councilmembers.
On Nov. 2, for example, she endured three hours of questioning on her plan to overhaul the DCPS central office (“The Office,” 11/16). Legislation submitted by the mayor’s office proposed making hundreds of downtown employees “at will,” meaning they could be more easily fired.
In one memorable exchange, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz pressed Rhee on the potential lack of due process for fired schools employees. Schwartz had been making a show of how she was undecided about the legislation, but as the hearing wore on, it became clear she was skeptical of Rhee’s plan.
The chancellor responded by asking Schwartz about the job security of her own staffers: “I know that as councilmembers your staff and employees are also at-will…and I know that you probably have your own definition of at-will since your employees have been acting in that manner, and I’d say we start with that definition, because it seems to have been serving the councilmembers well.”
Schwartz had been got by the gotcha:
“I don’t know that we have [anything] formalized, but I’m talking like each of us have like eight, 10 staff members. We don’t have 10,000.”
Rhee kept pressing Schwartz to share her own definition of “at-will” until the lawmaker had enough: “I get your point….Your staff is loving it as you’re coming back at me with the definition you use. I don’t have a written definition with my eight, nine, or 10 employees….But I have never fired anyone for no cause.”
Schwartz did not appear pleased. But so far, the table-turning has been a trademark of Rhee’s legislative-relations strategy. She’s had plenty of practice: Since becoming chancellor, Rhee’s had to thread a veritable gantlet of blowhardiness, sitting in front of the dais for more than 12 hours over three separate hearings.
Her most recent encounter with the council came last Thursday, under particularly straining circumstances. Rhee’s plans to close 23 schools in seven wards had just been announced/leaked. And council nerves were already raw thanks to an explosive breakfast meeting with the mayor the previous day (see below). Add to that a memo obtained by Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray that outlined how the school system is running an approximately $100 million deficit less than two months into the fiscal year.
Rhee did plenty of tail-tucking, to be sure, but she also proved she’s mastered the art of council warfare. Take her handling of this particular performance from Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr.
Thomas has as much reason to be pissed about the school-closings plan as anyone in town. His ward contains seven of the 23 schools slated for closure, and there’s a personal dimension, too: One of the schools (Bunker Hill Elementary) is where Thomas sends his own kids, and another (Burroughs Elementary) is his alma mater.
Thomas started out by broaching the school-closings issue: “You and I have had a lot of conversations.”
“Yes,” Rhee said, “and we actually talked about…the fact that we did have to close schools in your district.”
“Yes, we did,” replied Thomas. “And I also said to you…you’re gonna put us in a position to, unless we’re engaged [in dialogue], go fisticuffs, head-to-head on these issues, correct?”
“And…so it wouldn’t be any surprise how I’ve reacted to this issue in the public or anywhere else, would it be? Would that be fair? Have I surprised you in my reaction to this?” Thomas laughed awkwardly, expecting a “no.”
“Well, yes, frankly, you have,” Rhee said, smiling.
“OK, well, I’m sorry,” Thomas said, “because I thought I made it pretty clear.”
Said Rhee, “…Frankly, I would have thought that potentially you would have wanted to take a slightly proactive approach and outline for your citizens the positive things that are coming from this.”
Yeah, like all the vacant real estate about to dot your ward in the middle of a historic credit crunch!
That was enough to get Thomas off of school closings for a while: “Lemme flip the switch a little bit,” he said, and back the conversation went to the budget deficit.
Last month, Rhee told LL that she hopes to stay in her job for two Fenty terms. With potentially more than seven years of council posturing to go, LL thinks that Wilson Building and DCPS wags might appreciate a little help getting through those hourslong hearings.
While LL was watching the college-football scene implode over the weekend, he saw a commercial in which an auditorium full of corporate drones manage to spice up a management seminar by handing out a bingo card filled with meaningless biz-world buzzwords (not so different from the many that Rhee herself tends to employ).
Above is something similar for Rhee’s upcoming marathon D.C. Council appearances. Clip and save!
Breakfast at Vince’s
Stories of Fenty’s short temper with staffers have long circulated among city politicos, but aside from an occasional isolated outburst (Loose Lips, “Touchy Subject,” 10/19), Fenty’s kept his cool outside the presence of his inner circle.
Not so last Wednesday. At various points during a morning meeting with 12 of 13 councilmembers, Fenty jawed with Thomas, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr.
The only reporter present for the vast majority of the three-hour-plus meeting was WTOP’s Mark Segraves. Standing outside the door of the meeting room off the council chamber at 8:30 that morning, Segraves says he at first wasn’t planning to slip into the meeting, merely hoping for some “table scraps” from staffers leaving the room.
Then he realized breakfast was served: “I smelled the bacon.”
The presence of the repast matters thusly: After months of jawing from reporters and good-government types, former Council Chairman Linda Cropp opened up the council’s catered breakfast meetings in April of last year. The meetings, held to hash out legislation in advance of the council’s legislative sessions, have remained open under Gray.
But did the mayoral meeting count as a “breakfast meeting”? Segraves checked with Gray and Fenty aides before deciding to give it a shot. He slipped in and took the last seat in the room.
Inside, Segraves was treated to the rawest display of council-executive acrimony since Fenty won his election more than a year ago. Here’s a representative exchange, courtesy of Segraves:
Graham: “I signed on for reform and not autocracy. What role does a ward councilmember have in the future of his schools?”
Fenty: “Jim, you don’t have any control over police deployment, but that doesn’t stop you from sending hundreds of e-mails and constantly pressuring my office. I suggest you put that same energy into the schools.”
Then there was this killer tête-à-tête with Barry, as reported (sans cursing) by WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood, who came into the room toward the end of the meeting:
Fenty: “I’m not going to sit here and be told I’m missing the point!”
Barry: “Can I finish?
Barry: “I can’t finish my fucking statement? I resent that.”
According to Segraves, Barry caught himself soon after dropping the F-bomb, and plenty of nervous laughter ensued.
When the meeting ended, the acrimony didn’t. Earlier, Barry had recounted a detail of a private meeting with City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, in which Tangherlini essentially said that the council wasn’t being informed of certain mayoral initiatives because the mayor didn’t want the council leaking things before the mayor could. Afterward, within earshot of Segraves, Tangherlini went up to Barry and told him to keep their private conversations private lest he and Barry have no more private conversations.
Will this mean the end of the open-door mayor-council breakfast meeting? Later in the week, Gray assured Segraves that the breakfast meetings would remain open.
But will the mayor continue to come to Gray’s turf? Fenty spokesperson Carrie Brooks says the mayor’s office has no plans to change his participation in the monthly breakfast meetings. Any changes, she says, would have to be the council’s doing.
“It’s their call,” she says. “And we, of course, fully respect any decisions on how they want to run their meetings.”
LL will be sure to get his ass to the next one.
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