D.C. Council members accused Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Monday of slipping an attempted power grab into a proposed budget, possibly creating at least a perception that top city jobs in law and science could be subject to political influence.
In a $12.9 billion budget that Bowser (D) has touted as bringing new focus — and badly needed resources — to public schools, affordable housing and solving the city’s homeless crisis, the language that drew the most attention at a budget briefing Monday shifted the conversation to a decidedly more confrontational tone.
Bowser has proposed making the heads of five D.C. agencies designed to have a measure of independence report to her and be subject to dismissal at will. The positions include the city’s chief administrative law judge, chief medical examiner, director of the department of forensic sciences, state superintendent of education and head of the agency that solicits bids for all major city contracts.
At stake for residents and taxpayers, council members said, is the ability of agencies to do their jobs and provide high-demand services across the city without political interference.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) took the lead in questioning the mayor at the hearing. Cheh charged that, at best, agency independence in critical institutions would be undermined. At worst, she said, city bureaucrats could lose their jobs for making decisions that run afoul of the politics of the chief executive.
The language was included in a budget bill that also would expand the authority of the mayor’s lawyers to review city contracts and regulations. That power would come at the expense of Karl A. Racine, the city’s first elected attorney general, who said he ran for the job in part to have that check-and-balance on the city’s executive branch.
Consolidating power has been a theme in Bowser’s first 100 days in office — heightening concerns among some council members and suggesting that the mayor could face growing legislative opposition to her agenda as her term progresses.
One of her other big moves was to disrupt Metro’s search for a new general manager, working to insert what she has cast as a turnaround expert to fix the agency’s troubled finances.
On the agency positions, Cheh and others said it would go too far.
“Even if everyone was as pure as the driven snow, sometimes the appearance of political influence is itself corrosive,” Cheh said. “For example, the chief administrative law judge — no one should think the judge could be yanked for an opinion here or there.”
Bowser shot back, saying that was not her intent. Instead, she argued, expanding her authority would be the only way for the council and public to hold her accountable for delivering on the promises that she made.
“Why shouldn’t the mayor who is going to be held accountable by this council be able to have a contracting and procurement director that she has confidence in?” Bowser asked. “I want to have an administration where I can look you in the face and say that we did the best that we could.”
At another point, under questioning from council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Bowser said she could find no reason that the posts should be treated any differently from the District’s police chief, fire chief or schools chancellor who all serve at under the mayor.
“They’re not different, they work for the mayor — I got elected by a lot of people who trust my judgment, and I should be able to appoint my chief directors, and they should serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” Bowser said.
She acknowledged Monday that she sought to replace the city’s director of contracting and procurement when she took office.
That explained, in more detail than before, the sudden departure of James D. Staton Jr., who left abruptly two weeks after Bowser took office in January. Staton’s five-year term was not set to expire until next year. Documents since released by the administration suggest that he was paid a buyout package of approximately $40,000.
Bowser told the council Monday that the “previous director” did not have her confidence when she took office. She pointed to contracts that were filed late or with requests for retroactive payment during her time as a council member. Staton was hired in 2011 by then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). She is currently in the position of defending a controversial jail health-care contract begun under Staton.
If successful in gaining more authority over the agency, Bowser would succeed where her mentor, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty, failed during a revamp of the contracting office at the end of his term. At the time, the D.C. Council rebuffed Fenty’s request to control the position.
Concerns about Bowser’s expanding authority capped four hours of testimony before the council during which Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that Bowser had also not demonstrated a need to increase the sales tax 0.25 percent — another hallmark of her pending plan. By drawing down last year’s surpluses and increasing borrowing, Mendelson said, Bowser would put the city on a less-than-prudent fiscal path.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he worried that Bowser did not have safeguards in place to fullfil her goal of spending $100 million annually on affordable housing projects without a greater risk of corruption. Bowser said for the first time that she expected the $100 million annual allotment to create about 1,000 units.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the judiciary committee, questioned an exemption in the Bowser budget provision to spend $6 million on body cameras for all patrol officers. Bowser’s budget would clear the District’s police department of having to disclose the video created by officers’ cameras under public records requests.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), McDuffie and Alexander also questioned Bowser’s capital budget plan, which pushed back school construction in their wards toward the end of the decade.
Bowser repeatedly said a theme of her budget was to be honest about what the city could afford.
“We kicked the can down the road and said, ‘Some other schmuck is going to have to figure out how to add that $30 million dollars that Murch needs,’ ” she said at one point, referring to a Northwest Washington elementary school renovation that her budget would fully fund over the next two years.
“What we have tried to do is to be honest about this budget and not say to you that I can do a billion dollars of school construction projects in 2016. I can’t.”