- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

D.C. officials are concerned that the District will lose federal funds because a new agency that settles disputes between residents and other agencies has nursed a huge backlog of cases.

The Office of Administrative Hearings was created in 2002 to be an independent arbiter that would hear appeals and settle disputes between businesses and 10 city agencies.

Those agencies — some of which administer the federal food stamps and unemployment insurance benefits programs — previously had hired their own administrative judges to settle disputes, opening the agencies to conflict-of-interest questions.

Designed to streamline, standardize and centralize the appeals process, the Office of Administrative Hearings began hearing cases in March 2004 and inherited from the 10 agencies a backlog of 3,000 cases that the new office has yet to resolve.

“As mayor, I accept the ultimate responsibility, but I do not accept excuses,” D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said.

Reducing the backlog has been “long overdue,” said Mr. Williams, a Democrat. “The administrative judges enjoy autonomy, but they need to attack the backlog with a greater sense of urgency.”

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the backlog threatens the budgets of several agencies and jeopardizes funding for federal programs, such as food stamps.

The agencies factor into their budgets anticipated revenue from fines against regulation violators, such as businesses that flout code standards. In addition, Mr. Mendelson said city residents who have been denied federal benefits must wait longer than federal standards allow for their appeals to be heard.

“This is a bad situation,” said Mr. Mendelson, who has held three oversight hearings on the matter this year. “If the agency doesn’t improve soon, I am going to look for new ways to reform the agency.”

Chief Administrative Law Judge Tyrone T. Butler, who heads the Office of Administrative Hearings, said his agency’s problems are “only natural” and urged calm.

“Naturally, there are going to be some rough spots, and that is what we are experiencing now,” said Judge Butler, who was hired in 2003 for a six-year term.

Judge Butler, who earns $125,304 a year, says the office has been beset with problems, such as the agency’s work spaces being scattered in buildings across the District instead of concentrated in one location.

The chief judge also has requested more money for his agency, which has a budget of more than $7 million. Twenty-five of the agency’s 61 workers are judges.

He also has had to simplify the agency’s procedures for hearing cases because the initial process proved too difficult for city residents to navigate, he said.

“It may be necessary to streamline the organization,” said council member Kathy Patterson, the Ward 3 Democrat who drafted the legislation that created the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said problems already have started costing the District money because the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) will have to keep two judges on staff to resolve rental disputes longer than DCRA officials had anticipated.

“I am concerned because I don’t think it can be done in a year,” said Mr. Graham, who noted that the agency gets an average of 400 new cases from DCRA each month alone.

But Mr. Mendelson says DCRA’s retaining the judges will not cost the District any extra money because the cost has been budgeted.

Judge Butler says the office last month completed hiring 11 of the 25 judges, which will help clear the backlog.

“The cases are primarily default-type hearings,” he said, referring to cases that already have been resolved but have not been processed. “In other words, there is not going to be any litigation on them.”

He also said he has been in contact with officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and others to clear the backlog.

“We have been working on these things,” Judge Butler said. “We are working to find out what we can do to make this a much easier transition and a much easier process for the stake holders as well as the legal aide community … It is not something that we take lightly at all.”

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