Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook.
Maryland lawmakers aim to push new gun restrictions over the finish line. A prominent candidate for the D.C. Council abruptly pulls the plug on his campaign. And the relationships of a Virginia company raise red flags about both the commonwealth’s sitting governor and the Republican running to replace him. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Kenneth Ellerbe Chief, D.C. Fire and EMS Department (FEMS)
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Verjeana M. Jacobs Chair, Prince George's County Board of Education
Featured Video Clip
Kenneth Ellerbe, chief of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, addressed questions about how close his friendship is to Mayor Vincent Gray and whether he gets special treatment from the mayor. “I don’t believe that if my performance fails that I will still have a job,” Ellerbe said.
Politics Hour Quiz
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers and happened to be one of the people who took in opening day with the Nationals this year.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWere you there in your capacity as a fan or a member of the media? I noticed in your article in The Current Newspaper you mentioned that this was the largest attendance of any game since the Nationals came here to Washington, D.C. and that you were there, but you didn't mention in what capacity you were there.
MR. TOM SHERWOODWell, I didn't know I had to have full disclosure in my column, but the fact is it was four -- 45,274 fans. That's the largest regular season game. I think it may have topped during the playoffs last year. But I was there working for Channel 4, working for you, in fact.
NNAMDIIn other words, you got in to the game free.
SHERWOODI didn't -- let me -- should I just -- may I make a confession?
SHERWOODI didn't see one play...
SHERWOOD...I listened to it on the radio while I was out walking around talking to the fans who were having a great time, a fun time. I didn't see one play.
NNAMDIWell, not even on television? Because you were at the encampment across the street where at one point 6,000 people were gathered.
SHERWOODYes. Well, that's -- I didn't watch TV. The fairgrounds -- Bo Blair's fairground out there is a fun place. They have music, that beanbag game that people play for hours. And it's a pretty cool place. The whole atmosphere around the stadium is changing. This Bo Blair was the guy who runs the fairgrounds, said we have more businesses, Gordon Biersch is how you say the beer -- restaurant chain, it just opened a couple -- a week ago.
SHERWOODMore and more places are -- it's becoming the neighborhood that the city wants it to become.
NNAMDIYou mentioned beer. That -- there is one complaint, however, about...
NNAMDI...what's going on in Nationals Stadium. Why is the price of beer $8 and above...
SHERWOODWell, it topped this year -- I think it topped $9...
SHERWOOD...from the premium beers. Well, you know, it's a captive market. I mean people -- first of all, people like beer, and so they buy beer and...
NNAMDIBut do they have to pay $9 for it?
SHERWOOD...there was a survey that shows the city has I think among the highest if not the highest beer prices within the ballpark. My son who's in the restaurant business was telling me that when you buy in such large volumes you can get it pretty good, but, you know, they have to pay their costs for running the thing. And they also have the pay those high salaries, so maybe every time you take a swig of a $9 beer, you're just paying a little bit of Jayson Werth's salary.
NNAMDII bet you Payton wouldn't pay $9 for a beer, would he?
SHERWOODNo, he got -- I think he gets a discount, wholesale discount.
NNAMDIBy virtue of being in the business himself. Let's talk...
SHERWOODAlthough my refrigerator's kind of empty. I don't know -- I'm not getting any benefit from this.
NNAMDILet's talk politics D.C. for a second because it would appear that there is one less candidate in the upcoming at-large race to fill the seat vacated by now Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Michael Brown is no longer in the race. Do you know exactly why?
SHERWOODWell, I spoke to him. He said it was immediate personal and family matters. More privately, he's told people he's caring for his mother who's been ill and getting older, like somebody...
NNAMDIThe sainted Alma.
SHERWOODAlma. But I have to just say a lot of -- and maybe it's just politics, but a lot of people simply don't believe that that's the only reason. They -- he was not doing well in fundraising. He was not doing well in private polling. He was not doing well in particular endorsements, even though in the past he had all those things. So there's -- and there's just some question mark over his getting out -- got out so late, his name would still be on the ballot. Early voting starts Monday.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" will be hosting a special forum on Monday, the same day that early voting starts. We'll be here at noon with the six remaining candidates in that at-large race. The conversation will focus -- we're trying not to be all over the map, so we're going to focus on ethics and the growth of the city.
