Mayor Adrian Fenty has never claimed to be a holy roller.
During the 2006 election campaign, when a D.C. ministers’ group asked the mayoral candidates to introduce themselves at a forum and state their home church, Fenty stood out from the pack.
He told the clergy that he wasn’t a member of any church.
The big congregations in town got no more attention from Fenty the campaigner than did your average Randle Highlands homeowner. The mayor is a political pragmatist and knows churchgoers who commute in from Maryland don’t produce a lot of votes on Election Day.
But Fenty may not be able to skirt the politics of religion as he approaches a mess left by his predecessor. Call it the revenge of the homophobic pastor.
Last May, then Mayor Anthony A. Williams decided one member of the city’s Interfaith Council had crossed the line. He urged Bishop Alfred A. Owens of the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church to “publicly apologize to the community.”
Why the fuss? Well, Owens, in a Palm Sunday service, implored all the straight men in the congregation to come forward and “thank God that you are straight.” The Bishop could be heard in a recording of his sermon saying, “It takes a real man to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I’m not talking about no faggot or no sissy.”
An outraged Williams used the council—on which Owens held a spot—as his only leverage. Unless Owens offered a sincere mea culpa, said Williams, the bishop “could not continue as an honorary member of the council.”
Owens delivered an apology—sort of. In a letter to the Washington Post, he wrote, “It was not my purpose to wound anyone or discriminate against any group.…And I apologize for any offense.” Williams declared the “apology” short of the act of contrition he was looking for and demanded a meeting with Owens.
Then, like several other moral outrages raised by Williams, the issue faded away. Owens remains an honorary member of council.
The bloated mayor’s religious advisory panel used to be little more than an official brand of lip service to the local clergy. When Williams first took office, the Interfaith Council consisted of about 65 ministers. Nearly every clergy member of a major house of worship in town could put council membership on a résumé. From time to time, the mayor would trot out the preachers, rabbis, and imams when he needed a religious backdrop for a news event.
But in 2005, the Interfaith Council decided to formalize its role in the D.C. power structure by becoming a city commission. That meant reducing the body to 21 appointed members and setting terms of service. The formation of a leaner council meant another homophobic minister, the Rev. Willie Wilson, lost his seat at the mayor’s table.
Wilson was also caught gay bashing on tape in 2005. He preached that “lesbianism” is about “to take over our community” and called homosexuality unnatural (Loose Lips, 9/29/05).
“[The council] is now one of the [more] active city boards and commissions,” says Interfaith Council Secretary the Rev. Clark Lobenstine. “The people who serve on it are not placeholders,” he says. “The mayor officially appoints the people who are on it.”
Williams also picked five honorary members, including Bishop Owens, who is slated to hold that status until March 31, 2008. Owens has never even hinted that he would consider stepping aside, even after the “faggot” controversy.
According to administration sources, the Fenty team will soon begin considering who should fill seven upcoming vacancies on the council and start the process of interviewing candidates to be the mayor’s religious affairs advisor.
Fenty doesn’t have to keep an intolerant guy like Owens on the city’s official religious advisory board. He could continue on the course set by Mayor Williams—wait another year and let the bishop’s term as an honorary member run its course. But the mayor will have seven vacancies on the council to fill come March 31—and one decision to make about Owens.
In an interview with LL, Fenty declined to say whether or not Owens would serve on his Interfaith Council. Instead the mayor referred back to his campaign-trail denunciation of Owens’ 2006 remarks. “My statement still stands,” says Fenty, who indicated he will “review what I said” and “add to it if we need to.” In a prepared statement, the mayor seemed to suggest everyone on the council could come under scrutiny. “Over the next couple months, we will be looking closely at the Mayor’s Interfaith Council to both fill vacancies that exist and examine the current membership.”
Web Extra: Fenty Community Relations Chief Resigns
A dispute within the Fenty administration about regulatory enforcement has led to the departure of the city’s leading official for constituent services. Merrit Drucker, director of community relations and services, submitted his resignation March 21 and will leave the government on Friday, according to Drucker.
Drucker ran an office that follows up on complaints from residents on neighborhood problems and breakdowns in city services. He earned a reputation as an energetic go-getter as Mayor Anthony A. Willliams‘ clean city coordinator. Fenty’s appointment of Drucker to the community-services post was seen as a step up for the hard-driving manager.
During his brief tenure, Drucker championed the use of an aggressive city code enforcement regimen called Operation Fight Back, a multi-agency regulatory sweep first instituted by Williams in 2003. It seemed like an approach custom-made for Fenty, who has long been a stickler for using government tools to tackle quality-of-life problems.
But not everyone was happy with the hard-line approach, including some business owners and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.
When asked whether the lack of backing for his regulatory posture played a role in his decision to leave his post, Drucker replied, “Yes. I think I’ll just leave it at that.”
Another sticking point relates to Drucker’s work space. According to sources, Fenty ordered Drucker’s eight ward outreach coordinators to centralize their activities in Fenty’s “bullpen” at the John A. Wilson Building. Drucker wanted them to remain in the field, as they’d been under Williams.
