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D.C. Mayor Fenty comes under fire

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty had just wrapped up a morning news conference on federal stimulus dollars going to a local internship program.

As usual for the mayor's multitude of announcements and appearances, a handful of reporters lingered to ask about subjects not on the agenda.

On Monday, it was bicycling. Mr. Fenty, a well-known triathlete, was confronted by a reporter from a local news radio station about video showing Mr. Fenty and his bicycling team running stops signs and red lights and slowing traffic along D.C. area roads with a motorcycle police officer in tow.

Mr. Fenty answered the inquiries with comments about exercise and road safety.

"Do I strike that balance each and every time I ride my bicycle? No," Mr. Fenty said. "Should I do a better job? Yes. Will I? I will work as hard as humanly possible."

He referred questions about the use of a motorcycle escort to the Metropolitan Police Department.

WTOP Radio investigative reporter Mark Segraves broke the story later Monday. It was immediately held up by a D.C. Council member and the police union chairman as an example of the mayor abusing the power of his office.

The story was just the latest to strike the theme.

The 38-year-old mayor won all 143 precincts in the city's Democratic primary three years ago after a populist campaign largely based on a record of fulfilling constituent service requests as a council member.

But since spring he increasingly has come under fire for what some describe as a heavy-handed, authoritarian style of governing.

Now, despite gains in test scores among D.C. students, a dramatic decrease in crime and relative financial stability in a down economy, the mayor's leadership style and some questionable choices about how he has used the privileges of his office could endanger a re-election campaign that a year ago seemed virtually certain.

And potential opponents who seemed like long shots now are emerging as contenders.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, widely credited with closing a two-year $666 million budget shortfall in July, has become increasingly vocal about the mayor's performance.

"I think clearly he portrayed himself as a populist, a man of the people. Based on what I'm hearing from people, they're hugely disappointed in what they've seen and what they thought they were going to get," Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Gray, 68, has emerged as a viable option in next year's mayoral election, though he continues only to say he is considering a run.

But dissatisfaction with Mr. Fenty is not confined to his political rivals.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson — a three-term council member often described as a "wonkish" but effective council member not inclined to seek the limelight — emerged as Mr. Fenty's earliest and most persistent critic on the council.

"The government is caught in this enormous turmoil. The government has descended into infighting," Mr. Mendelson said. "I don't think people see the enormity of the noncooperation."

He says a contentious relationship with the mayor's office began in 2007, when he cast one of two votes against Mr. Fenty's ambitious plan to seize control of the long-troubled D.C. public school system.

"I was frozen out early," Mr. Mendelson said. "When they realized I wasn't going to do what I was told to do, I was frozen out."

Mr. Mendelson said the distrust that began with his schools vote has led the mayor's office to withhold government witnesses from testifying at hearings of his council committee, the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

Mr. Fenty declined a sit-down interview for this story. Asked about the charges that council members and others have made, he remained matter-of-fact, sticking to short answers and referring technical or legal questions to members of his administration.

When asked about the legitimacy of his critics' claims, he answered simply: "You'll have to ask my critics."

During another exchange, when asked whether a series of contentious episodes involving his administration and the D.C. Council would negatively impact public opinion of him, he said only, "I don't know."

The recent story about Mr. Fenty's bicycling habits follows a series of episodes that raised questions about the mayor's judgment.

• Questions that began in February when Mr. Fenty returned from an unannounced trip to Dubai paid for by the government of the United Arab Emirates continued into the spring after Mr. Fenty announced he would no longer discuss his travel.

• In April, the mayor became involved in a protracted dispute with the council over Washington Nationals baseball tickets that Mr. Fenty was expected to distribute to council members. The mayor released the tickets a month after receiving them from the team.

• In May, Mr. Fenty apologized after letting his friend and local businessman Keith Lomax drive his city-issued SUV. Only D.C. employees are allowed to drive government vehicles.

• In August, the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, of which Mr. Fenty is a member, reimbursed the District $37,000 for a welcome reception at the Historical Society of Washington after D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles ruled it was improper for the city to pay for the party.

• Also that month, Mr. Fenty was involved in a fender bender in Northwest while driving his sport utility vehicle. A report taken by an officer in Mr. Fenty's security detail was incomplete and contradicted information given by a spokesperson for the mayor.

"He's picking these fights," D.C. activist Gary Imhoff said. "He's setting them up to happen." Mr. Imhoff has run the watchdog Web site DCWatch.com since 1995 with his wife, Dorothy Brizill.

In June 2007, Ms. Brizill, a longtime activist and journalist with a reputation for aggressive questioning on government accountability, was arrested at city hall and taken to jail in handcuffs after a confrontation with a staffer in the office of Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso.

Mr. Imhoff said the council has let Mr. Fenty have unchecked power for too long and has now "awakened to the fact that if you have unchecked power, someone will try to use it badly."

Kristopher Baumann, who heads the union labor committee that represents city police officers, said he has been surprised at "how thin-skinned" the administration has been.

Officer Baumann has been one of Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's most vocal critics. Police officials stripped the union head of his police powers in July, claiming he had missed mandatory training. Officer Baumann, who claimed he was being retaliated against, had those powers restored a few days later.

The union official also has been critical of Mr. Nickles, claiming the attorney general stalls Freedom of Information Act requests made by individuals or organizations that criticize the mayor.

"They personalize any criticism anyone makes of them," Officer Baumann said. "I think the general public is starting to see how bad things are."

