By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; B04
The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to block Ximena Hartsock from becoming the next director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, aggravating the tension between the council and the mayor and casting fresh doubt on the future of the troubled agency.
After a long debate, the council voted 7 to 5 to reject Hartsock and remove her as the head of an agency that has had seven permanent or interim directors in the past decade.
It was the first time since Fenty took office in 2007 that the council had rejected one of his nominees to lead a city agency, which could mark a turning point for the administration in how it deals with labor unions and their allies on the council.
The vote followed a contentious hearing Friday night that brought cries of racial and ethnic bias after council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) implied that Hartsock, who is Hispanic, did not understand black culture.
Before the vote, council members strongly denied allegations of bias and sought to distance themselves from Barry, who missed the vote because he was in the hospital suffering from dehydration.
But the Fenty administration seized on Barry's remarks and slammed the council for rejecting a Hispanic nominee.
"Outrageous. Outrageous," Attorney General Peter Nickles said. "One of the most qualified Latinas in the city. A PhD. A principal. . . . She was treated unfairly."
Nickles added, "I hope the community, particularly the Latino community, recognizes how shabbily she has been treated."
Tuesday also saw dozens of activists on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate cram into the council chambers to watch the introduction of a bill to allow same-sex couples to wed in the District.
"We are about to embark on an exciting journey here in the city," council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) told the audience when he introduced his bill shortly after noon.
Catania was joined by nine of his colleagues in sponsoring the bill, which is expected to pass easily. But opponents, including Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, and the Archdiocese of Washington, have vowed to fight the measure.
But after months of anticipation, the introduction of the same-sex marriage measure was fairly anti-climactic, leaving Hartsock's nomination as the most controversial legislation of the day.
Fenty, in a statement, called Hartsock a "stellar candidate" and said she "has excelled in every challenge she's been given both as an educator and as the interim director of this agency."
The vote comes as council members are increasingly frustrated with the direction of the agency under Fenty.
Specifically, council members are furious that Fenty continues to push to privatize the agency's day-care centers, which has resulted in staff layoffs. The council has twice approved measures in recent months designed to slow or block the move, and members blamed Hartsock for failing to comply.
"We have had too many examples of people in the executive branch who have simply chosen to ignore the laws of this council, and I am sick and tired of it," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).
The compliance issue stems from the Fenty administration's battle with AFGE Local 2741, which fought the layoffs of 160 workers with the privatization of 13 child-care centers.
Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), known for siding with labor unions, has been pushing since spring to prevent the privatization and questioned whether the city would save $4 million as the administration asserted.
Ben Butler, president of Local 2741, called the Hartsock decision a victory for the union.
"This was not a worker-friendly director. She seemed to come in with a mandate to eliminate our child-care system, which put more than 160 workers out of work and left . . . parents and children without care," he said.
The Fenty administration is scrambling to figure out a way to keep Hartsock in the job. But council officials say she has be removed as director because members approved a formal disapproval resolution.
"The council can only do two things -- legislate and oversight -- and we take both things seriously," council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said after the vote.
Council members who opposed Hartsock said she lacked the qualifications to lead the agency because she did not have experience in the details of recreation. Fenty appointed Hartsock, a former D.C. public school principal who ran after-school programs, as interim director in April after he abruptly fired then-Director Clark E. Ray.
Fenty said at the time that he wanted to "shift gears."
Hartsock quickly embraced her new job, working to meet Fenty's ambitious agenda for opening playgrounds and a full complement of swimming pools during the summer.
But she always struggled to maintain good relations with Thomas, chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, even though other council members had grown fond of her.
"My philosophy, absent serious challenges with the agency and its leadership, the council should defer to the mayor," Thomas said. "However, after careful consideration and deliberation, it is clear this nominee has not met the benchmark."
The five council members who supported Hartsock countered that their colleagues were unfairly targeting Hartsock because of their hostility toward Fenty.
"The mayor deserves to have his nominee unless there is something extremely wrong," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), adding that Hartsock has been "very responsive" and is "well-liked" by residents.