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On Monday night, Mayor Anthony A. Williams appeared at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Ward 8 to discuss emergency preparedness. As per custom, the mayor surrounded himself at the event with members of his cabinet—familiar faces such as Peter LaPorte of the Emergency Management Agency and Carolyn Colvin of the Department of Human Services.
But when it came time to introduce the representative from the city’s fire department, Williams struggled. He had to lean over the lectern and casually spy the nameplate to determine that Assistant Fire Chief Adrian Thompson would step forward to speak about the importance of communications in emergency response.
LL could not determine the whereabouts of nominal Fire Chief Ronnie Few. Perhaps he was attending an alumni event for Morris Brown College.
Or perhaps he was hunting down a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution classifieds. Of course, such an undertaking would require the chief to dust off his resume—as well as fact-check it. On April 12, Few was found to have falsified critical parts of his CV, including his academic credentials as well as a “Fire Chief of the Year” award that he claimed to have received from an organization that doesn’t even dole out such a distinction. The chief has since blamed his inflated self-image on a former secretary, who he says assisted in typing the document.
Few appears headed down the same career path as Williams’ former Parks and Recreation director, Robert Newman, who took literary license with his own resume. Newman resigned over the episode—and administrative lapses— in October 2000.
Few, however, faces more than just the fallout from his resume-inflating incident. In his nearly two-year tenure, he has made the hit list of Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the District of Columbia Firefighters Association Local 36. Even though D.C. fire chiefs, in personnel parlance, serve “at the pleasure of the mayor,” they really serve at the displeasure of Sneed, a powerhouse at the Wilson Building.
“I love Ray. He is your quintessential union leader,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “He keeps his folks’ interest in front—in front of people’s faces.”
Sneed has fans in the local media, as well. In D.C., the newspaper of record for the fire department is the Washington Times. Few’s reformist leadership has been particularly fruitful for the daily: Soon after Few’s name circulated as Williams’ choice for chief, stories appeared in the newspaper about a grand-jury investigation looking into Few’s management of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department in Georgia. And since then, the D.C. Fire Department’s yearly struggles with equipment, procurement, and getting places in a timely manner, in addition to Few’s controversial initiatives concerning firefighters’ hairstyles and sleepwear, have nicely rounded out the coverage.
A Sneed quote often accompanies the Times’ stories, and the union president even acknowledges teeing up the paper’s stories on resume padding. “I had talked about the level of experience that these guys brought to the table,” Sneed says. “I put that out there. The media somehow started checking the background of these guys—and that’s when there were serious problems.”
On March 13, Times staff writer Jim Keary reported that three of Few’s top chiefs inaccurately reported their educational and employment experiences on their resumes. Few’s own embellishments came to light a few weeks later.
Few has declined comment to LL.
“I’m not in the business of hiring and firing fire chiefs,” argues Sneed. “What I try to do is make the elected officials and the mayor aware of leadership and liability issues for the agency.”
Sneed understands the power of suggestion.
Sneed first got elected union president in 1995, after serving as union vice president for 10 years under the leadership of then-President Thomas N. Tippett. Sneed quickly assumed a high profile, as a critic of then-Chief Otis Latin. Latin, who like Few had come from outside D.C.’s fire-department hierarchy, battled with union officials over severe budget cuts that came as the city struggled with fiscal insolvency.
Hence Sneed’s advantage over the fire chiefs: He’s able to wax philosophical about the public good, whereas the chiefs have to do the math to get to the department’s bottom line. “My first and primary concern is about the quality of fire protection we provide to the community,” Sneed reminded LL several times in the course of a recent conversation. “The second thing I’m concerned about is the safety of my firefighters while we provide that protection to the community.”
Sneed knows exactly where to register those concerns: in the public domain. “‘Fire House Roulette’ is now the way we protect the citizens, workers, and visitors to the Nation’s Capital,” Sneed wrote to then-House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District Chair Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) about Latin’s leadership soon after Latin became union president. In May 1996, Sneed’s union unanimously voted “no confidence” in Latin. Latin pulled up stakes a year later and moved to Fort Lauderdale.
In fact, Sneed’s activism over the years has served as a sort of term limit for the city’s fire chiefs. No chief has lasted longer than two years under Sneed’s reign.
In 1997, Sneed sat on the committee that selected Chief Donald Edwards, a three-decade veteran of the D.C. Fire Department. Yet local bona fides gave Edwards very little advantage in the rhetoric of firefighting and lifesaving. The chief battled with Sneed in council chambers and in the media over budget and management reforms. Sneed showed his trump card: He accused the chief of putting lives at risk. Reports later surfaced that Edwards had his primary residence in Adelphi, Md., in violation of the residency requirements for mayoral cabinet members.
Edwards retired from the fire department in November 1999, two years after becoming the city’s top firefighter.
Once again, Sneed participated in the search for a new chief, while the Williams administration tapped Tippett as the department’s interim leader. Sneed didn’t have time to change his opinion about his former union-slate running mate: Only five months into his tenure, Tippett resigned in a budget dispute with the Williams administration. Tippett, if he had stayed, would have presented a unique challenge to Sneed’s righteousness: “I have made a solemn promise to the firefighters of this city and to their families that I would do everything in my power to improve safety and not unnecessarily place my employees in harm’s way,” Tippett wrote in his letter of resignation to Williams.
With the field then narrowed to three candidates, Sneed got behind Few. “After Tippett retired, the mayor was not going to go to spend money to search for another chief,” Sneed explains. “After Tippett left, I went back and looked at the three candidates, and I had to make the best of a bad situation.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Few started in June 2000. A few months later, Sneed reheated his canned testimony. “We’re still taking chances day in and day out when we go out to do our job,” Sneed testified before the D.C. Council last October. “It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when something [wrong] is going to happen.”
