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D.C. General Hospital officials panicked on Feb. 18, when they discovered freshman At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania in the emergency room asking patients how long they had been waiting for medical treatment.
Hospital officials were accustomed to seeing creatures like Catania in the council chambers downtown politely tossing them softball questions about health care in the city. They weren’t so used to surprise visitsin this case to follow up on testimony that hospital head John Fairman had given during a council hearing the week before.
Upon spotting Catania, hospital officials sprang into action. An announcement over the emergency room’s loudspeaker summoned all patients who had been waiting more than two hours to report immediately to the front desk. Catania and his council aide, Tina Dobbins-Thomas, had already questioned 13 of the 20 or so emergency room patients and found that all but one had been waiting for more than five hoursand none had been treated. Fairman and hospital emergency services director Howard Freed had told the council that most emergency room patients are in and out in six hours.
“They come and tell us that the sun is shining when you’re in the middle of a storm,” says Catania. “My job is to go and challenge that.”
As the emergency room cleared, more than a half-dozen nervous hospital officials descended on Catania and Dobbins-Thomas. Fairman eventually joined the group and asked why the councilmember had suddenly turned up in their midst.
“I did not sense hostility. I sensed, ‘Why are you here?’” Catania said afterwards. “I found them completely unable to handle the situation. Whenever I encounter defensiveness, I intuitively think something is not right.”
His gut instincts about the D.C. government’s incompetence, corruption, and hostility toward the community helped carry Catania to a stunning victory in last December’s special election to fill an at-large council vacancy. The fresh face and take-no-prisoners style were a big hit with voters and enabled the candidate to overcome his liabilities: He is a white gay Republican in a predominantly Democratic, African-American city.
The aggressive approach Catania displayed during the campaignhe nearly came to blows with Democrat Arrington Dixon after squaring off, nose to nose, during a Nov. 11 Dupont Circle forumescalated once he took his council seat. During his first council meeting Dec. 16, Catania accused At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil of switching his vote on the controversial Children’s Island theme park development to placate lobbyist David Wilmot, the head of Brazil’s mayoral exploratory committee.
A red-faced Brazil traded sharp words with Catania, and Wilmot quickly resigned from the campaign committee.
Since then, Catania has:
•exchanged fire with Interim Police Chief Sonya Proctor over the understaffing of patrol service areas for the city. During a council hearing two weeks ago, Catania presented internal department duty-assignment stats he obtained on March 11 showing that the PSAs had 83 fewer officers than Proctor claimed. The councilmember had more up-to-date figures than the chief.
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•clashed with D.C. fire chief Donald Edwards at a recent Ward 4 community forum over the slow response by ambulance and city fire crews, which allegedly contributed to the death of a Ward 4 resident. Under prodding from the councilmember, the fire department last week began furnishing each fire truck and ambulance crew with a D.C. street map and showing them how to get to Barney Circle without ending up at Ward Circle. Before they received the street maps, fire department drivers were apparently relying on their Boy Scout navigational traininglook for the moss on tree trunks to tell direction.
•sparred with Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) executive director Lewis Dawley over WCCA’s effort to cram a huge new convention center into Mount Vernon Square. Dawley, irritated by Catania’s rant against the proposed site, refused to be a guest on Jerry Phillips’ Metro Talk radio public affairs program three weeks ago until the combative councilmember agreed to back out.
•feuded bitterly with public schools academic officer Arlene Ackerman after she told wary principals they did not have to respond to a survey sent out by Catania’s office seeking information about conditions in their schools. Ackerman says she merely advised the principals they were not required to respond to the survey. But Catania accuses her of sabotaging his effort to get firsthand information. “I called her up and read her the riot act,” he admits. “For her to say, ‘No, you don’t have to fill this out’ was the same as saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t.’”
The council’s education committee members and staffers view this brouhaha as an effort by Catania to stake out his turf on the schools crisis, even though he doesn’t sit on the committee.
“Principals get deluged with paperwork,” notes a committee staffer. “So, if it’s something you don’t have to do, why bother?”
Nearly all of the 150 principals didn’t; only five filled out the questionnaire.
Few of Catania’s council colleagues share his view that surprise visits to agencies and independent information-gathering forays are part of council oversight duties. They prefer the more congenial let-the-agency-heads-come-to-us approach.
“We call him the anecdotal man around here,” one councilmember says of Catania. “He’s always going on and on about how he visited the 7th police district and the sergeant told him such and such, so that must be the way it is.”
“People twist things to embellish the story they are trying to tell, and David is the worst,” the councilmember continues. “I don’t even pay attention to him. As far as I’m concerned, he can be very irritating.”
In other words, the old guard don’t take kindly to being upstaged by someone who’s doing his job.
“He’s young, he’s aggressive, and he’s energetic,” notes a council staffer. “If you look at the hearings, he attends everything. He can be a little bit too abrasive sometimes, but I think he’ll work out of that.”
