D.C. mayor, opponent at odds over fence issue

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

The black aluminum fence at the busy intersection of Branch Avenue and Erie Street in Southeast Washington stands just over five feet tall at its highest point. But the square posts and pointed finials have taken on outsized importance in the District's Democratic primary contest for mayor.

The owner, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, put up the fence two years ago without a permit. The man who oversees the committee that will decide this week whether the fence stays or goes is his chief rival, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

How the fence became part of the public debate in the mayoral campaign involves the District's current and former attorneys general, the mayor's self-appointed lieutenant, two city agencies, the Office of Campaign Finance -- and a measuring tape.

To Gray, the five-month ordeal illustrates petty politics and a slow-moving city bureaucracy he says he wants to change. Gray, who hired the city's former top lawyer, Robert J. Spagnoletti, in the case, blames the mayor's allies for tipping off the media to his home improvements and wonders whether he has gotten the runaround from government agencies.

"I'd like to think it's not deliberate, but it's hard not to think that," Gray said of how his case has been handled. "It's not very efficient, and as mayor I'm going to take care of it."

To Fenty loyalists, the fence represents a troubling example of his rival not playing by the rules and of cronyism. Attorney General Peter Nickles is keeping close tabs on the fence, trying to ensure, he said, that the chairman's case is handled like that of any other resident.

"It's awfully easy to minimize this matter by saying, 'This is just a fence permit,' " Nickles said. "What's important in terms of public confidence is that public officials are treated the same as ordinary citizens."

The fate of Gray's $12,600 fence is technically in Fenty's hands. District rules allow fences taller than 3 1/2 feet on the public right of way only "when specifically approved by the mayor" in the form of the Public Space Committee. The five-member panel, composed primarily of agency officials, is scheduled to discuss Gray's fence Thursday.

History of dispute

In spring 2008, Gray decided to take on a landscaping project for his corner lot in the Hillcrest neighborhood. His contractor, Pete Schultz of Eastern Grounds Maintenance, suggested that Gray's rusted chain-link fence would detract from plans for lush sod and Chinese maples. Gray agreed, selected a fence and turned the project over to Schultz, who Gray said he assumed would obtain the required permits.

In November, the Washington Times began running articles that raised questions about Gray's relationship with real estate developer W. Christopher Smith Jr., whose company, WCS Construction, Gray had hired to explore a separate home-renovation project and to oversee work last summer that included the installation of an electrical outlet and floodlights.

The relationship caught the attention of the Office of Campaign Finance, which investigated whether Gray had used his position as council chairman for financial gain by working with Smith, who has partnered with the city on public-private projects voted on by the council.

The investigation found "no evidence to suggest" that Gray's "official actions, judgment or vote would be influenced by WCS in exchange for work performed at his home" because Gray had paid market rate, if not more. Gray received an invoice from Smith's company Oct. 30 and paid the $10,000 bill Nov. 15, three days before the Times article appeared.

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