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.

When the mayor showed up at Turner Elementary in Southeast, one man shouted out to him. Fenty, who had taken a seat in the rear of the gymnasium where the hearing was taking place, looked tired and uncomfortable. It was raining outside, and he had changed his trademark felt fedora for a black knit skullcap. Fenty responded to the man in a loud voice, asking him several times: "What's your question?"

The man, Kevin Richardson, who had his 10-year-old twins in tow, finally explained that he was angry that his children would no longer be able to attend nearby Green Elementary, which was slated for closure. Fenty got up and approached Richardson, handing him a business card and suggesting he follow up with an e-mail, but that did little to pacify Richardson.

"They're trying to do a rush job," he said later of Fenty and Rhee, "and if you do a rush job, it could all collapse."

Those comments echoed the belief of some who have complained that the Fenty administration is fast on action and short on substance, even as the mayor's supporters say he is making headway against deeply entrenched problems.

At another stop that night, a teacher from Hine Junior High confronted Fenty to complain that her school would be closed. Lecturing the younger mayor, the woman reminded him that his mother had been a teacher, too, and wondered how she would have felt if her school had gone out of business. Fenty did not respond, but instead asked the woman to step outside into the cold evening rain. He motioned for a reporter who had been shadowing him to step away so he and the woman could speak in private. Fenty put on his cap, turned up the collar on his overcoat and gave her an impassive stare. The conversation lasted about 10 minutes. Neither party appeared happy.

It is not uncommon for mayors to face resistance when they try to change the traditional way of doing the government's business. Fenty had a 72 percent approval rating across the city after his first year, according to a Washington Post poll. But former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who enjoyed a 77 percent approval rating after his first year in 2000, saw his support drop steadily to 54 percent by his final year in office. He attributes the decline to polarizing actions, including firing workers, closing D.C. General Hospital and focusing massive redevelopment downtown.

"You cause some concern among the workforce, and you lose some political support in some quarters, certainly with the workers, " Williams said of the kinds of decisions Fenty is making. "What Adrian is doing, he should be commended for. . . . He has a sense of the most important things for his administration and is focusing on them like a laser, and he's willing to take a risk."

That said, Williams added that Fenty must "balance the carrot and the stick. You do not want too much of either. . . . A mayor must do positive things so people can see positive things are happening even with the pain."

Fenty appeared mindful of that Friday morning, looking refreshed when he joined Rhee to roll out plans for a $1.5 million expansion of Saturday classes for struggling students, a move they said would show that the administration is serious about adding resources to the classroom. He also found time during the week to present certificates of appreciation to two transportation workers who had helped save a man from a burning building in November.

But Fenty's performance during the meeting with the social workers overshadowed those actions. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who attended that gathering, said the mayor's intention was to "be clear that expectations have changed and that there is clear accountability." Fenty declined to discuss the confrontation.

Tangherlini, a former member of Williams's cabinet, said Williams was successful in restoring basic competence to a government that had been almost completely broken. Fenty, by comparison, has a different challenge, Tangherlini said: He must improve on Williams's record, making the government's service consistently good and establishing exceptional service as standard practice.

"That," Tangherlini added, "takes a long time."

As Fenty wrapped up his meeting with the social workers, the woman he had dismissed returned to the auditorium, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. Afterward, the official said, that woman approached the mayor and they had a "full conversation."

Staff writer Petula Dvorak contributed to this report.

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