In 2 troubled agencies, DC Mayor flouts candidate law

Two troubled DC agencies — the Department of Forensic Sciences and the Office of Unified Communications — have had temporary heads for much longer than DC law allows.

The interim director of the DC Department of Forensic Sciences, appointed last year to refurbish the district’s troubled crime lab, has served in the temporary position far longer than DC law allows. And now, under this law, he is no longer eligible to receive his salary.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser named Anthony Crispino as the agency’s interim director on May 28, 2021, after the agency lost its accreditation and the former director resigned amid an investigation into mismanagement.

Bowser had 180 days – about six months – to submit a formal nomination to the DC Council. The DC Code also prohibits spending district funds “to compensate a person serving in that position” if the mayor fails to submit a nomination within the 180-day period.

The Crime Lab isn’t the only troubled DC agency where the mayor is flouting the nominee law.

The Office of Unified Communications, which functions as the district’s 911 call center and was the subject of a scathing scrutiny last year, has been run by a series of interim directors for more than a year and a half without the mayor presenting a nomination. He also questioned the district’s authority to continue paying the current acting chief of the office.

The measure, which bans compensation for staff serving beyond the 180-day limit, was never enforced and there was never a serious attempt to reclaim a staff member’s salary, but Councilor Charles Allen told WTOP that the intention of the Law is clear and clear The possibility of withholding payment in these cases is a “very real and imminent risk”.

Allen, who oversees both agencies, said he reached out to the mayor’s office a few weeks ago to move forward with nominations for the two agencies and hasn’t had any feedback yet.

“These are two incredibly important agencies that we need to know about – the city needs to know; the Council must know; I need to know – what are the leadership plans for each of them? Who will be the person making these difficult decisions?” Allen told WTOP.

Allen said he understood that finding a permanent director for DFS within the six-month deadline might have been particularly difficult as the agency is undergoing what he called a “complete rebuild” since losing accreditation.

“But then we also need a very clear plan drafted by the mayor’s office,” he added.

The WTOP began inquiring with the mayor’s office about the nominees law in late June. Bowser’s office declined to make any official statements and did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson said the mayor’s failure to come up with candidates is a serious problem.

“The lack of permanent directors introduces a degree of instability in these agencies, and where these agencies have suffered criticism that is all the more problematic,” Mendelson said in an interview with WTOP. “There are many reasons why it is important that these nominations are made. That’s no small thing.”

Mendelson said the failure to submit nominations thwarts the council’s ability to provide meaningful oversight, denies the public an opportunity to weigh proposed leadership, and also could call into question the legitimacy of controversial decisions or actions by an agency whose acting head is there has been in the position longer than DC law allows.

More than one year

The 180-day period for the mayor to nominate a DFS director expired on November 24, 2021. As of this week, more than 430 days have passed since the position became vacant.

Part of the delay in nominating a permanent DFS managing director could also be due to the current interim managing director being unelectable for the position.

Per DC legislation creating the independent forensic agency, the director must have an advanced science degree and at least six years of forensic science experience.

Crispino, the acting chief, is an attorney with no prior forensic experience.

Allen tabled a DFS overhaul bill earlier this summer; It would broaden the qualifications for the director’s position to admit candidates with a law or business degree — and clear the way for Crispino to work on the tenure if Bowser nominated him.

However, this bill is not expected to come to a vote until the council returns from recess, at the earliest in mid-September.

At OUC, the 911 center, the director’s position has been vacant for more than 550 days without Bowser submitting a nomination.

In January 2021, Karima Holmes, the last director confirmed by the DC Council, resigned amid increasing scrutiny of the call center for errors that had resulted in emergency teams being sent to the wrong addresses. An audit later found that the agency was not meeting national standards.

Bowser named Cleo Subido as interim director of the bureau in January 2021, and Subido stayed in the role for more than a year without submitting a nomination – well beyond the 180-day deadline.

In February 2022, Bowser announced that she would rehire Holmes as acting director. No nomination has yet been presented to the council.

Add teeth to the law

The DC Confirmation Act of 1978 regulates the appointment of agency directors and other positions in the DC government. By law, the mayor must submit nominations to the DC Council for a 90-day review period, during which the council can either approve or reject nominations. (If the Council does nothing, a nomination will be considered approved after 90 days).

However, the law was updated several times in the 1990s, beginning during Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s tenure, when council members became concerned that the ubiquitous number of transition dates and unconfirmed acting agency directors were hampering the DC government’s performance, according to an article in the Washington Post from that time.

The law was last updated in the late 1990s and required the mayor to submit nominations for positions as directors of an agency within 180 days of a vacancy or the formation of a new agency. The law also added some teeth, prohibiting the use of district funds to pay incumbent directors if the mayor does not make a nomination within the 180-day period.

“The separation of powers limits what the council can do,” said Mendelson, the council’s chairman. “The council cannot make these appointments… That’s why these measures were written into the law – to try to force the mayor into more action.”

Controversy over nominations

Although the mayoral candidate law has been on the books for decades, it has often been ignored by mayors in several administrations.

When she was a council member in the 1990s, DC Examiner Kathy Patterson helped rewrite the mayoral nominations bill to strengthen the council’s role, and she said the issue remains critical.

“The Council plays a critical role in appointing leaders in the DC government,” she told WTOP in an email. “Directors report to the mayor, of course, but they also report to the council as the elected body closest to residents and taxpayers. Council members set the agencies’ priorities by law and approve the agencies’ budgets.”

There are other steps the council could take, she said, including amending the Confirmation Act to shorten the timeframe in which an acting director can serve and withholding spending authority without council approval. The council could also change the way the OUC and DFS directors are selected, she said, by taking responsibility out of the mayor’s hands and giving it to an oversight body.

“The Council is not powerless here,” she said.

There’s a long history of DC lawmakers clashed with the mayor’s office over nominations.

In 1994, some council members called for the resignation of Jasper F. Burnette, then acting chief of the Department of Public and Assisted Housing, who was past his provisional term.

“You’re breaking the law and he (Burnette) should get out of this,” then-councillor Jim Nathanson told the Washington Post. “Anything Burnette signed is void and therefore illegal.”

In 1999, then-council member Charlene Drew Jarvis asked then-mayor Anthony Williams’ interim deputy mayor for economic development to resign after serving more than 180 days.

“This is a mandatory exit,” Jarvis was quoted as saying in the Washington Business Journal. “You can’t just sit in government when your appointment has expired.”

The officer, Doug Patton, resigned a few months later.

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