NNAMDIThe candidates will take your calls and questions. People can also watch a video of the stream of the forum live at wamu.org. That's Monday from noon to 2:00. Well, Tom, you know, we pay a lot of attention to the weekly news cycle here at "The Politics Hour," and we know that you in the audience do too, which is why today we are debuting a new way for you to put your knowledge of local DMV politics to the test.
NNAMDIStarting this week, "The Politics Hour" posse productions will post a weekly quiz at kojoshow.org where you can measure your know-how of all that happened over the course of the week and all that's happened over the course of our region's political history. Mosey on over to kojoshow.org where the first quiz written by "Politics Hour" producer Michael Martinez is up online right now and, well, show us what you've got.
NNAMDIAnd if you want to brag, you can tweet us, @kojoshow, to let us know how you did on that questionnaire that's up there. You get the posse theme you were supposed to be wearing a cowboy hat today. You apparently refused to put it on.
SHERWOODI didn't -- I was told I'd be wearing a badge, but I don't want the badge unless I've got the authority behind the badge. And what screwy focus group came up with this idea?
NNAMDIThe screwy focus group by the name of Michael Martinez.
SHERWOODI'm afraid -- I don't want to -- I have to take the test. I may not know some of the answers.
NNAMDII gave you the name of the owner of the focus group that came up with it. It is indeed Michael Martinez the producer of "The Politics Hour." But if you want a badge, there is one available in the studio right now because our guest wears a badge, of course.
SHERWOODWell, we're talking about being here at the studio while it's waiting to come on the show. You've got all these volunteers out there, packing up mail. It looks like the premiums for people who donated to the station. There's...
SHERWOOD...flat Kojo, and there's some other things in there. And I just thought other than the flat Kojo, it looked like a nice package of materials for all of the listeners who contributed, so we ought to say thanks to them and the volunteers who are working right now.
NNAMDIYou notice he said, other than the flat Kojo. Enough said about that.
SHERWOODAt least it's not wearing that colorful thing you're wearing today.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio right now is Ken Ellerbe. He is chief of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department. Chief Ellerbe, thank you for joining us.
MR. KENNETH ELLERBEThank you for having me.
SHERWOODHe has a real badge.
NNAMDIBy the way, if you have questions or calls for Chief Ellerbe, you can start calling now at 800-433-8850. If you've been following what's been going on in the news with Fire and EMS, 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Chief Ellerbe, you spent a few hours testifying before the D.C. Council last week about your department's ability to respond to emergencies.
NNAMDIBut you essentially said your fleet remains in, quoting here, "acceptable state of readiness" and that recent incidents are not indicative of systemic failures of leadership. Before we go any farther, how would you define acceptable state of readiness? Acceptable to you may not be -- mean the same as it means to some others.
ELLERBEWell, I understand that some folks may be concerned, but our ability to respond to medical emergencies and fires still remains consistent and high. Our fleet is ready. It's capable to respond. We respond over 160,000 calls a year. And while we may have had two or three incidents that have really focused attention on the Fire and EMS Department, we still respond to a number of calls, and we do it very well. Our fleet is being improved as we speak. We are beginning to move some of the equipment out that is unserviceable. And we're purchasing new equipment.
ELLERBEWhat I'd hope that folks understand is it takes a while to get through the purchasing process because these units are built specifically for us. We're revising the way we do our fleet's inventory, our fleet management. And we're in the process of hiring a professional fleet manager. The challenge for us sometimes coming through the ranks is that we focus on the big picture in terms of putting out fires and preparing for emergency medical care.
ELLERBEThere are certain business practices in the fire department like ours that require professionals, people who understand all of the nuances of purchasing, building inventory, disposing of unserviceable inventory and maintaining an inventory control system. That's what we're doing right now. We've asked -- we're preparing a statement of work for a consultant to come, do a very deep dive in that particular business practice and give us some professional recommendations and professional management in that field.
SHERWOODChief, isn't that an acknowledgment then that the union and firefighters, some of -- I live near the motor pool there in Southwest Washington, just off of Capitol Street, occasionally talk to the guys out on break. Isn't it, the fact that you're going to hire professional fleet manager, an acknowledgement that the fire department hasn't been able to keep up with the equipment and hasn't been able -- and cannot say, in fact, that you have a -- you're ready for any emergency 'cause you have a lot of equipment, it's not available for duty?
