When it came time for the District's Board of Nursing to consider approving licenses for a new class of nurses early this year, one small problem turned up.
Every single seat on the 11-member board was vacant. The situation was an extreme case, but it illustrates a central challenge Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) faced upon arriving in office in January.
A key power granted to the District's mayor is to nominate members for about 150 city boards and commissions. There are about 2,000 people who serve on these boards, and Williams is about halfway through the process of filling between 400 and 500 vacancies, said Marie Drissel, a longtime District citizen activist whom Williams named to coordinate the process.
This appointment blitz offers Williams an opportunity to entirely reconstitute certain city boards--replacing in many cases friends and associates of former mayor Marion Barry (D), who himself has just left the D.C. Sports Commission. And in many cases, the boards Williams is filling up have a great deal more clout than the relatively low-profile Board of Nursing.
The University of the District of Columbia trustees, Board of Library Trustees, Redevelopment Land Agency, Contract Appeals Board, Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals are among the prominent governing bodies with a large number of vacancies that Williams has filled or is in the process of picking his nominees to fill.
At the powerful and often controversial Alcohol Beverage Control Board, for example, all seven seats were up for reappointment or new members. Williams already has appointed one new member, Vera M. Abbott, of Ward 8, nominated Ellen Oppen-Weiner, of Ward 6, to take a second vacant seat and reappointed Max E. Salas, of Ward 2. He also has nominated Roderic L. Woodson, of Ward 5, as the ABC's new chairman.
Woodson, senior counsel at Holland & Knight law firm and a resident of Upshur Street NE, would replace Vannie Taylor III as chairman of the board, which considers liquor license requests and citizen protests related to all city bars, liquor stores, restaurants and markets that sell alcohol.
Drissel said the mayor is looking for a diverse group of people to fill all the vacant seats.
"The is a very multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial city, and he wants these boards to represent that," said Drissel, who previously has worked for the federal government and private sector as a housing and banking specialist.
But mayors in many cities often use these kinds of appointments to reward supporters who helped them get elected. Williams appears to be no exception. Lawyer John L. Richardson, of Ward 3, whom Williams nominated to serve on the D.C. Sports Commission, contributed, along with his wife, $4,000 to the mayor's election campaign. Developer Gregory W. Fazakerley, of Ward 3, nominated to the Washington Convention Center Authority, also contributed along with his wife $4,000 to the mayor's election effort.
Several of these newly reconstituted boards immediately will start out with a full agenda.
Williams has nominated a new chairman and two new members to the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals, which must soon take up the thousands of protests filed by property owners who think their homes or properties were reassessed improperly this year.
Norma J. Martin, of Ward 4, a real estate appraiser with 15 years of experience, would take over as chairman. Martin would be the first woman to oversee this board. The new members the mayor nominated are former city real estate assessor George S. Toll Jr., of Ward 2, and private practice lawyer John Owen Behrens, of Ward 7.
The Redevelopment Land Agency--which soon will pick the winner of the much-contested bid for the right to build a new commercial center in Columbia Heights--is slated to get three new members: developer Richard H. Levy, of Ward 2, Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco executive Lawrence H. Parks, of Ward 1, and interim City Administrator Norman Dong, of Ward 3. Levy donated $2,000 to the Williams campaign, according to financial disclosure records.
Williams also has appointed former D.C. auditor and private practice lawyer Matthew S. Watson, of Ward 3, to the powerful five-member Contract Appeals Board, which hears protests from firms bidding on city contracts, meaning it can determine how quickly or slowly the District procures essential goods and services.
The other key nominations Williams has made include Sandra Seegars, a retired D.C. and federal employee and longtime community activist from Ward 8, as a member of the D.C. Taxicab Commission.
Besides Fazakerley, Williams also nominated lawyer Vincent H. Cohen, of Ward 4, for the convention center authority, which is overseeing the construction of the massive new convention center near Mount Vernon Square. And he nominated Robert N. Sockwell, of Ward 2, an associate at a District architecture and planning firm, as a member of the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Many of these appointments still need to be confirmed by the D.C. Council. In at least a few cases, such as Williams's proposal to reappoint Allen Beach, of Ward 3, to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, council members have already indicated they do not support Williams's choice. But these cases appear to be the exception.
The real challenge is for Williams to find all the qualified candidates he needs, and find them fast enough so that the business of the various boards and commissions does not come to a halt. Pressure is added because the council is scheduled to go on recess July 15, likely through the middle of September.
The Board of Library Trustees and UDC are particularly desperate for new members right now, yet Drissel said Williams is still busy evaluating possible candidates. He also needs to find members for a recently created Civilian Complaint Review Board that will monitor allegations of misconduct by the police department.
"It has been very stressful," said Drissel, who says she has been working seven days a week to search for qualified candidates. "I wish I had two more months before the council goes into its summer recess. I desperately need more time."
A Salute to Hilda
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and hordes of other elected officials, community activists, friends and family gathered at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill on Monday to honor the "Grandmother of the World," Hilda H.M. Mason, for devoting decades of her life to public service.
The dinner celebrated Mason's 83rd birthday and referred to her and her husband, Charlie, 88, as "Washington's Legends of Leadership, Love and Loyalty." Mason was the longest-serving elected official in the city's history until she was ousted last year from her office as an at-large council member.
"I thought it was wonderful," Hilda Mason said. "There were so many people with whom I had worked and known for years. I was very happy that they were able to do it this way."
Bernard Demczuk, an assistant vice president at George Washington University and member of the dinner committee, said everyone agreed the timing was right to pay homage to two well-deserving people in the community.
"It was fabulous," he said. "It was a tribute to her and Charlie for their years of service. Both of them are well up in age, and she's out of the council. The unspoken word is: 'Before they leave this Earth, let's give them a wonderful tribute while they can still enjoy it.' "
Hilda Mason was presented with a portrait of her longtime friend and co-founder of the Statehood Party, Julius Hobson. Mason replaced Hobson on the D.C. Board of Education when he moved to the D.C. Council and won a special election in 1977 to take over his council seat after he died.
In the program, the Masons were called "exemplary prophets and urban saints." They also were saluted for protecting neighborhoods, supporting education, fighting for equal rights and full employment, and advocating statehood for the District.
Hilda Mason said that she may be retired from the council but that she still is active in the community. She was recently appointed to the board of the Statehood Party.
She was most pleased that "they talked a lot about how Hilda Mason loved everybody."
Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.