D.C. gives more than $500,000 in bonuses despite legal limit

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some D.C. Council members are questioning the legality -- and appropriateness -- of more than $500,000 in bonuses the Fenty administration awarded to some city employees after a law curbing the practice in the cash-strapped city took effect in October.

Attorney General Peter Nickles said Monday that $561,000 was paid to employees in eight departments with a major chunk -- $433,000 -- going to lawyers in his office under a fiscal 2009 collective bargaining agreement. "That was, by far, the largest amount," he said.

The lawyers were not paid until October, when the new fiscal year had begun, and Nickles said the lawyers agreed to forgo bonuses and cost-of-living increases in fiscal 2010 in lieu of layoffs under a new contract.

The continued payments were first reported by the Examiner newspaper in an article Monday showing that more than 5,700 employees have received nearly $15 million in bonuses since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took office in 2007.

The bonuses revived debate among council members, some of whom question the wisdom of handing out bonuses when the city is facing a million-dollar budget shortfall and whether the administration ignored the law.

Bonuses have always been a perk for some city government employees, particularly when the District was flush with cash. But in September 2008, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer signaled a significant turn in the city's finances.

Council members decided to curb bonuses.

Although the law allows bonuses that were included in previous contract agreements, Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment that oversees matters pertaining to city employees, said she is sending a letter to the administration and expects a detailed response.

"We voted, beginning Oct. 1, not to give bonuses. I want them to explain," she said. "I want an explanation. It flies in the face of what we voted on."

The law came after the council members' self-imposed ban this year on bonuses to their staffs when the city was struggling to fill a $666 million budget gap that stretched over three years.

"Given the fiscal climate, people losing their jobs, it just wasn't prudent," said Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "The larger aspect of this is, we're asking people to bite the bullet. How does it make people feel when they've lost their jobs and their colleagues are getting bonuses?"

Some of the high-profile bonuses cited by the Examiner included $41,250 to schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in 2007; $15,000 to Pierre Vigilance, director of the Department of Health in 2008; and $18,000 to Robin-Eve Jasper, director of the Office of Property Management, in 2008-2009.

Those were signing bonuses that Nickles said will end with future hires as the city deals with its budget crunch.

Council members have had differing opinions on the bonuses.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, said the council made a "wise decision" in instituting the law.

But he is a fan of bonuses. "I believe in rewarding my staff," he said. "If the money is available, they really are important for employee morale."

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