Drucker says he mostly ignored the petty squabbling that is part of the D.C. government landscape. “I tried to stay out of the politics the best I could,” he says, but wouldn’t elaborate.
Talk Show Blues
Lots of city officials have found themselves angry at D.C. political columnist and radio show co-host Jonetta Rose Barras. Some have accused the bombastic commentator of twisting the facts for dramatic flair, and Barras has always roared back on the airwaves. But Barras’ next big venue doesn’t look kindly on shouting matches: One former city employee is suing her in D.C. Superior Court.
In a March 1 complaint, former Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Deputy Director Roslyn Johnson charges Barras and D.C. watchdog Dorothy Brizill with libel and slander. Johnson claims that stories written by Barras and disseminated by Brizill via the DCWatch Web site have made it impossible for her to get a job. She’s seeking $2 million in damages. The suit also seeks an additional $2 million from the District government for improperly releasing information.
The complaint alleges that in her Examiner columns* and during her rants on WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour With Kojo and Jonetta, Barras suggested that Johnson inflated her résumé and salary history in order to secure a plum position under her pal, former DPR Director Kimberly Flowers. Johnson had previously known Flowers from their days working for the city of Baltimore.
Johnson’s climb through the ranks of the department was certainly meteoric. In August 2005, she was hired by DCOP to hold a temporary appointment pending the posting of a permanent position. Johnson was bumped up to a deputy director’s position in early September. Her position was advertised internally for five days, and Johnson was hired at $105,885 per year.
So when Barras was able to snag Johnson’s résumé and salary history via sources, she went after the hiring as classic cronyism. Without going into specifics, the Johnson complaint alleges that Barras was made aware of several inaccuracies in her reporting and did nothing to correct the record.
For reasons that make no sense to LL, Johnson didn’t bother to sue either the Examiner or WAMU, the outlets for Barras’ tirades. Instead, the plaintiffs want the big bucks to come directly from Barras and Brizill. Anyone who knows these folks will tell you what a bad legal strategy that is. Barras has scraped along for years on modest earnings from contracts, freelance assignments, and her public-radio gig. (Disclosure: Barras has contributed to the Washington City Paper.) And Brizill doesn’t appear to be getting rich running a nonprofit out of her home.
For her defense, Barras has hired Attorney A. Scott Bolden, a failed politico whom she has sometimes skewered in her role as political commentator. Bolden also defended Christopher Barry, the son of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr., against charges that he assaulted a police officer. The younger Barry pleaded to a lesser charge* and was placed on probation. Bolden’s most recent appearance on the D.C. political scene was an expensive, ill-fated challenge to At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson.
LL claims no legal expertise, but a top-notch lawyer like Bolden shouldn’t have too much trouble rebutting the Johnson complaint. There are already documents on the public record.
According to a Feb. 8 report from Inspector General Charles Willoughby, neither the D.C. Office of Personnel nor the Department of Parks and Recreation “adequately conducted qualification and pre-employment inquiries” before offering jobs to certain employees.
The IG report identifies someone with Johnson’s background as “Employee A.” The IG found that when hiring Employee A, the usual pre-employment checks were ignored. The Office of Personnel did not inquire about Employee A’s previous dates of employment, salary history, titles and positions held, reasons for leaving previous jobs, or personal references.
Bolden says his client has not officially been served any court document as of yet, but he says what is known about the BarrasnJohnson feud tilts in favor of his client. “The allegations are pretty familiar to everyone who is active on the local political front,” says Bolden. The findings that D.C. officials did not follow proper procedure when Johnson was hired “are based on the IG’s report and the D.C. government’s own investigation, not based on what [Barras] wrote,” he says.
Neither Johnson nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
Barras declined to comment on the particulars of the case but appears confident her reporting was on the mark. “I think in journalism,” says Barras, “the best defense is always the truth.”
•Now we know for sure that Mayor Fenty’s administration is green. And we’re not talking about inexperience.
A March 16 letter to councilmembers regarding global warming was on some letterhead that had been sitting around in the storage room for a while. At the top of the one-page missive signed by Fenty, just below the city seal, it carried this familiar moniker:
Asked whether the vintage stationery was indeed further evidence of her boss’ tree hugging bona fides, Fenty spokesperson Carrie Brooks replied in an e-mail, “That’s exactly right. We are continuing efforts to be an environmentally friendly administration.”
A few days later, Brooks recounted in an e-mail that the source of the correspondence snafu remains a mystery. “This was a letter that traveled through a few offices, so it was a little difficult to nail down where the actual printing took place.” says Brooks. “But we have since scoured every office and have donated all remaining letterhead to the city’s recycling program.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error by Staff Writer James Jones, this column incorrectly indicated that Jonetta Rose Barras was being sued by a former D.C. government employee in part for information published in the Examiner newspaper. Her Examiner columns were not cited in the lawsuit.
In the same story, Jones reported that Christopher Barry pleaded guilty to a charge and was given probation. Barry did plead guilty, but the charges against him were dismissed after he withdrew his plea and completed probation.