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Facing D.C. council opposition, Bowser defends nominee to head 911 call center

The Office of Unified Communications building in Southeast Washington. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and top public safety officials on Friday offered a public show of support for Karima Holmes — her choice to lead the District’s oft-scrutinized 911 call center — defending her nomination while pushing back on city council members who say they have enough support to block it.

The D.C. Council is slated to vote Tuesday on whether Holmes should permanently lead the agency known as the Office of Unified Communications (OUC), a role she’s held on an acting basis since March. At council hearings in recent months, some lawmakers and residents have taken Holmes to task over long-reported issues at the agency, including some widely publicized instances of inaccurate and delayed dispatches.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the legislature’s public safety committee and has been among the agency’s most vocal critics, told reporters Thursday that he would file a resolution to disapprove the nomination, and that the council appears poised to go along with him.

“From addressing the auditor’s findings to the feedback we’ve heard from the public — I think we’ve got to have leadership at OUC from a different direction,” Allen said.

The potential vote against Holmes drew a rebuke from Bowser, who held a news conference Friday with Holmes, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and Fire & EMS Chief John A. Donnelly Sr. to outline the city’s plan to keep commercial corridors safe during the holiday season. But Bowser eventually pivoted to discussing investments she has made in OUC in recent years before praising the office’s “outstanding leadership.”

Holmes led the 911 center from 2015 to 2021 before she returned as its acting director in March; Bowser acknowledged that Holmes had been confirmed by the council once before but criticized lawmakers for not granting her a confirmation hearing ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

“We are very troubled that the council has not given my nominee a hearing, and that the council has indicated to reporters that they will try to block her nomination,” Bowser said. “This process isn’t right. The treatment of Karima Holmes is not right. I nominated Karima in the spring. What’s wrong with the normal process of giving this woman a hearing?” (Bowser did not formally nominate Holmes until September.)

Audit finds minimal progress made in improving D.C.'s 911 system

Contee and Donnelly similarly backed Holmes while responding to questions from reporters Friday.

“Anytime we’re starting a conversation with not giving a mayoral nominee a fair shot to go before council to defend whatever accusations have been made, I think that’s a nonstarter and that’s not fair and that’s not transparent,” Contee said.

But in a statement Friday, Allen said that there is no requirement for the council to hold a public hearing on a nomination — and that the council recently held an oversight roundtable with Holmes to discuss concerns at OUC and the agency’s performance, including “multiple incidents where errors led to delays in emergency services arriving on scene and, tragically, loss of life.”

“This is also Acting Director Holmes’ second stint with OUC, and Councilmembers and the public are familiar with her leadership,” Allen said. “It is clear the Council is focused on agency operations improving and supports a different direction for OUC leadership.”

In an appearance Friday afternoon on “The Politics Hour” with Kojo Nnamdi, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) said he would also vote against Holmes’ nomination.

“The mayor has known for months there is significant opposition in the council,” Mendelson said. “I think she should pull back the nomination and work with Council member Allen to come up with a new director.”

Tomás Talamante, a spokesperson for Bowser, said Friday afternoon that the mayor had no additional comment.

Holmes on Friday defended herself against the criticism about her leadership, noting that 99 percent of emergency calls made to the 911 center are handled appropriately. At recent hearings and in conversations with reporters, she’s pledged that the agency has worked toward addressing issues highlighted in a recent report from D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson.

She indicated the agency’s mistakes have received outsize attention when the agency fields 1.4 million emergency calls per year.

“I have answered every question, I have every document, I have investigated every call — we’re very transparent, all of that is on our website. I have the backing of our industry and public safety partners,” she said at the news conference, asserting that other 911 call center directors in the country have reached out to her for guidance. “I know what I’m doing and I have the credentials … It’s absolutely embarrassing in my own hometown that it’s not seen correctly.”