Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Piles upon piles of leaves, trash, 311 service requests, and cases of dangerous and abandoned vehicles remain largely, well, abandoned by the Department of Public Works, according to D.C. residents who testified at a Council oversight hearing yesterday. Similar to other agencies, DPW is facing a staff shortage and pandemic-related service delays. But its real problems lie in its leadership, according to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. 

“We don’t have a rank and file problem, … what we have is a management problem, a leadership problem, a vision problem,” Cheh said yesterday. “We need to change the culture and face of this agency. It’s like a sleepy little last-century operation that doesn’t cut it anymore.” 

Understaffing

The staff shortage is plenty real. The agency has 290 vacancies for positions ranging from abandoned vehicle inspectors to crane operators and vehicle booters to sanitation workers, according to Interim Director Michael Carter. Mayor Muriel Bowser tapped Carter on Jan. 22 after yanking her previous pick, Christine Davis, last month. The withdrawal came after heaps of criticism over delays in leaf collection followed by a snowstorm that many thought DPW was unprepared for. 

At the oversight hearing, Ward 4 resident Zach Israel called out Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure Lucinda BabersPost op-ed that said “it is unfair to single out DPW leadership and staff as the cause for these temporary delays in service delivery.” Citing closed-out unfulfilled service requests, misleading leaf collection information, and constituent complaints, Israel warned against blanket excuses solely focused on understaffing. Such rationales lack the very traits that are critical for the next DPW director, he said: accountability, transparency, and commitment to customer service. 

Two Sides to the Bin 

But not everything is so clear-cut. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau asked for Carter’s thoughts on a trash pick-up “conundrum.” How does the city ensure residents properly sort their trash and recycling while holding DPW accountable for pick-up?

Nadeau relayed complaints about inconsistent trash pick-up from constituents, who believe sanitation workers won’t collect trash if it’s not properly sorted. Nadeau said she’s witnessed the issue herself and has made fruitless attempts to reason with sanitation team supervisors about the issue. Carter replied, “if that’s not being done … it’s not OK. … In the future, let me know.”     

Expanding DPW Tech

Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto asked Carter whether technologies such as imaging, thermal cameras, and the automated vehicle locator system—which DPW expects to use to monitor mixed-waste piles and overheated trash bins, as well as track vehicles doing trash pickups—could be leveraged elsewhere. She wondered aloud whether DPW could harness similar technology to track trash can or leaf collection, Christmas tree removal, or snow clearing.

Apparently DPW is on it, even if the impact is invisible to many residents. According to Carter, the agency already takes block-by-block before and after pictures so it can monitor leaf collection when it receives complaints, and uses its vehicle locating technology for snow removal. He also said he’s had discussions with DPW’s technology officer about installing a system to detect overflowing trash cans. 

Bet Your Boots on Safety

No DPW hearing is complete without a nod to the “elusive Boot Man.” As the agency has described in previous hearings, they believe someone has been removing boots from cars with unpaid tickets. The parking vigilante’s tally is up to 39. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson pressed Carter to collaborate with D.C. police to apprehend the de-booter.

Cheh said the agency’s colossal failures to enforce against boot-eligible vehicles is one of the major contributing factors behind the recent rises in traffic deaths and injuries.

“I frankly do not believe that DPW sees itself … as part of our Vision Zero work,” she said. “And I certainly have not seen any vision or planning for the agency or by the agency on that trend.”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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