Bill on School Firings Passes

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee had asked for the power to fire nonunion employees without cause.
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee had asked for the power to fire nonunion employees without cause. (Lois Raimondo - The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Nikita Stewart and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The D.C. Council gave final approval to two controversial pieces of legislation yesterday, one granting the District's schools chancellor the authority to terminate nonunion employees and the other requiring pharmaceutical sales representatives to obtain licenses to operate in the city, making it the nation's only jurisdiction to do so.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee won the authority to terminate nonunion employees without cause. Additional emergency legislation allows her to take action immediately.

The legislation, which Rhee said will help create a "culture of accountability" in the school system, would reclassify about 490 of the more than 700 people in the central office. Rhee said she needs the authority to get rid of incompetent people much faster.

"Are you going to see a mass exodus of 488 people? No," Rhee said in an interview yesterday. "Will you quickly see people ineffective at their jobs move out? Yes."

Dissenting members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said that existing law gave Rhee the power to fire unproductive workers and that the council was discarding civil service rules that workers depend on to protect their jobs.

The 10 to 3 vote on the school bill seemed all but a formality compared with the 7 to 6 vote on the prescription drug legislation, which marked a loss and a victory for the pharmaceutical industry and data collection firms. They had lobbied the council to reverse its decision after the bill received initial approval last month on a first reading.

The industry victory came when the council unanimously approved an amendment offered by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) to pull the section of the bill that banned "data mining." That is the practice of collecting doctors' prescribing records for marketing purposes without their knowledge.

Similar laws on data mining have been enacted in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Data collection firms have sued, and U.S. district judges in New Hampshire and Maine have overturned the laws, citing the restriction on commercial free speech. The most recent court ruling was handed down in Maine on Dec. 21.

Catania said that he was pulling the data mining proposal "out of an abundance of caution" and that he might propose a separate measure after seeing whether the judges' rulings are reversed on appeal.

Prescription drug makers contend that the revised legislation is still unnecessary because federal agencies regulate the industry and the American Medical Association monitors the salespeople.

"The bill was significantly revised, but it does absolutely nothing to benefit patients," Ken Johnson, senior vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a statement released after the vote. "It is still legislation looking for a reason to exist. The fact is the licensing of sales representatives is not needed."

Catania pushed for licensing with the idea that restricting certain practices could discourage doctors from prescribing brand-name drugs over cheaper pharmaceuticals. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has indicated his support for the legislation.

Other U.S. jurisdictions have approved ethics codes for drug sales representatives, but they have not licensed them. Catania, chairman of the health committee, called licensing "a natural extension." Catania is also president-elect of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, a group of state legislators trying to curb the escalating costs of drugs.

Voting against the licensing bill were council members Barry, Thomas, Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).

"As watered down as it is, it's still a bad bill," Thomas said.

Bowser and other opponents said they could not see how the legislation would directly benefit patients. "What really are we doing here?" Bowser asked. "We don't have a constituent impact."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company