ELLERBEWell, right now we have all of our units in service that should be working. We have additional units in reserve. It's an acknowledgement that we have to change the way we do business. Now we can't -- let me finish here.
SHERWOODExcuse me. I apologize. Reserve -- that's what the fire -- local 36 was saying, the reserve is not the reserve, that some of those places -- some of those pieces of equipment aren't working. Are you saying they are working now?
ELLERBEWell, some of the equipment is not working. We have 10 trucks that aren't working. We have 20 engines that aren't working. And we have approximately 51 ambulances that aren't working. But we do have 16 trucks in service. We have 33 engines in service. We have 39 ambulances in service. We have two trucks in reserve right now. We have two engine companies that are ready in reserve. And we have two at the training academy. And we have 14 ambulances that are in reserve right now and can be deployed immediately.
SHERWOODDo you have -- another thing, the firefighter, the guy who was standing outside, he said, you ought to ask the chief about the paramedics, that you're woefully short on paramedics and there was a big paramedics show in town. I think the union told me this, that the fire department didn't show. There were other local agencies recruiting paramedics. And you guys are short, like, five shifts -- five crews -- I'm not -- I don't know all the details. I don't think the viewers want to hear all the -- listeners don't want to hear all the details, but that you're short paramedics and it's serious.
ELLERBEWell, there's a shortage of paramedics nationwide. We are recruiting paramedics. We have instituted a program right now through our (word?) grant where we're trying to hire returning veterans with medical skill sets. And we're focusing on that group first because, you know, that is a national initiative. In addition to that, we've hired folks from Washington D.C. We've hired 68 recruits in two different classes, 26 of whom live in Ward 7 and Ward 8.
ELLERBESo we're looking at our unemployment in D.C. We're looking at the need to recruit paramedics. But we're also working with some of our internal candidates. We have 40 people who have offered themselves to train as paramedics. And what we find is that when we hire paramedics who are from distant places, they keep their paramedic certification for three years, and after that, they drop the paramedic certification. We have employees right now who were paramedics who are now emergency medical technicians.
ELLERBEAnd the objective or the change is to grow our paramedics from within. We're developing a paramedic training program. We are working with one of our local institutions that teaches paramedics. So we hope that once the employees register and take these classes, then we will have paramedics who stick with that particular area of expertise.
NNAMDIOur guest is Kenneth Ellerbe. He is the chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. If you have questions or comments for him, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You mentioned that you're hiring paramedics here from Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIThere has always been -- since I've been in Washington for 40 years -- some racial tension within the fire department. And it is my understanding that that racial tension is -- not only still exist, but may be exacerbated by your emphasis on hiring people from the District because your pairing them with people who come from as far away as West Virginia. Many of those people are white. The people you're hiring are black. Are there racial tensions and how do you deal with them?
ELLERBEWell, first we don't hire based on race. And I try to stay away from commenting on things where cultural differences come into play because that obfuscates the real issues, which is performance and delivering service to the city. Regardless of where a person comes from, once they put that uniform on, the expectation is that they will serve the citizens of the District of Columbia.
ELLERBEA lot of times in a large organization, you have cultural differences. Now, we brought in professionals from the outside to train our mid-level managers on how to embrace the differences that our employees may have and encourage them to work together.
NNAMDIBut you have made it a priority to hire both firefighters and people for EMS from the District of Columbia people.
ELLERBEWell, we have a high unemployment rate in Washington, D.C. And one of the mayor's initiatives was a One City One Hire program. We invested $400,000 in the training program here in the city for residents who want to become emergency medical technicians. And many of them have graduated and gone on to work in the private sector. The focus now is if we need paramedics, we want to look at folks internally in the department. And hopefully, folks who are local enough that if a major emergency occurs, there will be a short delay in them reporting for duty.
SHERWOODChief, last -- I think it was last week or recently, I mentioned that you are trying to change the shift schedules for the firefighters from one day on and I think three days off. And I got a heartfelt email from one of your firefighters who said I had misstated the case that firefighters all work one day for 24 hours, and they're off for 72 hours. You would like to go to 12-hour shifts. Is that the right numbers?
