Let’s say, for a moment, you’re the head of a D.C. agency in crisis and you’re facing the D.C. Council. Neither At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz nor Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson is a welcome sight to see sitting across from you on the dais.
Schwartz will get you with emotion and bluster. She’ll remind you of her umpteen years of public service to this city. She’ll call your behavior “reprehensible.” And if you’re really bad, she’ll declare that not even during the Marion S. Barry Jr. administrations did she witness such poor performance.
And she ran against Barry twice, honey.
Patterson will hit you with the hard questions. She’ll cite reports. She’ll mention requests for information she and her staff made that you and your staff never fulfilled. She’ll note the Freedom of Information Act. She’ll go over your numbers. Why are they lower? Why are they higher? She’ll quote your testimony from the last time you appeared before her.
“Even Carol would admit Kathy’s pretty hardy stock,” offers At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania.
Last week, councilmembers got a look at their contrasting styles: In the intimacy of a closed-door council meeting, Schwartz and Patterson went after each other, not some hapless third party. The point of contention was Schwartz’s high-profile proposal to investigate the handling of the lead-in-the-water crisis by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA).
The clash of council titans took place at the panel’s March 2 breakfast meeting. As Schwartz and Patterson engaged, Catania did color commentary: “Catfight!” he declared to his colleagues.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp tried to make light of his comment, explaining that the at-large member must be talking about his new cat, Miss Lillian Rosenberg.
Attempts at levity, though, invariably fail when lead is at issue. A little over a month ago, a front-page story in the Washington Post raised public awareness of elevated lead levels in D.C.’s water. The story revealed that in testing last summer, 4,075 of 6,118 homes had lead levels in their tap water above Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines.
Schwartz admits that she, like almost all her colleagues, learned about the lead problem from the Post’s reporting, even though she’s the head of the committee that oversees the quasi-independent agency. WASA has responded that it notified residents of the elevated lead levels in brochures mailed to customers. “I really don’t have time to read the inserts in my [water] bill,” said Schwartz at a Feb. 4 emergency hearing.
Since Schwartz couldn’t be bothered to read a flier or two, she’s now embarking on an exercise in retroactive oversight. The idea is to use the council’s subpoena power, along with a special appropriation of $50,000, to conduct a probe into the lead scare.
First, Schwartz needed the approval of her Committee on Public Works and the Environment, which she convened on the afternoon of March 1. The vote was 4 to 0, with one committee member absent: Patterson. When the Ward 3 councilmember arrived that Monday afternoon, the discussion and vote tallying had already taken place. According to several colleagues, Patterson was steaming over the incident. “I regret that the Committee’s failure to make a quorum call precluded my attendance,” Patterson later wrote in a memo.
“It was in no way, shape, or form intentional,” says Schwartz’s chief of staff, John Abbot, who says Schwartz’s staff failed to update Patterson’s staff on changes in the meeting time. “It was simply a miscommunication between staffs at a very hectic moment in a very hectic day.”
The next morning, Schwartz and her colleagues convened for the breakfast meeting before the council’s legislative session. When Schwartz’s resolution came up for discussion, Patterson had questions about the scope of the investigation—questions that she had already outlined in a councilwide memorandum. “I support…such an investigation provided the investigation is structured so that it enhances the Council’s legislative and program oversight role and does not duplicate other efforts already underway,” wrote Patterson, referring to a mayoral-council joint task force on the lead crisis.
The Ward 3 rep also questioned how much gumshoe work the committee had done with its standing powers. “This would require careful review of documents reportedly made available to the Washington Post but not yet obtained by the Committee,” Patterson wrote, referring to documents provided to the paper by WASA whistle-blower Seema Bhat and her attorney.
Schwartz went on the attack: This is no different from Patterson’s Judiciary Committee requests to investigate the police or corrections departments, Schwartz shot back.
“I see a distinction in terms of what’s in the public domain,” explains Patterson.
Patterson’s points about responsibility and coordination are relevant. Six weeks into the lead scare, the lines of authority still seem unclear—even to high-level government officials.
On March 4, the EPA sent a letter to City Administrator Robert Bobb, the executive branch’s lead person on lead, expressing frustration at working with WASA and the city’s Emergency Management Agency. “In our subsequent meetings and discussions with these individuals, we are not satisfied that the requisite actions to address this urgent concern are being implemented,” wrote EPA Regional Administrator Donald S. Welsh. Welsh directed that within 30 days the city provide an alternate drinking-water supply to all city residents whose homes are supplied via a lead service line, as well as nine other action items.
Yet when LL asked Mayor Anthony A. Williams about the letter on Saturday, the mayor said that the EPA had hardly made an effort to reach out and touch him. “I would have appreciated a phone call from them,” said Williams. “My phone number is 727-6263.”
Williams stole that line from his critics, who often say the same exact thing about Hizzoner.
D.C. government employees often get accused of being clock-watchers, happier than Fred Flintstone when 5 o’clock rolls around. That stereotype apparently doesn’t apply to a few public servants in the city’s Department of Public Works and Office of Contracting and Procurement, who trekked in one recent Saturday morning to approve the city’s trash-hauling contract.
On top of that, they worked late that Friday night soliciting bids.
