Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Mayor Muriel Bowser apparently has had it with the D.C. Council’s questions. On Wednesday, Herronor abruptly canceled her administration’s weekly conference calls with councilmembers for good. The conversations were an opportunity for legislators to ask specific questions about Bowser’s COVID-19 response, which has sometimes frustrated and confused the public. Councilmembers were often elevating questions and concerns from their constituents.

The mayor’s office says Bowser plans to resume the sporadic mayor/Council breakfast meetings that fell away during the pandemic. “We are incredibly grateful for the response from our community and we will continue to provide DC residents with information and resources as we finish the fight against this pandemic,” says a spokesperson via email.

It’s unclear how frequently the breakfast meetings will occur. None are currently scheduled. But when your star rises so high that you’re a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle, you can cancel any meetings you want.

The Council is left searching for a response.

“I’m not inclined to sit back and let the position of the Council be disrespected this way,” Chairman Phil Mendelson says. Though he wouldn’t say what specific recourse he has, Mendelson notes that the administration’s unilateral decision has not gone over well with councilmembers. 

“Of those who commented, everyone used the same word, which was ‘collaboration,’” the chairman says. “As in ‘not collaborative,’ or ‘so much for collaboration,’ or ‘I thought they were gonna be collaborative.’”

In the early days of the pandemic, the calls happened once a day and included Bowser herself. Then they dropped off to every other day and then to once a week. The city administrator and agency directors replaced the mayor. But those changes didn’t seem to bother councilmembers because they were still getting regular and timely answers.

Several councilmembers tell City Paper that irregular breakfast meetings will not be adequate replacements for the weekly calls. Where breakfast meetings typically featured broader discussions, councilmembers asked more granular questions during the conference calls. Several members say they submitted questions in preparation for this week’s call that are still unanswered.

At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson recites her list:

  1. How are you partnering with pharmacies that have doses of vaccines but don’t receive appointments through D.C.’s portal?
  2. Can you give an update on your efforts to provide mobile vaccine sites to those who are unable to travel? (Henderson notes that she asked this question last week and was told she would receive an answer this week. Still no dice.)
  3. What metrics does D.C. need to meet so Capital One Arena can have events and to increase the capacity at Nationals Park? 
  4. The DC Jail is still under medical lockdown, which means inmates are in their cells for 23 hours a day. Have we been offering inmates the opportunity to get vaccinated? What is the timeline that DC Health will advise the jail that restrictions can be relaxed?
  5. How many additional seats has DC Public Schools opened in term 4? (“It’s been a black hole of us knowing that,” Henderson says.)
  6. What conversations has the administration had with the federal government about getting more vaccine doses? “You’ve accelerated eligibility, but that doesn’t correspond with the number of doses, so won’t this just frustrate more people who are waiting?” Henderson asks.

Henderson acknowledges that the District’s caseload has decreased from its height last year, and more and more people are vaccinated every day. “But I feel like we’re at a critical point of transition in terms of recovery, and frankly I feel like it’s important for everybody in government to be on the same page,” she says. “Are there avenues where we can get these questions answered? Sure, but are there avenues that make everyone still feel like we’re doing this as collaboration? Not really.”

Weekly calls led to tweaks in the vaccine rollout. Councilmembers successfully requested that DC Health prioritize based on residency during a Jan. 13 call. The public also learned that the Bowser administration hadn’t requested a vaccine site from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or rather the ones that did not come with extra doses. But calls were not always constructive. Sometimes members asked questions that were answered in previous press conferences or on the coronavirus website. A few appeared to use questioning as a moment to pontificate. 

The weekly calls at times turned tense as lawmakers grew frustrated with administration officials’ answers, or the lack of them. DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt eventually stopped participating in the calls and was replaced by deputy director Dr. Ankoor Shah. Asked whether he believes the tense moments played a role in Bowser’s decision to cancel the meetings altogether, Mendelson points to a recent oversight hearing with DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee to illustrate his point.

“Some moments I was angry, some councilmembers were possibly uncivil to the chancellor,” Mendelson says. “So should those hearings not take place? Do we cease dialogue between two branches because sometimes a question is not asked in a diplomatic way? So my answer is that that’s part of the balance of power between the branches.”

The cancelation comes soon after the Washington Post reported that Giant pharmacies temporarily stopped requesting vaccine doses from the federal government because D.C. wasn’t scheduling enough appointments with them. And this week word got out that independent pharmacies are scheduling their own vaccine appointments outside of the DC Health portal. As City Paper reported, DC Health later instructed the pharmacies to abandon their own scheduling systems, but it’s unclear whether it has the power to do so.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, in echoing his colleagues concerns about COVID-related questions, notes that D.C. is in the midst of another public health crisis: gun violence.

“More than 1,000 people have died as a result of this COVID-19 crisis, so the public deserves more transparency not less,” McDuffie says. “These calls provide the required transparency and public accountability that residents demand. Frankly, the mayor should also begin a weekly call to address the gun violence crisis that is devastating our city. The dual crises of COVID-19 and gun violence are killing Black and Brown residents at alarming rates, and the response—especially regarding the gun violence epidemic—lacks urgency and resources and is plainly unacceptable.”

Bowser has also reduced the number of weekly press conferences. What started as daily briefings were eventually whittled down to two or three times a week. Even when there were steady mayoral press conferences, some city officials were noticeably absent. This makes it challenging for press to both hold them accountable for shortcomings and obtain critical information for our readers. 

Navigating the unemployment system in the District has been one of the biggest pain points for residents who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, for example. Since March 13, 2020, the Department of Employment Services has received over 170,000 individual unemployment compensation claims. System updates to the portal impacted claims on numerous occasions, sometimes causing people to miss out on benefits for weeks at a time. Employees answering the phone at the DOES don’t always offer the same information on how problems can be resolved, causing a great deal of confusion. 

These issues have only ramped up in recent weeks, but the last time DOES Director Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes attended a press conference to face questions was on Feb. 22. The mayor’s office says Morris-Hughes has not declined any invitations to join mayoral press conferences and offered that the director does participate in virtual community calls and town halls.

—Mitch Ryals (tips? mryals@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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