ELLERBEI previously stated that that is the intent. And the reason for that is if a person is working that shift, there is very minimal contact in terms of training. It makes us vulnerable to overtime. It makes us vulnerable to employees who absent themselves from work. So it's not designed or directed at any one person.
ELLERBEIt's designed to make the system better. It's designed to serve the city better. And I have to say, I understand the employees' concerns. I know the change is not easy. Sometimes it's nebulous. It can be even frightening to an extent. But, you know, consider leadership in times of change. That's even more challenging sometimes. But...
SHERWOODNow, this firefighter says, and I'm reading, "Going to a 12-hour shift would create twice as many opportunities for shift changes in the midst of a fire causing additional overtime cost, not less." Is it one of the reasons that going to the 12-hour shift to cut down on overtime, which I know you have a lot of? Will it cut down on overtime? Is that one of the goals?
ELLERBEIf that change is initiated, it will reduce our overtime considerably. Now, I would venture to say that that young person or that person may not have worked the shift that I'm proposing. I can tell you, I did from 1982 to 1987. That was the shift that I worked, I think, until 1987. The...
SHERWOODOK. And then finally, he says, that this -- "If you do this, this kind of change where people have part-time jobs as carpenters and things like that in these times they're off. It will make it more difficult for the older firefighters with families to remain on their jobs and would cause many to retire or quit." Do you anticipate that?
ELLERBEWell, there is some anticipated attrition. And we expect three to four years of attrition that will keep us from having these overtime expenditures. It would allow us to do more training with our younger employees. We'll have a lot more contact with them. Now, again, this shift proposal is not designed at any one individual.
ELLERBEIt's designed to increase efficiency, increase performance and give us a better opportunity to protect the city in the event of a major emergency because if we have two-thirds of our workforce come into work every day based on that model, then if there is an event, we can always replace employees right away. The way we have it now, 25 percent of our workforce comes to work on any given day, which means in two days, only 50 percent of our workforce is prepared to come to work. That presents a challenge for us -- it could present a challenge for us in the event of a major emergency.
NNAMDIAllow me to quote from a March editorial in The Washington Post and ask a question. The editorial says, "The plan to concentrate more paramedic shifts during peak times also hasn't progressed because we were astonished to learn the fire chief, unlike the police chief who's entrusted with deployment decisions, can't make the changes without the D.C. Council's approval." Why do you have to have the Council's approval to change shift patterns? The police chief doesn't have to get that permission. Have you asked the Council about that?
ELLERBEWell, the deputy mayor of Public Safety and Justice is in contact with the Council.
SHERWOODThat's Paul Quander.
SHERWOODJust to be...
ELLERBEPaul Quander. OK. But there is a rule that we have to ask for or we have to notify the Council whenever there is a major change in EMS service delivery. And this is a major change. I don't foresee any challenge in terms of getting their approval. But right now, it's a matter of discussion.
NNAMDISome people would say that's micromanagement, isn't it, Tom Sherwood?
SHERWOODWell, maybe the councilmembers want to know what the fire department is doing, maybe notification not approval. They don't have to vote on it. But I'm not certain.
NNAMDINor am I. But we will be raising that question with councilmembers. Let's go to the telephones. Tom, put on your headphones. You, too, Chief Ellerbe. Here is John in Annandale, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I would like the chief to expound on why the paramedics that come in from outside decide to drop certifications after three years. I suspect it's because holding a paramedic certification in EMS in D.C. isn't worth it. The continuing education hours that are required, it's just not worth it for someone to stay a paramedic.
ELLERBEOh, we pay our paramedics $4,400 more than the average firefighter. I think that the issue may be that the opportunity for employment based on having a paramedic certification is very appealing. But it's also a very stressful job. Our EMS employees do 80 percent of the work in the Fire and EMS Department. And it's difficult. I mean, these jobs take a serious amount of commitment and sacrifice. And a lot of times, some folks realize after about three years that they've fulfilled their obligation, they have obtained the occupation, and they reduced their credentials.
NNAMDIWe have another question about that -- John, thank you for your call -- from Adam in Fairfax County, Va. Adam, your turn.
ADAMYes, sir. Chief Ellerbe, thank you for coming on today. I'd like to just hear what you have to say about the union is saying that there are -- excuse me -- your numbers saying there are about 245 paramedics available in the system. But the union, Local 36, seems to dispute that, saying that there aren't enough. And then secondly, the shift change that you're proposing. If -- D.C. firefighters have tried that before, and they changed it back to the 24/72. Why are we considering going back to that again?
