The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments yesterday blamed the federal government for impeding snow removal and subjecting area residents to hazardous conditions during last month's major storm by ordering 300,000 employes to report for work and then sending them home a few hours later.
Members of COG's board of directors unanimously adopted a resolution urging the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to work with local authorities to devise more sensible guidelines for releasing federal workers during storms or emergencies.
D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., who urged passage of the resolution, said that OPM's response to the Feb. 11 snowstorm directly contributed "to serious and prolonged incapacitation of area roadways and to the inability of area local governments to rapidly restore road and travel conditions to normal."
Robert L. Hubbell, vice mayor of Falls Church and a board member, said OPM officials seemed reluctant to assume responsibility for closing federal offices. "What came through on television was some bureaucrat who just didn't have the nerve," Hubbell said. "You had a decision maker who didn't dare make a decision."
Mark Tapscott, OPM's assistant director for public affairs, said yesterday his agency "certainly welcomes" comments from local officials and that "we'll take it the resolution seriously."
Tapscott said that OPM officials will review the way it makes such decisions "and any changes we're considering" in that process in testimony next week before a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee headed by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.). The subcommittee plans to hold two days of hearings on emergency preparedness in the region.
The federal government's decision last month to call in workers on a Friday, while the snowfall was heaviest, is regarded by many transportation officials as the single biggest blunder in coping with the storm. As a result, hundreds of cars were abandoned on the roads, which hampered plowing for days.
Turner, who is chairman of the council's advisory panel of police chiefs, recommended that OPM develop "a mechanical rule" for closing federal offices that takes into account accumulated snowfall, regional road conditions, consensus weather forecasts, and the potential for exposing workers to hazards.
Tapscott said yesterday that OPM officials already take many of those factors into account in deciding whether to order employes to come to work or to send them home in bad weather.
The council's board, made up of representatives of area governments, also voted yesterday to establish a task force, headed by D.C. City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), to study the problems of homeless people in the region.
Crawford said he was troubled by recent reports that suburban communities have systematically steered the homeless to shelters in the District of Columbia. He said about 200 families and individuals from neighboring communities were placed in D.C. shelters last year.
The suburbs provide money to house victims of fires, evictions and domestic violence, but spend few tax dollars to shelter persons who have been released from mental hospitals or prisons or who are hard-core street people who sleep on grates or in cars.
The new task force will consider the feasibility of opening a regional center to provide emergency shelter or to refer homeless people to facilities in their own communities.
"It's not fair for the District residents to have to share the entire cost," said Mayor Sammie A. Abbott of Takoma Park.