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Gray taps Ellerbe as D.C. fire chief
Appointee took unpaid leave in ‘09
Question of the Day
A former deputy chief who left the city under unusual circumstances was named to lead the District's fire department on Thursday, the same day Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray announced he would retain Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
Mr. Gray announced the appointments at an afternoon news conference in which he introduced his public-safety team. The appointment of Chief Lanier, who is among the most popular public officials in Washington, was widely expected.
But the appointment of Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to lead the 2,000-member D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department raised questions. Chief Ellerbe, a 27-year veteran of the D.C. fire department, briefly served as the city's interim fire chief in 2000. He last served as the department's director of community outreach before leaving in August 2009 to lead the fire department in Sarasota, Fla.
The Washington Times reported in December 2009 that when Chief Ellerbe left the city to take the Sarasota job, instead of resigning from the department, he departed under an unusual personnel exchange agreement that placed him on leave-without-pay status.
Fire department spokesman Pete Piringer told The Times last year that the arrangement was made to keep Chief Ellerbe in the department until he turned 50 in April this year so he could collect his pension immediately upon his retirement instead of deferring his benefits until age 55 as he would have to do if he simply resigned.
Staying on the District's books would have allowed Chief Ellerbe, whose salary was $149,892, to collect up to 80 percent of his final pay, or almost $600,000 over the five years until he turned 55.
The Times obtained a copy of the personnel exchange agreement, which notes that the period of the exchange was to run through April 10, 2010 - Chief Ellerbe's 50th birthday. Officials in the District and Sarasota signed off on the arrangement in July 2009.
But after reports in The Times, D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin sent a letter to Chief Ellerbe in December 2009 that revoked the personnel exchange program that had allowed him to serve with both departments at once. Chief Rubin ordered Chief Ellerbe to return to the District. Chief Ellerbe resigned from the D.C. fire department in January.
Asked about the arrangement, Mr. Gray said he expected it to be reviewed by the D.C. Council during Chief Ellerbe's confirmation hearings.
"I think he operated with integrity," Mr. Gray said.
Chief Ellerbe said at Thursday's news conference that the arrangement enabled him to acquire experience to broaden his skills.
"The personnel exchange agreement gave me the opportunity to be a fire chief, which is something I wouldn't have been able to do here. We already had a fire chief. And to acquire experience, personnel exchange agreements are initiated to give an employee an opportunity to broaden their skills."
Asked whether he took the job in Sarasota with the intention of returning to the District, Chief Ellerbe said: "That was an option."
Chief Ellerbe seemed to dismiss the notion that the term of the personnel exchange agreement was slated to end on his 50th birthday, as the paperwork obtained by The Times indicated.
"I don't know if it was a coincidence or not, but the personnel exchange agreement was rescinded. I resigned," he said.
WTOP Radio (FM 103.5) reported that Chief Ellerbe, while living in Sarasota since August 2009, was still getting a homestead exemption - a property tax break for residents - on a home he owns in the District.
Asked about the exemption and why he had not notified the city's Office of Tax and Revenue that the D.C. address was no longer his principal address, Chief Ellerbe said he did not know that his accountant had not done it and he would rectify the situation.
If confirmed, Chief Ellerbe will inherit a fire department rife with internal turmoil and struggling to fulfill its mission to provide emergency medical services. The department has been plagued by overspending, accusations of inconsistent discipline and racial inequality.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Justice, which oversees the police and fire departments, said he was "pleased" with Mr. Gray's public-safety picks.
He said he expected that Chief Ellerbe's departure arrangement had been examined by the mayor-elect's staff and that the retirement arrangement and his tax status would come up during D.C. Council confirmation hearings.
Mr. Mendelson indicated that he had little concern about those issues.
"I'm interested in a good chief who understands fire suppression, is committed to improving EMS and is going to bring some much-needed management to that department in terms of overtime, discipline, race relations - and that's what we're getting," Mr. Mendelson said.
Introducing Chief Lanier, Mr. Gray noted first that she had scored an 80 percent approval rating in a recent public poll. He went on to compliment the chief on "the great progress in reducing crime and violence that she and the police force have achieved."
Under Chief Lanier, homicides in the city once widely derided as the "murder capital" of the U.S. have dropped to the lowest levels in decades.
Standing at the podium, Mr. Gray declined to discuss whether he had considered other candidates for police chief.
"The person who's being appointed is the person behind me," he said.
The pick drew the ire of Kristopher Baumann, head of the labor committee that represents Metropolitan Police officers.
"We're disappointed," Mr. Baumann said, calling the decision to retain Chief Lanier "political." Mr. Baumann, who has been a persistent critic of the chief's, and the union were early and vocal supporters of Mr. Gray.
Mr. Baumann said that in their discussions during the mayoral campaign, Mr. Gray never committed to replacing the chief, but he said the candidate had told him he would listen to the union's concerns and weigh them.
Mr. Baumann said he doesn't feel that happened.
"This is the first thing we see out of the new mayor," he said, chagrined.
Mr. Gray also named Irvin B. Nathan to replace controversial Attorney General Peter J. Nickles.
A senior partner who ran the white-collar-crime department at Arnold & Porter from 1994 to 2007, Mr. Nathan comes from Capitol Hill, where, since leaving private practice, he has served as general counsel to the U.S. House. He also has worked in the Justice Department.
The incoming attorney general said he met the mayor-elect for the first time "about two weeks ago" and that he has yet to meet his predecessor, Mr. Nickles.
"I have not [met Mr. Nickles], but it's one of the first things I'm going to do," said Mr. Nathan, a member of the University of the District of Columbia Law Foundation.
Mr. Nathan, who has lived in the city for 35 years, also said he isn't interested in running for attorney general, which becomes an elected post in the next national midterm elections.
"I will not be a candidate in 2014," he said.
The mayor-elect also announced he was re-establishing the post of deputy mayor for public safety and justice, a position that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty abolished when he took office. Mr. Gray named to the post Paul A. Quander Jr., executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
As deputy mayor for public safety and justice, Mr. Quander will be responsible for aligning local and federal policies to "help eliminate the conditions that breed crime and threaten public safety," Mr. Gray said.
A George W. Bush appointee to the federal agency that oversees people on parole and probation, Mr. Quander also has worked for the city as director of the health care services for D.C. and federal public-safety officers.
Mr. Quander, a member of one of the nation's oldest and most eminent black families, has "excellent credentials and credibility across the criminal justice system," said a prominent Washington defense lawyer who asked not be named. "Paul has gravitas, good relations and good will with the prison system, law enforcers and the defense community. He will be Gray's eyes and ears."
Mr. Quander said he is looking forward to continued discussions with interim schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and with police officials on truancy and dropout prevention programs.
"We had a meeting on Monday," he said. "We want to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system with a blended, comprehensive approach, and MPD is a major player."
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Matthew Cella is The Washington Times’ Metro editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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