ELLERBEWell, to -- I'll answer the first question. Their -- the union's numbers and the -- well, the firefighters union and Local 3721, which represents the single role EMS employees' numbers, may differ. I understand that. You know, we have folks who obtain certifications. We have folks who will retire. We have folks who resigned. So the numbers are always going to be fluctuating a bit. But we do have a shortage. I recognize that. And we do need to increase our paramedic numbers. So that's what we're working toward. Regarding the shift change...
NNAMDISays it's been tried before, didn't work.
ELLERBEIt's not that it didn't work. There was a court case that established the fourth shift, the 24-hour on, 72 hours off. And that's why we went to that shift. It was also language in that court case that recognized that the fourth shift might be a bit much, and it should have sunset. Now, why they didn't happen is beyond me. I wasn't chief at the time. But I do know from experience that that shift does work, and that shift would be beneficial for the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIThe caller also mentioned the union. Your relationship with the union at this point seems to be somewhat tenuous. They've passed a no confidence vote in you or in your position. Washington Examiner columnist Harry Jaffe wrote in March that it's natural for there to be friction between workers and management, but that this has gotten to the point where it's putting people in serious danger. What would you say to that? How would you characterize your relationship with the union?
ELLERBEI would characterize our relationship as cooling off right now. I think that we've reached a point where the noise has kind of calmed down. I realize that we need our employees to run the department in terms of apparatus. They ride the EMS units. They ride the fire trucks. And hopefully, they realize that I am operating in the best interest not only of any individual or the department but the best interest of the city as a whole.
SHERWOODAnd is Paul Quander, the deputy -- the mayor has said several times this week even that Paul Quander has been overworking with you, trying to help cool down the emotions here and just to get the focus of things and get it done. What is Paul Quander doing as the deputy mayor?
ELLERBEWell, as a deputy mayor, his oversight and his support has been tremendous, first of all. Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, can effectuate activity with other agencies. And it makes it a lot easier when I have -- when we have his support as we try to dispose of some equipment, and we try to purchase additional equipment. And I need to say that the mayor has increased our apparatus purchasing by almost $4 million. So they've given us some enhancements that will allow us to improve the state of our fleet at a much more rapid pace.
SHERWOODYou've gotten a lot of incoming criticism for those things. The last -- I think the last week on this program, Muriel Bowser, who's running for mayor, said that you ought to believe your job is in jeopardy, given the various issues that have been coming up. Tommy Wells, the councilmember who's chairman of the judiciary committee and probably, again, for mayor later this month maybe, has also said your job could be in jeopardy if these problems aren't fixed.
SHERWOODAnd then people say, oh well, he's a good friend of the mayor, and so the mayor's not going to do anything. The mayor has stood by you. What is your relationship with the mayor? Does it go back or what? What is the relationship?
ELLERBEI'm a subordinate agency director under the mayor, first of all. I think it's unfortunate for our councilmember in Ward 4 to jump to those conclusions. But the reality is any agency director serves at the pleasure of, and their job is on the line from day one until they walk out the door.
SHERWOODWell, I feel a little bit like this has got your journalism. I just want to play 'cause this is a key issue that everyone keeps talking to me about. On Bruce DePuyt's show yesterday on News Channel 8, the mayor said, I don't have a long relationship with the chief. I don't know where that comes from. And later he said there has no legitimacy that there's some long-standing relationship.
SHERWOODWell, I did some research, and I found some video from January 2011 when you appeared on NBC 4. And we'll just going to play a little of it here. You can watch it if you want to use. You looked very nice there. But here's what it says.
ELLERBEIt's pockets of experience in training when exposed our entire department to the training that's available to.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANI'm glad you brought up Mayor Gray because I just learned you two have been friends since way back when. Tell us a little bit about that relationship.
ELLERBEI've known the mayor since I was 14 years old. I know he was an avid softball player. My father played softball. I was a baseball player. So I've watched him. I am a student that learns vicariously a lot of times. So I watched them then. Really, I like the type of man he is. That's one of the reasons why I came back.
SHERWOODAnd I would say you came -- later in that same interview, you came back again and said what good friends you were. So where does that come -- people think you guys ought to just acknowledge you live close to each other, you respect each other, the mayor -- and just -- you do know each other. You've known each other a long time.
