Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells isn’t much of a firebrand, that much we know.
While more conflict-minded colleagues lately have not been shy about throwing rhetorical bombs in the direction of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Wells has been content to stay above the fray. He’s kept his head down, passed his bag bill, and stayed in the good graces of Hizzoner.
So what’s up with Wells spraying words like “breach of public trust” and “dereliction of responsibility” at an agency oversight hearing last week?
The instrumentality that’s driven him to this point is the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. (CYITC), a body created under the watch of Mayor Anthony A. Williams to pool public and private money and then hand it out to worthy groups serving the city’s young people. It has an independent board of seven directors overseeing its activities—four appointed by the mayor, three appointed by the council.
Like so many council-mayor conflicts over the past three-plus years, this one was precipitated by a no-show: Lisa M. Simpson, the chair of the CYITC board, was nowhere to be found at last Thursday’s oversight hearing to answer for how the group is spending millions in city funds.
“I am perplexed as to why anyone would accept this responsibility,” Wells said from the dais, “not just to serve on the board, but to be its chair, its spokesperson, its leader, and not bother to show up where the public gets to hear about the expenditure of its investments.”
Simpson was away on a business trip. Why might it be important that she show her face? One word: earmarks.
With all eyes focused on the D.C. Council’s practice of funneling money to favored groups outside of any competitive grant process, it’s particularly critical that the organizations that actually hand out the money keep an eye on it. And CYITC has handed out a lot of earmarks; $8.9 million in fiscal 2009. (LL does note: A recent D.C. Auditor’s report concluded that, for the most part, CYITC has done its job, making sure groups handed city money by the council actually do their work.)
“You need a board that can stand up to the council or the mayor to protect the integrity of the nonprofit corporation,” Wells tells LL. “I have no doubt that the board members who have been appointed by the council are the kind of people that can stand up to us. I’m not convinced that the other four board members have that same gravitas.”
Certainly Simpson’s done a good job standing up to Wells: She was installed as board chair in June 2008, and in the year and a half since, Wells says that she has never met with, telephoned, or otherwise spoken to him. That’s a questionable strategy, considering he oversees the $10.6 million CYITC is getting in direct city support this year, the bulk of the organization’s $13 million total budget. (“To say that I have not met him would not be an accurate statement,” Simpson says—she met him once, she says, at council hearing whose date she couldn’t recall.)
There’s other evidence her schedule is packed. Board member Matthew Shannon, a council appointee who’s served since 2007, testified at Thursday’s hearing that Simpson’s leadership has been spotty. “Our board chair has a lot of responsibilities with her job, and so therefore we’ve had to reschedule meetings and perhaps not even get to agenda items during the board meetings because we’ve had to limit time based upon her schedule,” he told Wells, adding: “We’ve asked her to do some soul-searching to let us know whether she indeed has the time.”
Other board members tell LL that Simpson quite simply seems to have a hard time getting away from her day job, as a manager in the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) driver safety program, to make scheduled board meetings. Simpson, asked whether her job responsibilities have interfered with her duties as board chair, says: “I wouldn’t say that they have.”
Some background here: The CYTIC was the target of one of Fenty’s earliest moves to consolidate control over the city’s quasi-independent agencies. In early 2008, the board’s chair was John Hill, CEO of the Federal City Council, the ultimate gathering of the city’s power elite, and the vice chair was Diane Bernstein, a powerhouse fundraiser with a taste for youth causes.
But when their terms expired, Fenty did not reappoint them. Rather, he opted for less prominent and presumably more loyal functionaries. They initially included his parks director, Clark Ray, and his top education deputy, Victor Reinoso. These days, the mayoral appointees include Fenty advance man-turned-restaurateur Jason Washington.
Shannon, at the hearing, explained how Simpson came to be board chair: In June 2008, on the day Fenty made his board appointments, he and other board members were sent an e-mail telling them to show up at a meeting mere hours later to meet the group’s new CEO—that would be Millicent Williams, Fenty’s volunteerism chief, whom Shannon and other board members had never met. At that meeting, Williams was chosen as executive director and Simpson was voted chair, thanks to the votes of the new mayoral appointees.
What are Simpson’s qualifications for the job? Good question, one LL has been hard-pressed to answer; mayoral appointees to the CYTIC board aren’t subject to council confirmation, so there was no public hearing where she might have spoken to her qualifications.
Here’s one qualification LL has been able to identify: Simpson is married to George T. Simpson, a businessman who happens to be a member of Fenty’s “All Out All the Time” running team. (And who himself, incidentally, Fenty has appointed to several boards, including the D.C. Public Library’s and the University of the District of Columbia’s; the council has yet to confirm him for any of those seats.)
In a phone interview with LL, Ms. Simpson touted her background in “program operations, program development, youth development,” adding: “I am part of this board because of what I bring to the table just like every other board member. And we all bring a different set of skills and abilities.”
At the hearing, Shannon shared what he had learned about Simpson: “We just asked each other, frankly, why are you interested in serving? How did you come to be here?…[Simpson] said, ‘Well…I work at AARP, I work with old people.’ Well, that’s nice, but we don’t get a sense of their background and their commitment to children and youth.”