Mr. Nickles, 71, a longtime litigator and Fenty family friend, joined the administration as the mayor's general counsel from the high-powered law firm of Covington & Burling LLP.

He was appointed attorney general in December 2007, after the District's independent attorney general, Linda Singer, quit amid complaints that Mr. Nickles was encroaching on her job responsibilities.

Mr. Nickles remains among the most controversial figures in the administration. Often blamed by council members for obstructing their access to information and executive branch witnesses, Mr. Nickles has also aggressively sued neglectful landlords on behalf of low-income tenants and took up the cause of local black churches who were scammed out of thousands of dollars each.

City agency spokesmen and even the mayor's communications staff routinely refer calls on any topic to the attorney general's office.

The results are awkward at times.

In October, the attorney general stood at a podium and explained how linseed oil-soaked rags were the possible source of a devastating fire at the Northwest mansion of former school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. The mayor and the city's fire chief looked on.

But Mr. Nickles remains Mr. Fenty's staunchest defender.

Asked during an interview with The Washington Times this summer whether Mr. Fenty had changed since he became mayor, Mr. Nickles said: "I think he's the same person."

"I think he's more frustrated. I think he's a young guy who wants to do things quickly. And whether it's an economic development area or it's schools there's a lot of micromanaging by the council. There are a lot of requests. 'We need more documents.' 'We need more hearings.' I don't think there's any arrogance."

Mr. Nickles is correct in saying the council has been embroiled in hearings involving the Fenty administration.

Most recently, hearings were held around an unusual arrangement in which the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to transfer $172 million to the D.C. Housing Authority via the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. The housing authority, through its nonprofit subsidiary, the D.C. Housing Enterprise, executed a $40 million contract for project management services from District-based Banneker Ventures and Regan Associates in Herndon.

Council members in October said the process, which the Fenty administration explained was used to expedite parks and recreation projects, was illegal because it bypassed the council. D.C. law requires contracts over $1 million to be approved by the council.

Some council members questioned the propriety of Banneker Ventures, owned by Mr. Fenty's friend and fraternity brother Omar Karim, bidding on and winning the contract while the company was consulting for the housing authority.

Regarding the parks and recreation contracts, Mr. Fenty told The Times that it was proper for the contract to go to the housing authority but "not proper" for the contract to bypass the council's oversight. He did not elaborate.

Those hearings occurred the same month that Mr. Gray went head to head with the District's schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, on her decision to lay off roughly 380 school employees to close a budget gap, contrary to the council's decision to save the money by cutting summer school funding.

Mr. Gray publicly accused Ms. Rhee, the 39-year-old former head of an education nonprofit and Mr. Fenty's handpicked choice to implement his school reforms, of breaking the law.

However, the council is far from unified on its concerns about the administration.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, was quick to say that while he knows some of his colleagues have had issues with the mayor, he has a good relationship with the administration.

Mr. Evans, chairman of the council's powerful Committee on Finance and Revenue and now in his fourth full term as a council member, said accusations of poor communication should be heard with caution because communication between some of the members themselves is bad as well.

"This is not a council versus mayor," Mr. Evans said. "This is a some members of the council and the mayor and members of the council among themselves. It's very simplistic to set this off as council versus mayor, and that is not accurate."

Other council members privately characterized Mr. Fenty's governing style as "very direct" and acknowledged it may cost him in the realm of public opinion.

If they can agree on nothing else, Mr. Fenty's critics and supporters say he and members of his administration could communicate better.

Former D.C. Council member and developer H.R. Crawford said he thinks Mr. Fenty has largely done a good job but that the mayor and the council can be more communicative.

"Don't get me wrong; the city's still on a roll," said Mr. Crawford, a Fenty supporter. "I would hope that communication between the council and the Fenty administration would be better. There could be a bit more cooperation."

Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks some of the criticism could be avoided by creating more opportunities to include stakeholders in the decision-making process.

The D.C. Chamber's political action committee, a separate entity from the chamber, donated the maximum $2,000 to Mr. Fenty's mayoral campaign in 2006.

Ms. Lang said the Fenty administration is closing itself to resources that could be of assistance to it.

"I think there's less inclusiveness now than it was very early on in the administration and certainly during the campaign," she said.

Mr. Fenty, who has recently begun campaigning for re-election after raising about $2.7 million in preparation for the effort, said he intends to approach his campaign the same as he has in past years — by pounding the pavement with a simple message: Vote for Fenty.

A recent survey shows he's vulnerable. A SurveyUSA poll conducted in September for WJLA-TV (Channel 7) shows 51 percent of 500 D.C. residents polled disapprove of the job the mayor is doing. The split among black and white voters is pronounced. Among blacks, 69 percent disapprove of Mr. Fenty while just 24 percent of white voters disapprove.

No candidates have emerged to challenge Mr. Fenty, though Mr. Gray would likely pose a formidable challenge. Council members Kwame R. Brown and Michael A. Brown also appear to be considering a run. Billionaire developer and Washington native R. Donahue Peebles is also said to be eyeing a run, based almost exclusively on his dissatisfaction with Mr. Fenty's performance.

Mr. Fenty said he would run the same campaign regardless of who his challenger may be.

"We will take everyone seriously who enters the race, take nothing for granted, and campaign as hard as humanly possible," Mr. Fenty said. "My campaign philosophy is I will prepare for everyone to run. That's how I ran all four of my major campaigns."