ELLERBEWhat that interview said was I was 14-years-old. If you look the difference in our ages, it's highly unlikely that we would have been good friends when I was 14-years-old.
SHERWOODBut he was good friends with your father?
ELLERBEI don't know if he was good friends with my father.
SHERWOODWell, he said it.
ELLERBEI said they played softball together.
SHERWOODWell, he says they were friends, yeah.
ELLERBEThey'd worked together. But...
SHERWOODBut there's a personal connection there. I just think it would just be clearer if you all would say...
ELLERBEWell, I have tremendous respect for the mayor.
SHERWOODHe likes you.
ELLERBEI like the mayor. I like him a lot. And one of the reasons that I wanted to come back to Washington, D.C. is because I believe in the leadership that he has. I respect the -- his ability to withstand those types of criticism to keep the city moving forward. I mean, he has done an outstanding job. I admire him, and I make no bones about that.
NNAMDIWell, the implication here clearly is that the mayor has your back. People seem to believe that if your performance is not up to par that you won't necessarily be fired because, well, the mayor has his back. Do you care to comment on that?
ELLERBEI don't believe that if my performance fails that I will still have a job.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Joe in Richmond, Va. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEGood afternoon, everybody. Yeah, I have to take the chief's -- come on to chief's defense. A lot of average people who don't work in a technical field, whether it be firefighting, EMS or any number of other different fields, there's a lot of specialized equipment that goes into keeping people safe, whether police officer and many other fields. And it takes a long time to get the stuff designed, built and then delivered to the customer, in this case, the D.C. Fire and EMS.
ELLERBEAnd the people will also need to understand that the training and, like, what was mentioned on your show, the commitment to be whether it's a firefighter, a police or paramedic or whatever, that you can't just walk down a street and find people that are willing to do that. And, you know, D.C. is an expensive place to live. So maybe they need to look at that face structure to attract people to that particular field.
SHERWOODAnd the mayor himself has said, you know, all the city workers and the firefighters and the police officers on the front lines haven't had raises at all. So that's up to the city political leadership to take care of that. If you could give raises, you would.
ELLERBEAbsolutely. But the raises come through contract negotiations, and I'm very hopeful that we will get a good contract with our labor organization.
NNAMDIJoe, thank you very much for you call. And I'm glad Joe raised the question about a lot of people not understanding the technical aspects of this. What are the things that keep a truck or a vehicle from being "front line status"? When people things like half the ambulances are out of service, it's easy for them to get nervous.
ELLERBEWell, a lot of our equipment is old. During the previous four years, there wasn't a whole lot of focus. There was some focus but not the attentiveness that we're giving now to the purchase of our fleet, our apparatus replacements. A lot of our ambulances are from 2006. That's a long time for a 24-hour vehicle to be in service. When brakes start to fail, when transmission start to fail from -- for work -- from working...
NNAMDIWell, that's regular car stuff, regular vehicle stuff. I was wondering what makes it different when we're talking about ambulances and fire trucks.
ELLERBEWell, ambulances carry different equipment. You don't drive your car 24 hours a day. You drive your car maybe two or three hours at the most if you have a long commute. These ambulances are on the street for 24 hours, legitimately, I mean. And they run and they run, and they deal with the conditions of the street.
ELLERBEThey deal with the weather. They deal with the doors opening and closing all day long, and they carry specialized equipment. And that equipment, anything -- if anything in that ambulance is defective, it jeopardizes patient care. It jeopardizes the city. So our employees have to be extremely attentive to the condition of the unit. And if there's anything out of place, you're put out of service.
SHERWOODI feel like...
NNAMDIAnd, Joe, thank you for your call.
SHERWOODI feel like working at the U.N. here. Has Paul Quander gotten you and Ed Smith, the head of the union, together to sit? I mean, as President Obama says, over a beer and say, we don't...
NNAMDIHopefully, it don't cost $9.
SHERWOODLet's get beyond -- not $9 at the stadium, but -- 9.25. But have you -- has there been an attempt to have this personal animosity go away? I had to say, as a reporter, there had been animosities dating back to the '70s when I first came on the scene around the city. When it was a white fire chief, black firefighters were worried. When there was a black fire chief, white firefighters were worried. Sometimes it crossed racial lines. People were just worried because of the job. It just seems like it has never ever settled down.
