Fenty Seeks To Inspire, But Instead Infuriates

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

It was a raw moment during a trying week for D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and a rare glimpse of the man rather than the politician.

As Fenty (D) began an address that his aides said was aimed at motivating 200 District social workers Wednesday after having fired six of their colleagues, he heard a hissing sound. Who was that? Fenty demanded, to no avail. Collecting himself, he continued his remarks, challenging the employees to lift their performance, only to be interrupted again, this time by a woman who complained loudly that she felt disrespected by the mayor.

Fenty demanded her name. "You're dismissed," he said after she identified herself, waving his hand for emphasis. The crowd murmured. Anyone else who intended to be disrespectful could leave with her, the mayor added.

At least 20 others got up and walked out.

The explosive exchange illustrated the difficulty Fenty is having as he tries to make good on his campaign promise to "change the culture" of a government he says is often unresponsive. It also revealed a temper that the media-savvy mayor, ever mindful of his self-styled image as a disciplined, fast-moving change agent, has tried to keep hidden from public view.

The gathering of social workers at Southeastern University came in the wake of Fenty's decision three days earlier to fire six employees who he said failed to aggressively pursue the welfare of four Southeast Washington girls who were found dead Jan. 9. The girls, ages 5 to 16, were allegedly killed by their mother. But Fenty had played an audio recording for reporters of a distressed charter school employee trying fruitlessly to get assistance from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency in her search for one of the girls last spring.

"It's a redefining of how government works," Fenty said, when asked about his handling of the case. "What I've learned in my 13 months as mayor is that when someone does something wrong, the entire agency, the entire government, feels defensive. My role is to let people know that people will always do something wrong, but that doesn't mean we across the government have to defend it if we also think it's wrong."

By most accounts, the mayor was deeply angered by the government's failing to help the girls. Upon learning the news that they were found dead, he had asked his aides to compile a timeline of the government's work in the case, which he characterized as failures. He had a special meeting with his senior staff at his home last Sunday evening, then fired the workers that night.

The mayor's approach has outraged some District employees and the union that represents the social workers, which says Fenty rushed to judgment and made scapegoats of employees. As Fenty risked losing the critical support of the remaining staff, rumors circulated that cellphone recordings of his outburst were being uploaded onto video-sharing Web sites. (As of Friday, none had.)

"People were so angry -- tears, crying. They couldn't believe the disrespect" from Fenty, said Deborah Courtney, the union president. "He was lecturing, and there was no substance. He did not truly answer any of their questions."

The social workers were not the only ones with objections to Fenty's methods last week.

The mayor faced similar complaints Thursday when he dropped in on several of the 23 simultaneous public hearings on his administration's plan to close 23 schools by fall. He and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have said the move will save $23 million that can be reinvested in academic programs, but parents and activists objected to the list of schools and the administration's scheduling of all the public hearings at the same time.

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