Two weeks after that, Sneed’s union voted “no confidence” in Few: “Chief Few has intentionally misled the members of the D.C. City Council and the citizens of the District concerning the readiness of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department to handle normal, day-to-day operations, which have been expanded to include the potential for incidents of terrorism here,” read the motion.
Of course, Few hasn’t helped his own cause, often defending poor performance and misguided reforms.
LL senses that the Sneed cycle is getting ready for another go-round: first a spot on the mayoral search committee, then a short honeymoon with the new appointee, followed by broadsides on public safety and department budget.
“We are not in a political appointed position,” Sneed argues. “We’re in a position to tell it like it is.”
NO FURTHER QUESTIONS
Ever since D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox released his 514-page report outlining fundraising irregularities among Mayor Williams’ staff, D.C. councilmembers have been tearing the chief executive apart in the media. And when the council requested a hearing to grill Williams, the mayor’s advisers counseled him to stay away.
He showed up Wednesday anyhow, and his solo testimony before the council’s Committee on Government Operations may well have put the fundraising scandal to rest. As he deflected questions on his conduct and integrity, the mayor showed that our ward reps lose a bit of edge when they sit face to face with the chief executive. Those who attempted to cross-examine Williams once again failed to get a clear shot.
Herewith a rundown of select quotes from councilmembers, along with LL’s plain-English translations.
* Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange:
“The mayor has done a lot of good for this city—he’s certainly done a lot for Ward 5—yet we are all here today in our respective roles…”
Translation: “I love my Home Depot.”
* Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson:
“Mr. Mayor, who is running the fire department in the District of Columbia?”
Translation: “This fundraising story never had legs—let’s talk about something that matters.”
* Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous:
“Mr. Mayor, would you agree that your office, the Executive Office of the Mayor, either created new or used existing nonprofits for theoretically charitable purposes?”
Translation: “Mr. Mayor, would you agree that the councilmember from Ward 7 deserved to win the 1998 mayoral election?”
* At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania:
“Let me associate myself with efforts to form public-private partnerships….Where I depart a little bit is when members of your staff participate in fraud, tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to commit all of them.”
Translation: “Perhaps if I string together all the allegations, the public will actually give a shit.”
* Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans:
“There’s something in here that says you may not be truthful.”
Translation: “If I call you a liar, people will think I’m still bitter about the mayor thing.”
* Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham:
“Mr. Mayor, you are a great leader in this city.”
Translation: “As long as you’re popular, I don’t care how many bogus nonprofits you create.”
* At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson:
“Can you explain how public-private partnerships are being used for the 2012 Olympics?”
Translation: “I just wanted to slip some municipal jargon into my line of questioning.”
* Nothing gets constituents on the phone like parking tickets. Two weeks ago, the D.C. Council approved a measure creating a one-block buffer zone along ward boundaries. The buffer is designed to protect motorists whose ward-based parking permits have become useless on account of redistricting.
The bill’s sponsor, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, lives on the 2000 block of Connecticut Avenue NW, right on the borderline of Wards 1 and 2. The councilmember also owns two cars, only one of which has an off-street parking spot.
Schwartz says she had no interest in extending her sphere of parking and that she introduced the measure at the behest of Ward 1’s Graham, who originally favored a four-block DMZ. “This is a concern that’s universal all over this city,” Schwartz argues. “I’m concerned for all involved.”
* First Mother Virginia Williams usually exploits D.C.’s political events as her own Carnegie Hall. From senior citizens’ town hall gatherings to children’s reading programs, Williams always sings a tune, whether appropriate or not.
On Friday, Williams will belt out “God Bless America” for the opening of Middle C, a music store in Tenleytown saved from retail extinction by Angelo Parodi and Myrna Sislen.
“What better way to make a big splash than to have the first mother?” says Sislen. “I would love to have the mayor, too. I hear the mayor is taking piano lessons, and we sell a lot of piano music.”
The event isn’t exactly apolitical: Sislen is the wife of D.C. Division of Transportation spokesperson and man about town Bill Rice.
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Back in February, Mayor Williams launched reStore DC, an economic-development initiative designed to perk up the city’s “main streets.” The program provides technical and financial assistance for neighborhoods interested in bolstering their commercial corridors; participating neighborhoods agree to raise matching funds if selected. Winning streets receive nearly $250,000 worth of assistance over a five-year period.
Williams’ economic-development team announced that the deadline for applications would be March 25 at 4 p.m. On that very afternoon, Shaw activist Alex Padro strode into the 10th floor-suite at One Judiciary Square with three minutes to spare. Promptly at 4, the office doors locked. Padro looked at the sign-in sheet and counted a total of 10 applications to the program.
Padro later learned that 14 applications were being considered.
In municipal politics, it turns out, no deadline is firm. H Street NE boosters, for one, had failed to get their packet through the door on time, raising the prospect that they’d have to wait another year to compete for city revitalization funds.
Ward 6 Councilmember Ambrose, who represents that part of H Street, wasn’t going to allow administrative details to handicap the hard-luck corridor. So she implored the mayor to ease up a bit on the deadline.
“I had a conversation with the mayor,” Ambrose says. “He thought that maybe applicants should be cut a little slack.”
According to Wilson Building sources, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price initially balked at letting latecomers in the door but relented after an entreaty from the mayor. Traci Otey Blunt, a spokesperson for Price, now says that there was a grace period of an hour for latecomers.
Last week, Mayor Williams announced the city’s first designees: 14th and U Streets NW, 8th Street SE’s Barracks Row, 14th Street Heights, and North Capitol Street in Bloomingdale. Oh, and H Street made it, too. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Ambrose, who also represents Barracks Row.