ELLERBEWell, Tom, first of all, I don't have any personal animosities toward the union president. And to answer your question, the deputy mayor, the union president and I have sat down before, and we do have regular meetings where we talk about the issues at hand. My focus remains on the performance of the agency, the safety of the citizens in the city, the safety of our employees and our fleet, our adjustment of our EMS delivery in the city.
ELLERBEAnd more importantly -- or equally as important, we deal with international relationships. We deal with the entire city. We've met with representatives from different nations. And in particular, we have a request right now to talk to some folks from South Korea. Those things are what the chief of the Fire and EMS Department, chief of police really focus on in addition to all the internal issues.
SHERWOODYou're responsible for the public safety around the White House, the president of the United States. If an ambulance or -- I just can't imagine the tone of a congressional hearing if an ambulance is on the route to somewhere in the White House complex or something and breaks down. I would just -- I would not want to be you sitting in front of some congressional committee.
ELLERBEWell, quite frankly, I wouldn't want to be me sitting in front of some congressional committee with that happening, which is why I talk -- I focus on our apparatuses in service, our apparatuses out of service. We have a good guy down at the fleet now who is working through all of the challenges. I'm working with him. The deputy mayor is working with us. The director of Office of Contracting and Procurement, James Staton, is working with us to get a lot of this equipment that's unserviceable out of the way so we can purchase new equipment.
SHERWOODAre you in for the long haul here? I mean, long haul being the mayor's term is up at, you know, in 2014, the end of 2014. But are you in until the mayor doesn't -- the mayor says otherwise?
ELLERBEAbsolutely. My commitment to this city, to the people that come here to live and people who visit here is strong, is 100 percent. And I'm hopeful that our employees feel the same way. I'm a native Washingtonian. I came here from -- back here from Florida. And I came here with a strong commitment to make sure that we address the issues at hand, and we look forward to the future.
NNAMDIKen Ellerbe is the chief of D.C.'s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Chief Ellerbe, thank you very much for joining us.
ELLERBEThank you so much for having me.
SHERWOODThe firefighters at the baseball opening day put up that big flag, that ceremonial flag. It's always a big event where the fans are coming in so they did a really good job.
ELLERBEWe do it every year.
SHERWOODI saw a couple of the cables that were tangled, but a guy got them untangled. I didn't put that in my story but I said that.
ELLERBEWell, let me say this before we close. We have some -- we have one of the best departments in the country, regardless of some of these things you may hear. We respond over 160,000 calls a year, and we get it right 99.9 percent of the time. And when we don't, we're going to address it. We'll focus on it and make sure it doesn't happen again.
NNAMDIAnd when you don't get it right, blame that on Lon Walls who was out there. He shook my hand and hurt it when I was coming in.
ELLERBEThat's why I don't shake his hand.
SHERWOODHe was making up for the fact that chief can't shake hands 'cause he has a cold. He was elbow bumping people.
NNAMDILon and I worked together at Howard University Television back in a whole another era of time. Chief Ellerbe, thank you once again for joining us.
ELLERBEThank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou're listening to The Politics Hour. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom Sherwood, Maryland has passed the gun bill that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley dreamed of. There's virtually nothing in that bill that Martin O'Malley doesn't want. It's supposed to be one of the toughest gun regulation bills in the country.
NNAMDIIt bans magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, bans 45 types of semi-automatic rifles. It would also require those seeking to buy any gun other than a hunting rifle or shotgun to obtain a license. They got to submit fingerprints to police. They got to pass classroom and firing range training and undergo extensive background checks.
SHERWOODYes. It's not as, I think, in some ways, as extensive as the -- what was passed in Connecticut also this week. But I think you're seeing these state responses to the gun violence, where the federal government hasn't quite decided -- and the Congress and the president -- what they're going to come up with, if anything. So it's a real feather for the governor of Maryland, who hopes to have a national profile beyond being governor, and it's a significant achievement for what he's done there.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of governors who want to have national profiles, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the State's Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, it seems both have a fairly close relationship with one Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a businessman who is the head of a company known as Star Scientific. McDonnell and his wife Maureen reportedly promoted that company. And Williams contributed more than $100,000 in gifts to McDonnell, donations to his campaign, paid $15,000 for catering the 2011 wedding of McDonnell's daughter.