Speaking of commitment, where would CYITC be without public funds? Though the recession hasn’t helped, the group’s private fundraising has dwindled to a trickle since the Fenty power move. With the current fiscal year almost half-over, the trust has taken in less than $400,000 in private money. Perhaps a more engaged board chair could make some rain.
“Often you look to the board to have the gravitas, the experience, the relationships to do this, like John Hill, a Diane Bernstein,” Wells said. “I think that it cripples the board if you don’t have those kinds of relationships.”
The dispute over the direction of the Trust’s board comes as it’s engaged in its second executive search in less than two years. Fenty tapped Williams in November to serve as his emergency-management chief, and CYTIC veteran Ellen London has been running the group as interim CEO ever since.
According to sources familiar with the process, the finalists for the permanent job are London and Ximena Hartsock, who had run Fenty’s parks-and-rec department before having her nomination derailed by the D.C. Council. She is Fenty’s clear choice for the job; Wells, for his part, spoke up at the hearing for London, whom he called a “proven entity” in whom he has “tremendous confidence.”
Board members were set to select Hartsock in a meeting this week, on a vote likely to pit council appointees against mayoral appointees.
Word of Wells’ rare dais tirade has made it back to Simpson—“bits and pieces,” anyway—but it apparently didn’t make much of an impression.
“If there’s not a good explanation of why the chair of the board cannot meet with me, call me, even show up at an oversight hearing,” Wells said last Thursday, “then they should step down.”
Simpson tells LL that she intends to reach out to Wells, but as of Tuesday evening, she had yet to do so.
The snub has Wells playing the role of a Mary Cheh or a Harry Thomas Jr.: “It puts me in the ridiculous position...of trying to determine: Must I issue a subpoena for the board president to appear at a public hearing just to simply explain how they’re exercising their duties?” he said on the dais. “That would just be ridiculous, but that will be the position I will be in.”
• Hartsock may soon be headed to CYITC, but she’s been busy recently at her old stomping grounds. And, in the process, she’s kept old battles flaring.
Since being ousted from the Department of Parks and Recreation, Hartsock has been working for City Administrator Neil O. Albert, reportedly on school issues. But during last month’s record blizzards, Hartsock was tapped to oversee DPR’s snow removal operations.
Ben Butler, head of the union local representing DPR employees, uttered exactly one sentence about the arrangement at a Feb. 23 oversight hearing, adding: “Now I ask, Mr. Chairman, why would anyone with those credentials be brought back to oversee snow removal? We have qualified maintenance staff who could perform that function. Perhaps it is the inspector general who should be looking into what is going on.”
A glancing blow, to be sure, but one Hartsock took to heart. That night, she fired off a lengthy e-mail to Butler, sending it also to each member of the council.
“I’m getting frustrated and concerned about you and your hearing testimonies with personal attacks against me,” she wrote, kicking off a 700-word tirade. “I am a serious worker and a public servant and while I have tried to be graceful during your past attacks I can’t any longer remain silent because this is causing me harm personally and professionally.”
She added: “I have worked very hard during the past years and until not too long ago many people in Washington respected me.…Hard work should be valued, not doing so sends the wrong message to our children and is against most precious values of the American Society.”
Butler says he replied to Hartsock: “I told her, ‘Your skin has gotten thinner.’”
• Adrian Fenty has his passions, and sometimes your passions pay off.
Fenty is reportedly on the brink of pulling off a veritable coup by luring the Giro d’Italia, one of the three premier European bike race tours, to D.C. for its initial stages in 2012.
For his efforts, Hizzoner was feted at an Italian Embassy event on Feb. 25, where he was bestowed with a new Colnago racing bicycle, given to him by famed Italian cyclemaker Ernesto Colnago himself. It came complete with adrian fenty inscribed on the top tube.
When LL saw that Fenty had been gifted an awful nice bike, he consulted Washington City Paper’s resident bike expert, Operations Director Jeff Boswell. Turns out “awful nice” doesn’t begin to describe it—Boswell fairly swooned when informed that Fenty got himself a Colnago.
“One of the most storied brands in modern bicycle racing,” Boswell tells LL. “The highest quality, made by hand in Italy.”
As for Colnago the man: “He’s a king,” says Boswell.
LL placed a call to Colnago’s American headquarters, in Chicago. There he reached Billy Kanzler, who was quite familiar with the machine gifted to Hizzoner. It was a Colnago EPS—the company’s “flagship” racing frame—tricked out with top-of-the-line Campagnolo components.
“That thing was giddy-up,” says Kanzler.
“Giddy-up” has its price. The frame alone retails for $5,500, Kanzler says. And with accouterments, Fenty could expect to pay at least $12,000 for the bike.
“It was a gesture of good will,” he adds, “and we have a couple of dealers in Washington, D.C., so having Italian cycling come there would definitely help our brand.”
It’s unclear whether Fenty will get to keep his sweet ride. Public officials can’t accept gifts worth more than $10 from folks looking to do business with the city.
“A decision is still being worked out,” says spokesperson Jack Pfeiffer.
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