Fenty response to snowstorms chills ties with city worker unions

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010; B04

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's response to the snowstorm over the weekend is worsening his already tense relationship with city government workers and the unions that represent them, setting up a feud that will probably continue to play out through Election Day.

On Monday and Tuesday, as the federal government and many local suburban governments remained shuttered and the region tried to dig out from under two feet of snow, Fenty kept the city government open.

Although employees were allowed to report to work an hour late on Monday, there was no liberal leave pronouncement that would have made it easier for snowbound employees to use a vacation day.

"As city employees, we must have our voices heard concerning his blatant disregard for our health and well-being," Lakisha Byrd, an employee at the Department of Human Services, wrote in a mass e-mail to her colleagues Monday. "Trekking through over two feet of snow on dangerous icy streets to get to limited Metro services is dangerous for all of us."

Fenty, who was elected on a platform of making government work better for residents, has defended his decision, noting that it stopped snowing Saturday evening and that many of the city's snow-emergency routes were passable by Monday. He said that the roads were "normal enough" on Monday and Tuesday and that it was important to have workers "come in and provide services to the people of D.C."

But when the city was hit this week with a second storm, Fenty ordered city government closed on Wednesday and Thursday because of whiteout conditions and the ensuing cleanup. Fenty said his decisions "struck the right balance between keeping government running and not jeopardizing the safety of employees."

For city union leaders, however, Fenty's call to open the government Monday was a knockout blow to a relationship that soured shortly after he took office in 2006.

Regardless of how clear the roads were earlier in the week, they say, Fenty was disrespectful to nonessential city employees by not giving them more time to dig out. "It shows what type of leadership he has," said George T. Johnson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 20, which represents 8,000 D.C. workers. "He is not just anti-union, he is anti-employee."

Fenty and union leaders, many of whom supported former D.C. council chairman Linda W. Cropp in the 2006 Democratic primary for mayor, have battled for months over the mayor's efforts to reduce the size of government and improve its effectiveness.

In January 2008, Fenty fired six employees of the Child and Family Services Agency after four children under the department's supervision were killed by their mother. At the request of union leaders, three of the workers were reinstated by an arbitrator.

In September, AFSCME sued the city, alleging Fenty was illegally trying to privatize day-care services within the Department of Parks and Recreation. A judge sided with the Fenty administration. More recently, the administration has fought the teachers union over Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's dismissal of more than 250 teachers. Last month, Rhee enraged teachers union officials when an article appeared in a national publication in which she said that some of the dismissed teachers had hit or had sex with students. The union officials say Rhee's claims were not true.

With Fenty up for reelection this year, union leaders are at the forefront of efforts to recruit someone to run against him in the Democratic primary for mayor.

Several D.C. Council members, some who are aligned with union leaders upset by some of Fenty's policies, say they were alarmed by his decision to keep the government open Monday. "People want to know there is some compassion for their situation," said Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who is considering a run for mayor.

The flap offers a window into how Fenty has handled one of the biggest emergencies in the District since he took office.

A week ago Friday, as the first flakes began to fall, Fenty told the media he expected that city crews would have most major roads cleared enough by Monday morning to allow people to travel to work. Fenty maintained that optimistic outlook on Saturday, even though the snow continued to fall heavily. By Sunday, as crews were hampered by frigid temperatures and snow-clogged streets, the federal government and many area local governments and employers were announcing they would be closed Monday.

But Fenty appeared intent on keeping city services functioning.

About 6 p.m. Sunday, school officials announced a two-hour delay in the start of school Monday. Parents complained, and a few hours later the city reversed its decision.

Some council members say Fenty appeared blinded by the realities of the storm. "His ego gets in the way," said council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Barry, who was mayor from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999, said the city and federal governments should coordinate their plans when deciding to give employees the day off because of inclement weather.

"I can't think of a time [when I was mayor] when the federal government was closed and the District government was open," said Barry, noting that a large percentage of city workers live in suburban communities. "This was an idiotic decision."

Eric Bunn, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2725, agreed.

"We understand the essential core needs of the city, but those employees were being picked and were coming in," Bunn said. "For those nonessential employees, if the Metro is not running, the buses are not running, the streets are not plowed, why are they being required to come in?"

Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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