More than nine months after taking office, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is struggling to fill hundreds of vacancies on boards and commissions that help form the spine of city government, a longtime problem compounded by the administration’s missteps over personnel appointments.
Gray (D) has been unable to clear a backlog of more than 800 vacancies on city boards and commissions, presenting fresh challenges for a mayor trying to overcome his go-slow governing style as well as criticism that he has not adequately vetted candidates for city positions.
Often overlooked but a central component of mayoral power, the city’s shadow government of about 170 boards and commissions is Gray’s responsibility as far as making most of the appointments.
Such appointments extend a mayor’s reach deep into city bureaucracy, but Gray is finding it difficult to find candidates willing to serve on bodies that help advise and oversee policies ranging from barbershop standards to the development of green buildings and green jobs.
With the District’s news media and government watchdogs scrutinizing Gray’s hires after a spate of ethical controversies at city hall, the mayor said some residents are no longer responding to calls for public service.
“We get people that say, ‘I don’t want to go through all that,’ ” he said.
The District is known for progressive government and civic engagement, and the D.C. Council has long turned to new boards and commissions to help solve problems or offer advice.
Some of the boards and commissions, such as the zoning and alcohol control boards, hold enormous sway in shaping the quality of life of a rapidly changing city. But dozens of others have been created to address smaller issues or to provide advice, at times confusing even elected officials about the boards’ roles.
“Some of these boards just aren’t relevant,” said council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who leads the committee that oversees boards and commissions.
As of late August, there were 811 vacancies, although a few have been filled and new ones made since then, according to a Washington Post review of publicly available data. There was at least one vacancy on at least two-thirds of those bodies. Some, including the Commission on Women and the Mayor’s Commission on Food and Nutrition, are not functioning because all of the seats are vacant.
“We’ve been too slow on a number of things,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who added that she has tried to pressure Gray to fill vacancies sooner. “Some of them are really important . . . and we have to keep these things operating.”
As he explores whether some boards or commissioners should be eliminated, Gray said his first focus will be filling seats on boards that have “a statutory requirement to make decisions.”
The challenges facing Gray are hardly new because of the vast number of boards and commissions the council has authorized over the years. With only 18 boards or commissions offering salaries or stipends to members, mayors have struggled for decades to persuade residents to volunteer their time to serve.
And observers and council members stress Gray’s task is more complicated by decisions made by his predecessor, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Fenty allies acknowledge that he allowed the numbers of vacancies to grow amid a toxic relationship with the council, which must confirm most mayoral appointees.
“A lot of this is an inherited problem,” said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
Gray’s efforts to break the backlog — and keep pace with turnover — has also been complicated by the tenuous start of his administration.
Within weeks of taking office in January, the Gray administration was swarmed by allegations of nepotism and cronyism, including the hiring of former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown.
In February, after news reports about Brown’s arrest record, he was fired from his $110,000-a-year job at the Department of Health Care Finance.
The incident, along with the news that the administration may have illegally hired the children of five senior staffers or campaign aides for city jobs, prompted the administration to concede that it needed to fix hiring and vetting.
But Gray’s personnel problems have multiplied, despite the renewed focus on vetting.
His choice for deputy chief of staff, Andrea “Andi” Pringle, resigned within days of her hiring Aug. 30 after it was discovered that she voted in the District last year while she was living in Maryland. There were also reports that Pringle’s consulting firm continued to operate in the city with a suspended business license.
Two weeks ago, amid pressure from council members and community activists, Gray also moved to fill three pending vacancies on the Board of Elections and Ethics.
Gray tapped Robert L. Mallett, a former city administrator and former deputy mayor, to head the three-member panel. But the administration was forced to rescind the nomination because D.C. law mandates that board members live continuously in the city for three years before serving. Mallett had lived in New York from 2000 to 2010.
Some of the blame for Mallett’s nomination fell on Ronald R. Collins, the head of the Office of Boards and Commissions. The office is responsible for vetting nominees and drafting the documents needed for appointment.
Collins, a longtime Gray friend who also headed the office under former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), declined to comment. But Gray said Collins’s office has been hindered because he has been ill and has only one full-time and one part-time staffer.
“He’s unquestionably suitable for the job,” Gray said of Collins, adding that an additional staffer will start in the office Monday.
Still, several longtime community activists said they worry that fewer residents are willing to serve because of the city’s political and media climate.
“People are being scared away,” said Peter Rosenstein, a columnist, activist and former member of the board at University of the District of Columbia. “There are lots of people who are incredibly well-qualified for these positions who just don’t want the scrutiny.”
Adam Clampitt, a consultant whom Gray recently appointed to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, said there “will always be people willing to serve” in the District, but he cautioned that the public must weigh the pros and cons of an aggressive vetting process.
“If people want that level of vetting, people also have to put up a with a slower process,” Clampitt said.
In the meantime, some boards and commissions are struggling to keep a quorum, if they meet at all.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, plans to introduce emergency legislation Tuesday to try to keep property tax appeals moving forward, even though Gray has yet to submit names for the new Real Property Tax Appeals Commission.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee, also worries about five vacancies on the Board of Medicine, which helps to discipline and license doctors.
“If you don’t have a functioning board, you have no way to remove bad apples,” Catania said. “When individuals bring complaints, they go before the Board of Medicine.”