Legislation Signals Challenge to Fenty Tactics
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
In its first legislative meeting after a two-month recess, the D.C. Council voted yesterday to halt the closure of a downtown homeless shelter, to stop the chief financial officer from paying for services that the council has not approved and to have access to the confidential records of some juvenile offenders.
Yesterday's efforts seemed to strike a theme: a call for greater transparency in the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and a signal that he's facing a showdown from a reenergized body of lawmakers.
One of the emergency bills aims to halt the shelter's closing until Fenty tells the council where he is relocating the facility's 300 homeless men and what kind of social service support they are receiving.
The 12 to 1 vote came less than a week after almost 60 men signed leases to move into apartments mostly in Northeast and Southeast Washington -- far from the Franklin School Shelter at 13th and K streets NW.
But council members complained that they have little information about the ambitious relocation effort, part of the mayor's plan to end chronic homelessness. Fenty's goal is to move 400 individuals and families into apartments by Oct. 1.
There are concerns, however, about closing a downtown shelter that's been a haven from cold weather, moving the homeless to unfamiliar areas of the city and concentrating them in poorer neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. "You cannot close this shelter until we know the names and addresses of 300 men," said Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
Gray said he had only seen a list of about 50 names and addresses, and no document that explains how the men will get what they need, such as food, health care, mental health services and drug treatment.
The council also approved emergency legislation that further loosens restrictions on guns in the District, where a long-standing handgun ban was struck down by the Supreme Court in June. It seemed a rare moment of collaboration between the council and the Fenty administration: Both sides said they were reluctantly revising the law to comply with the court.
But other legislation seemed to signal another round in the ongoing struggle between them. The fight returns to the same issues: The administration often circumvents the council, and the legislators often complain that they cannot get information from the administration. Fenty, who won every precinct in the city in 2006, has viewed the unprecedented win as a mandate to move fast. But he has stumbled. During the council recess, the Summer Youth Employment Program overspent its budget by more than $30 million -- a debacle that some believe shows that faster and bigger is not always better.
Several bills yesterday touched on the legislative-executive tension and what lawmakers call a lack of transparency.
For example, the council unanimously approved legislation that prevents Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi from releasing funds to pay for leases, goods and services that have not been approved by the council. Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who co-sponsored the bill with Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), pointed to the administration's green light of school construction work, despite the lack of contracts. "It's out of hand," Barry said. "Millions of dollars are being spent in this manner."
On a different subject, council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) got a majority of his colleagues to back emergency legislation that requires the administration to give the council access to the confidential records of juvenile offenders who have been the victims or perpetrators of homicides and assaults.
Wells, chairman of the Committee on Human Services, said he has been unable to fully investigate recent incidents without the records. "The executive thinks they're barred by law to provide it," he said.
Though council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) voted for the various bills yesterday, he urged his colleagues during a breakfast meeting to put aside differences with the mayor as the city faces a financial crunch.
"We've got to get to the bottom of this relationship," he said, adding in an interview later that he was calling for "an amnesty, if you will, of past transgressions, just so we can move forward."
But Catania seemed in the minority yesterday.
The morning started with what looked like an anti-Fenty demonstration, as the union locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Government Employees and the Fraternal Order of Police banded together to protest Fenty's termination of employees. Workers are scapegoats for the administration, they said. They seemed to bond with dozens of homeless advocates protesting at the John A. Wilson Building.
Yesterday, Fenty announced his plans for a news conference today to break ground for an apartment building on O Street NW for chronically homeless women.