In 2 troubled agencies, DC mayor flouts candidate law
Two troubled DC agencies — the Department of Forensic Science and the Office of Unified Communications — have had temporary leaders far longer than DC law allows.
The acting director of DC’s Department of Forensic Sciences, appointed last year to revamp the district’s troubled crimes lab, has served in the temporary position for far longer than DC law allows. And according to this law, he no longer has the right to continue to receive his salary.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser named Anthony Crispino acting director of the agency on May 28, 2021, after the agency lost accreditation and the former director resigned amid an investigation into poor management.
Bowser had 180 days — about six months — to submit an official nomination to the DC Council. The DC Code also prohibits spending district money “to compensate anyone in office” if the mayor does not 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 serves as the district’s 911 call center and was the subject of a scathing audit last year, has been led by a series of temporary directors for more than a year and a half without no nominations submitted by the mayor, also questioning the authority of the district to continue paying the current acting head of office.
The measure prohibiting compensation for appointees who serve beyond the 180-day limit has never been enforced and there has never been a serious attempt to recover an appointee’s salary, but the member Councilman Charles Allen told OMCP that the intent of the law is clear and the ability to withhold pay in these cases is a “very real and imminent risk.”
Allen, who oversees the two agencies, said he contacted the mayor’s office several weeks ago about the plan to advance nominations for the two agencies and has yet to receive a response. .
“These are two incredibly important agencies that we need to know – the city needs to know; the board needs to know; I need to know – what are the leadership plans for each of them? Who is going to be the person to make these tough decisions? Allen told OMCP.
Allen said he understands finding a permanent director for DFS within the six-month deadline may have been particularly difficult as the agency is undergoing what he called a “complete rebuild” since losing accreditation.
“But we also need to have a very clear plan drawn up by the mayor’s office,” he added.
The WTOP began asking the mayor’s office about the Candidates Act in late June. Bowser’s office declined to make official statements and did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
DC Council Speaker Phil Mendelson said the mayor’s failure to submit candidates is a serious problem.
“Not having permanent directors creates some instability in these agencies, and where these agencies have come under criticism, that’s all the more problematic,” Mendelson said in an interview with WTOP. “There are several reasons why it is important that these appointments be made. This is not an easy task. »
Mendelson said failure to submit nominations frustrates the board’s ability to exercise meaningful oversight, deprives the public of an opportunity to weigh in on proposed leadership and could also call into question the legitimacy of any controversial decisions or actions taken. by an agency whose acting head serves in the position longer than permitted by DC law.
More than a year
The 180-day deadline for the mayor to appoint a DFS director arrived on November 24, 2021. As of this week, it has been more than 430 days since the position became vacant.
Part of the delay in appointing a permanent DSF director could also stem from the fact that the current acting director is not eligible for the position.
Under DC legislation creating the independent forensic agency, the director must have an advanced science degree and a minimum of six years of forensic science experience.
Crispino, the acting chief, is a lawyer with no prior forensic experience.
Allen earlier this summer introduced a bill to overhaul DFS; this would broaden the qualifications for the post of director to allow applicants with a law or business degree – paving the way for Crispino to take on the permanent position if nominated by Bowser.
However, this bill is not expected to be voted on until the council returns in mid-September at the earliest.
At OUC, the 911 center, the director position has been vacant for over 550 days with no nominations submitted by Bowser.
In January 2021, Karima Holmes, the DC Council’s last confirmed director, resigned amid growing scrutiny of call center errors that had resulted in emergency crews being dispatched to the wrong addresses. An audit later found the agency failed to meet national standards.
Bowser named Cleo Subido acting director of the bureau in January 2021, and Subido continued in that role for over a year without any nominations submitted — far longer than the 180-day deadline.
In February 2022, Bowser announced that she was rehiring Holmes to serve as acting manager. No nominations have yet been submitted to the board.
Give teeth to the law
The DC Confirmation Act of 1978 governs the appointment of agency directors and other positions in DC government. By law, the mayor must submit nominations to the DC Council for a 90-day review period, during which time the council can approve or disapprove the nominations. (If the Board takes no action, an appointment is deemed approved after 90 days).
However, the law was updated several times in the 1990s beginning with the administration of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, when council members became concerned that the pervasive number of residual appointments and agency directors unconfirmed acting was hurting the performance of the DC government, according to a Washington Post article from the time.
The law was last updated in the late 1990s, requiring the mayor to submit nominations for agency director positions within 180 days of a vacancy or the creation of a new agency. The law also added teeth, prohibiting the use of district money to pay interim administrators if the mayor does not make an appointment within the 180-day period.
“The separation of powers limits what the board can do,” said Mendelson, the board chairman. “The council cannot make these appointments… That’s why these measures have been put into law – to try to give more leverage to force the mayor to act.”
Clash over nominations
Although the Mayoral Candidates Act has been in effect for decades, it has often been ignored by mayors in multiple jurisdictions.
When she was a council member in the 1990s, DC Auditor Kathy Patterson helped rewrite the Mayoral Appointments Act to strengthen the council’s role, and she said the issue remains critical.
“The council has a critical role to play in appointing the leaders of the DC government,” she told WTOP in an email. “The trustees obviously report to the mayor, but they also report to the council as the elected body closest to residents and taxpayers. Board members, through bylaws, set agency priorities and approve agency budgets. »
There are other steps the council could take, she said, including changing the Confirmation Act to tighten the time frame in which an acting director can serve and suspending spending authority without the Board approval. The council could also change the way directors of the OUC and DFS are selected, she said, removing responsibility from the hands of the mayor and giving it to an oversight board.
“The council is not powerless here,” she said.
There’s a long history of DC lawmakers clashing with the mayor’s office over nominations.
In 1994, some council members called for the resignation of Jasper F. Burnette, then acting head of the Department of Public and Assisted Housing, who had served beyond his temporary term.
“They’re breaking the law and he (Burnette) should get out of there,” then-board member Jim Nathanson told The Washington Post. “Anything Burnette signed is invalid and therefore illegal.”
In 1999, then-council member Charlene Drew Jarvis asked Mayor Anthony Williams’ acting deputy mayor for economic development to step down after serving more than 180 days.
“This is a mandatory exit,” Jarvis told the Washington Business Journal. “You can’t just sit in government when your appointment has expired.”
The official, Doug Patton, resigned a few months later.