We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

In May, Mayor Vince Gray’s administration found itself facing scandal. What’s new, right? Except this time, it had nothing to do with U.S. Attorney Ron Machen.

Instead, Gray was stuck in a quagmire familiar even to big-city mayors who aren’t under federal investigation: the inexplicable botching of a basic public service.

Six months earlier, Gray had announced a city-wide replacement campaign for Supercans, the ubiquitous green trash cans and blue recycling bins that line District alleyways. Gray, who was facing a tough re-election campaign, promised new cans for everyone and claimed the giveaway had nothing to do with politics, though anecdotal evidence that the new-can handouts surged ahead of April’s primary suggests otherwise.

When it came time to pick up the old cans, though, they had been sitting outside so long that it wasn’t clear which ones were meant to be thrown away. After news stories about the languishing cans—and the arrest of two people who took abandoned ones in Georgetown for an art project—the city’s Department of Public Works went into overdrive to collect them.

DPW crews bolstered by temporary hires picked up every unwanted can they could get their hands on—and quite a few that weren’t actually supposed to be disposed of. Some of the old cans, which were all meant to be recycled, ended up in landfills instead after being mangled by garbage trucks commandeered to help in the sweep.

Gray administration officials fumed as the Supercan replacement went from bad to worse, according to DPW records obtained by LL through the Freedom of Information Act. As the problems piled up, emails show Gray aides struggling to get a handle on the situation. As Gray chief of staff Christopher Murphy put it in an email to DPW employees, “We all now look like idiots.”

Even before news of the delayed can pickups broke in May, problems were mounting for the program. In April, can manufacturer Toter complained to DPW that the District had two “past due” payments worth more than a million dollars. (DPW spokeswoman Linda Grant says the District doesn’t currently have any “past due” bills from the company.)

In some foreshadowing of future altercations between DPW workers picking up cans and residents trying to save them, one woman near American University complained that a DPW crew had taken her cans on the grounds that emptying all of them would be too much of a hassle for garbage workers. “Read this whole thing,” one DPW employee wrote to another. “It is crazy.”

It got crazier. As complaints over the long-abandoned cans littering public areas mounted in the District’s customer service databases, Murphy emailed DPW boss William Howland on April 25 to ask what was taking so long. Howland responded that most of the cans would be gone by the next day, a claim that Murphy declared “great news.”

By May 7, though, the cans were still there, and the Washington Post published a story on how residents particularly annoyed by the blue and green messes on their lawn could take can removal into their own hands. The next morning, Murphy emailed the article to Howland and bemoaned the “rotten press” that DPW had won for the administration.

“The article below refers to this as a ‘debacle’ and notes ‘DC screwed up,’” Murphy wrote. “We take so many hits for things we don’t deserve it’s just frustrating that this one was self-inflicted.”

Howland responded with an email saying that he was “fully accountable” for the problem. But even then, the digital flagellation of Howland—who managed DPW’s snow removal this winter with few complaints—wasn’t complete. On May 18, a Post reporter emailed a DPW spokeswoman to ask whether some Supercans really had been thrown away, instead of being recycled (as turned out to be the case).

“I pray this is just a misunderstanding,” Murphy wrote. “If not, this whole think (sic) couldn’t get any worse.”
“This just keeps getting worse…” Gray administration spokesman Pedro Ribeiro wrote back.

For Howland, it got a little worse still. After receiving a Google Alert about the botched pickup, Murphy forwarded it on to Gray, declaring that the news about the Supercan replacement (once thought to be such a good idea that it could help Gray’s re-election chances) now “goes from worse to worser.”

That prompted Gray to send an email to City Administrator Allen Lew, asking if he’d followed up on the “increasingly embarrassing situation.” When Lew said he had, Gray wasn’t impressed.

“Looks like no positive results!” Gray shot back.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery