Fenty's approach leaves council members fuming

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009; A01

Even as a member of the D.C. Council, Adrian M. Fenty displayed an indifference toward the bureaucratic inner workings of the panel. His fellow council members complained that he routinely sat on the dais tinkering with his BlackBerry while they wrestled with legislation and oversight duties.

So estranged was he from his colleagues that when he ran for mayor in 2006, only two of the other 12 members endorsed him, and that support came less than a week before the Democratic primary.

Fenty's lone-wolf style had served him well. His focus on answering e-mails and solving problems for his constituents in Ward 4 -- as opposed to crafting bills and scrutinizing department budgets -- fueled his widely successful campaign. When he took office in 2007, he largely stepped over the council as he charged ahead with his ambitious agenda.

But after enduring nearly three years of what they view as the mayor's slights, council members are fed up. The past few weeks of escalating acrimony over a rejected mayoral appointee and $82 million in questionable construction contracts have residents and civic leaders abuzz about who will win the grudge match and what the city could lose if the two sides don't repair their fractious relationship.

James C. Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said Fenty "has always been very direct, head down and hard-charging," qualities Dinegar finds refreshing because the mayor "gets results."

"But if it erodes confidence in his ability . . . it comes at a price," said Dinegar, who said he is worried about disrupting progress in the school system. "The council and the mayor are at interesting loggerheads on different things, and it seems to be slowing [government]. We're concerned."

Fenty has made unparalleled strides in areas that eluded other mayors: He has taken control of the public school system, changed the taxi system from zones to meters, and pushed for the construction of dozens of recreation facilities, senior centers and schools with capital dollars that sat unused.

An uncooperative council could derail that momentum, particularly the effort to improve the schools. With at least three members thinking about challenging Fenty, who is up for reelection next year, the political gamesmanship is likely to continue.

The council voted 7 to 5 last month to reject Ximena Hartsock as director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, the first time it had denied Fenty a pick for his Cabinet. Council members also were livid when they found out that $82 million in contracts had been awarded without their approval by routing money through the D.C. Housing Authority. At another hearing last week, council members berated Fenty's handpicked schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, accusing her of bending the law to lay off hundreds of teachers and staff members.

Council members have threatened legal action if the questionable construction contracts are not submitted to the council for a vote, which could delay the completion of long-awaited recreational facilities. Arguments about Fenty's picks for various boards and commissions, such as the board of trustees at the University of the District of Columbia, have left seats vacant, making it impossible to conduct city business. The five-member Public Employee Relations Board was reduced to one member this year, and employees' labor disputes could not be heard. Fenty later submitted new nominees, who were approved.

After two weeks of public rancor between the two branches of government, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) invited Fenty to his office last week. The impromptu meeting lasted 10 minutes -- hardly enough time to mend their differences -- and was the first time the two had met one-on-one in at least six months. The chairman, one of those mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, declined to disclose details. He did say that Fenty agreed to meet privately this week with council members to talk about Hartsock.

Gray said that he does not want to see government paralyzed by disagreements between the two sides but that he has to demand respect for the city's legislative body.

"You want, at the end of the day, for everyone to feel ownership," he said. "What's often missing here is how you do things."

Fenty deflected questions about his relationship with council members, repeatedly saying that he thinks he works well with them. When pressed at a public event last week, he smiled and responded: "This is the best council we've ever had."

The relationship was tentative from the start. Fenty persuaded a majority of council members to change the city's charter and place the public schools under his control. But then he offended them by hiring Rhee without their knowledge; they met her only hours before he publicly announced her appointment. The council worked with the Fenty administration to quickly put surveillance cameras in neighborhoods. But then Fenty infuriated members by refusing to hand over tickets to luxury suites at Verizon Center and Nationals Park.

Fenty's ability so far to get most of what he's wanted, along with the fact that he has yet to draw a serious challenger for next year's election, has emboldened him to pay scant attention to his critics on the council, say some of his friends and advisers.

"He's not going to second-guess himself," said Ben Soto, one of his best friends and his campaign treasurer. "Should he have communicated more? Maybe. But he knows to make major reform, he's got to focus. . . . If along the way he ruffles some feathers, so be it."

The mayor can often count on five council allies -- Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) -- for votes when pushing his agenda.

That small group of votes could fall apart under the weight of recent events. Catania emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the construction contracts at a hearing Friday.

Meanwhile, his eight regular foes are getting stronger and louder.

Many of the recent conflicts have involved council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation.

"It shouldn't be all about Adrian. It should be about the checks and balances that were set up," Thomas said.

Former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Fenty's immediate predecessor, was criticized for being aloof. At one time, he was at odds with the council but partnered with it to bring the city out from under a financial control board, to attract business to downtown and to bring baseball back to the District. He also endorsed then-council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) in her unsuccessful race for mayor against Fenty.

"You've got to manage your strengths as well as your weaknesses," Williams said.

"What I tried to do with the council is suffer the indignities. Don't take the criticism personally," said Williams, who said he supports Fenty and is confident the mayor and council will come together on important matters. "Did I all the time like the council members? I certainly wasn't lovey-dovey with them when I first started, but . . . I really took the council, no matter what the acrimony, as a coequal branch of government."

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