Some councilmembers may not want a pit bull in their midst, but D.C. voters seem to prefer politicians who are willing to sink their teeth into no-account bureaucrats.
MCI CENTER JOB BLUES
When the MCI Center was being rushed to completion last year, it looked like the arena of dreams for D.C. officials eager to revive downtown and create jobs for city residentsnot to mention congressional Republicans pressing the city to trim its welfare rolls. Late last year, D.C.’s employment and human services agencies moved more than 1,000 District residents from welfare into what city officials and residents believed would be year-round jobs serving food, beer, and Cokes to hungry hockey and basketball fans.
At his recent town meetings, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. has hailed the MCI Center as an unqualified success, and his aides have claimed that more than 1,300 city residents have found work at the downtown sports arena. During its first seven weeks of operation, the sparkling new sports center looked worthy of the tax breaks handed to owner Abe Pollin and silenced critics who questioned whether the arena would become the engine driving an economic boom.
But for some 400 job-hungry D.C. residents, the MCI Center has become an arena of despair. Barry’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, these residents found themselves without a weekly paycheck throughout Februarythanks to a string of idle nights at the $160-million stadium and to its underachieving teams. The Wizards have cooled down after a hot streak in December and January, and the Capitals now draw on average 2,000 fewer fans than they did at U.S. Airways Arena. So instead of putting in 32-hour weeks, many arena employees worked only one or two days during February.
If the Wizards and Capitals don’t make the playoffs, the arena workers may not be called back to work before next season, if then. The D.C. hires are getting bumped from their jobs by former U.S. Airways Arena employees as the new center’s work force dwindles.
“I haven’t worked in almost a month because they had to place the U.S. Air[ways] Arena people first. It’s not fair,” said one idle worker. “The city has been lied to about the employment opportunities for the District.”
Union officials say everyone may have misjudged how quickly the arena of dreams could become a reality.
“There are a lot of mad people here because promises were made,” says Rick Powell, an official of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 25, which coordinated last year’s hiring spree with D.C. and MCI Center officials. “People just overestimated, at least initially, just how much business the area was going to get. Everyone wanted to believe it.”
Powell says his union has refunded dues to over 400 members who are now out of work. The drop in business caught the union and city officials by surprise. Local 25 president John Boardman last week met with Department of Human Services director Jearline Williams to set up procedures for returning the laid-off MCI workers to the city’s welfare rolls.
“This has really messed some people up,” claims Powell.
Last week’s well-choreographed exit by D.C. financial control board chairman Andrew Brimmer had all the trappings of a Shakespearean drama. A smiling Brimmer stood before a bank of TV cameras during a hastily called news conference and claimed, with a straight face, that he had been planning to leave since Jan. 20.
Behind him stood the three BrutusesStephen Harlan, Constance Newman, and Joyce Ladnerwho had just stabbed their leader in the back. But since he was going out with a forced smile, they also were smilingand had come to praise rather than bury Brimmer. The three claimed they had known for several weeks, and maybe as far back as the Christmas holidays, that Brimmer did not want a second term on the board.
Of course, if they had really believed that, there would have been no need for them to tell Washington Post reporter David Viseanonymously, of coursethat they would quit in protest if President Bill Clinton appointed Brimmer to a second term as chairman. Harlan had reportedly relayed that condition to the White House late last year.
Their line in the sand, published in the Post that morning, sparked Brimmer’s March 20 news conference announcing he will step down when his current term ends in June.
But none of the control board members, including Brimmer, would acknowledge having read the Post article, or even that it existed. Harlan, Ladner, and Newman pretendedfailing to retain their somber expressionsthat they had never talked to Vise.
For public consumption, at least, everything has been hunky-dory during the Brimmer regime.
Brimmer’s announcement may have come too early for Newman, who wants to be the next chair. Many regard her as the real power on the board, able to rally the other board members against Brimmer behind closed doors. She even has Ladner reconsidering her earlier decision to follow Brimmer out the door come June.
When Brimmer went to the White House in mid-January, some D.C. Council members panicked and phoned Clinton aides to lobby against a second Brimmer chairmanship. Many observers see the hidden hand of Newman in the timing of those calls.
But now that local officials don’t have to spend their energies blocking Brimmer’s reappointment, the spotlight will focus on Newman. A campaign is already under way to convince Clinton that Newman should not be elevated to control board chair because she is a Republican.
The city’s die-hard Democrats fear that Clinton’s philandering will cost their party the White House in two years, and, with Republicans firmly in control of Congress, they don’t want a Republican running the control board, too.
Brimmer was asked about Newman’s GOP affiliation during last week’s news conference. But Newman cut him off before he could reply.
“Oh, he’s not going to answer that,” she asserted.
And Brimmer, taking her cue, stayed mum.CP
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