What should have been an uneventful, low-profile D.C. Council committee meeting this afternoon erupted into a tense debate over Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s hiring practices and how the council should respond to them.

Member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the Government Operations and Environment panel, presented colleagues with a draft report looking into allegations that Gray’s administration has hired employees at unusually high salaries, and that family members of top officials have gotten city jobs. The report found that while Gray has paid some agency heads and political appointees more than city law allows, Gray can ask the council for exceptions to the caps.

The report found that average salaries for employees in Gray’s executive office and in City Administrator Allen Y. Lew’s office “have increased by more than 10 percent from September 2010 to March 2011.” But the report said it is “difficult to conclude the actual cost” for those offices because Fenty’s office often “detailed” executive employees to other agencies’ budgets — raising the possibility that there is merely “more transparency” in identifying employees in those two offices.

Regarding the nepotism allegations, the report noted that “the circumstance of intra-familial hiring has occurred in previous administrations” — citing a Washington Post report that the wife of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s city administrator was hired in the Office of the Attorney General. It also noted that two of the questioned hires — the son of Gray Chief of Staff Gerri Mason Hall and the son of Communications Director Linda Wharton Boyd — have both resigned, and furthermore that there have been no “specific allegations that either official had exercised any influence during the hiring process” or that local and federal nepotism laws would apply at all.

The draft report recommended that Gray either reduce the illegal salaries or ask the council for exceptions; inform employees of nepotism rules; examine “internal pre-employment screening practices;” and, with the council, look at the current salary limits for agency heads. The report contains no call for further investigation.

Member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) questioned Cheh on whether further answers were required; she said that she planned to take up the matter in the course of already scheduled oversight hearings set for the coming weeks. At that point, David A. Catania (I-At Large) pressed Cheh for a separate hearing on the hiring allegations, and questioned why she was not delving more deeply.

“This is a whitewash,” he said, adding that the public impression of the Gray administration is that “you have to know someone in mayor’s office to get a job. .. It’s the friends and family club, the full employment act.”

Cheh, in turn, took offense to Catania’s “whitewash” characterization as “overly dramatic.”

Said Catania in reply, “You asked for my opinion.” He later criticized Cheh for making “no expressions of concern in the report, just explanations and excuses .”

Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) — who, like Cheh, supported Gray’s mayoral campaign — offered support for her handling of the report. But Wells agreed with Catania — both had been publicly neutral in the mayoral race — that the council had to “act more forcefully” to investigate the hiring. By the meeting’s end, Cheh said she was “inclined” to hold a separate hearing.

After hearing, Catania said he does not think Gray was personally involved in the hiring decisions but that he had “misplaced trust in a lot of people.”

“Every day another shoe drops,” he said, questioning why, if Hall’s son and Boyd’s son were qualified for their jobs, they would resign so suddenly after the hires were publicized.

Catania was asked if Hall should resign: “I think that would be a conversation that would be in my head if I were her,” he said. Cheh, asked the same question, said, “I think I’m going to be quiet on that for the moment.”

Cheh, afterward, said she was “flabbergasted” by Catania’s objections to her “earnest” report.

“I don’t know what he wants to be, but he’s trying to do it at my expense,” Cheh said. She questioned whether he was motivated by her pursuit of a potential council education committee, which Catania also sought..

“Maybe this is one manifestation of his pettiness and bitterness,” she said.