That’s dedication, right?
A little before 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 6, Urban Service Systems Corp. owner Dickie Carter received a fax from city contracting officials, requesting a price for a 120-day emergency contract to haul trash from Fort Totten to a landfill in Virginia. The matter was urgent because the current arrangement—another 120-day emergency contract—expired in two days, on Feb. 8. Carter submitted the same price he charged the city the first time: $2,791,500.
A little after 6 p.m., Carter got another call from those same officials. He was informed that bidding had turned competitive. If Urban Service Systems wanted to quote a new price, the company needed to submit a bid no later than 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 7. By that Saturday afternoon, the city had a new trash hauler: the TAC Cos., which had quoted the city a price of $2,473,800.
Competition serving the government’s best interests, right?
Perhaps not in the eyes of Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., who will chair a Committee on Government Operations roundtable Friday to examine the trash-hauling contract, as well as a $75 million school-security contract that has attracted council scrutiny.
All this trash talk will be fodder for Orange’s latest crusade: to case-build against Jacques Abadie III, the head of the city’s Office of Contracting and Procurement. Orange is reprising his successful media strategy in the fight over former Inspector General Charles C. Maddox. In that episode, Orange went after a vulnerable Williams appointee with résumé and residency issues.
He rode Maddox like Washington Wizards überfan Robin Ficker, until Maddox announced his resignation last September.
Abadie presents an enticing target, too. His office often gets slammed from both sides: Both vendors and city officials complain that red tape at the contracting office keeps the government from delivering efficient services.
Some folks have gotten used to the unique quirks of D.C. contracting—and Carter appears to be among them. That’s why Carter may have been surprised by the last-minute bidding war on the trash-hauling contract. In October, the city signed Carter to the first 120-day contract because the council had failed to approve a long-term deal apparently won by TAC. When the 120-day period was about to expire in early February, Carter was expecting smooth sailing—until TAC emerged with a lower bid.
TAC was ready to pick up the trash two days after the Saturday contracting approval. TAC owner Ron Adolph told LL he had no comment on the bidding war.
Right now, the trash-hauling contracts are before the city’s Contract Appeals Board.
Carter did not return phone calls for comment.
When Orange beat Harry Thomas Sr. for his council seat in 1998, the pulp populist ran against trash moguls in Ward 5. “People are saying, ‘He’s trying to help Dickie,’” Orange tells LL. “That is not the issue. I think I’ve always been consistent on process.”
•Former D.C. Board of Library Trustees member Alexander Padro recently received a phone call from the mayor’s confidential secretary. Mayor Williams wanted to formally invite Padro to the swearing-in of his new appointees to the library board: Myrna Yvette Peralta, John W. Hill Jr., and Richard Levy.
Padro wasn’t too excited by the invite: The local book publisher had hoped to serve another term on the board himself. When Padro realized sometime last year that the mayor didn’t plan to reappoint him, he asked all 13 D.C. councilmembers to send letters of support to the mayor. A majority ended up doing so.
Padro’s library-board term expired Jan. 5.
Padro also kept after the chief appointer himself. “Every time I’ve approached [the mayor], he just said, ‘I can’t reappoint you,’” says Padro. “And when I ask him why, he rolls his eyes and doesn’t answer the question.”
LL has an answer: He considers the bibliophile a big pain in the ass. The former library board member has denounced Williams administration’s plans for mixed-use development at certain library sites. Primary among them is a proposal to sell the real estate where the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library currently resides and build a new central library downtown. Padro wants to preserve the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed central library and has defended his point of view in newspaper articles.
Padro’s reappointment campaign worked somewhat, though. In D.C. councilmembers’ attempt to do something for him, they decided last week not to confirm one of the mayor’s new appointees: Levy, a real-estate developer who has expressed interest in the new library project.
In the end, Padro still attended the swearing-in, as did Levy.
•Howard Dean’s meteoric crash from presidential front-runner to also-ran has fascinated political observers. Some speculate that infighting among high-level Deanies led to his downfall.
LL witnessed such bickering on a local level last Saturday, when D.C. Democrats completed the presidential-primary process by voting for delegates to the convention. Before balloting even commenced, Dean supporter Paul McKenzie struck D.C. Democratic State Committee member Aimee Occhetti off the ballot in the contest for female delegate.
McKenzie told LL he wanted to ensure that a “grass-roots” Dean delegate won.
Deanies decided that Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans wasn’t grass-roots enough, either. Evans championed the early presidential primary for D.C., which provided Dean’s only victory outside his home state of Vermont. He also persuaded eight of his colleagues to endorse the former governor, spent thousands of dollars on primary-related mailings, and attracted media attention to the local Dean campaign.
That’s so establishment.
D.C. for Dean Ward 6 coordinator Charles Allen proved a smart campaigner in the race for the male-delegate spot. He mobilized his loyal supporters, made sure they made it to the polls, and did some last-minute calls to ensure victory. In the end, Allen beat Evans, 90 to 81 votes. “I don’t see it as beating a sitting city councilmember,” Allen tells LL. “I see it as the power of the grass roots.”
“They beat me fair and square,” responds Evans. —Elissa Silverman
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, x 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.