NNAMDIThat's from today's edition of The Washington Post. Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli has $10,000 stock in Williams' company, and it is revealed and has apparently enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. Williams at his -- at a place he owns in Virginia. However, Mr. Williams and his company are also filing -- have also filed a tax lawsuit against the commonwealth. And apparently Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli waited until today, after it appeared in the newspaper, to announce that he is going to appoint outside counsel. Think this is going to harm his campaign for governor?
SHERWOODProbably, yes, because it raises questions about ethics. But, you know, the real issue here is the some would say woeful lack of disclosure and tough laws in the state of Virginia. And there are no campaign limits. Corporations can give great amounts of money that have to be reported. But in this case, for example, the mayor -- the governor's daughter's wedding, the $15,000 didn't go to the governor. It went to the daughter, and there was no requirement to report that.
SHERWOODSo Virginia could go much farther away of not curbing such contributions, but at least disclosing them in a timely way. And this does hurt the attorney general. He appointed two lawyers who will now look at the -- this firm. But the firm -- the two lawyers -- he appointed one Democrat and one Republican: William Hurd, a former state solicitor general, and Stephen Rosenthal, the Democrat. But they're pretty much insiders in Richmond, too, so they'll know how to handle this. It's just Virginia's laissez-faire approach to disclosing who's getting what from whom.
NNAMDIYesterday, the Maryland Senate passed legislation that essentially was conceived as a plan to give the county executive more power over the Prince George's schools and to limit the influence of the school board. The plan they approved gives the executive the power to name a new superintendent, appoint three members to the school board and name a vice chairman and chairman to the board. Joining us now by phone is Verjeana Jacobs. She is chair of the Prince George's County Board of Education. Verjeana Jacobs, thank you for joining us.
MS. VERJEANA M. JACOBSThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIThe program that was passed in the Senate yesterday was not as aggressive as the total executive control of the system that the county executive wanted. But what do you think of what was passed? How do you think this compromise will work? Are you agreeable to it?
JACOBSWell, the board essentially has opposed, you know, a takeover in general, but obviously we want to make the best choices that are in best interests of children. So, yeah, there are still some pieces of this legislation that hasn't hit the House floor yet, but there are still some pieces that we think are -- you know, aren't necessarily designed to talk about reform and deal with how we are, you know, educating kids in the county.
NNAMDIAre one of those pieces the fact that the executive will now be able to appoint the board chair, the board vice chair and a third member of the board? Does that mean your job goes out the window?
JACOBSWell, you know, the nine -- I'm an elected member of the board with a four-year term.
NNAMDISo you get to stay on the board. But if the county executive is appointing the chair, that could be bye-bye for you?
JACOBSYeah, obviously it could be from -- you know, for me...
JACOBS...because I sit here as the chair, yes. But I think, more importantly, from the perspective of my colleagues and myself, there's no other elected body that we're aware of that doesn't get to select the leadership of their own body, and that includes, you know, the county council, the delegation and the state Senate. So, I mean, you know -- but that's...
NNAMDIYou're hoping to change that in the House before there's a final vote on this?
JACOBSWell, we'll see what happens. I mean, there's a lot of pieces that I know Mr. Busch has been looking at and has had an opportunity to deal with...
NNAMDIThat's House Speaker Michael Busch.
JACOBSYes, that's correct. And so -- go ahead. I'm sorry.
SHERWOODExcuse me. This is Tom Sherwood. Thank you for coming. I know you. I think you had a meeting. That's why you couldn't come into the studio 'cause the board was meeting.
SHERWOODBut it sounds to me like you're grafting a giraffe onto an elephant. It sounds like -- it's a very complicated -- Rushern Baker said he wanted to take charge of the schools and be responsible for the schools. Now it sounds like you're expanding the bureaucracy with a larger school board. Who can do this? And this person must respond to that person. Just -- it just sounds like you're not going to make much progress in getting the school streamlined and focused in reform direction.
JACOBSWell, unfortunately, those -- that has been sort of one of the arguments that we made from the very beginning because, quite frankly, if you look at it, the superintendent will be answering to so many people now. I think it adds up to somewhere around 17, to be honest with you. But this structure sort of invites contention, which is what I thought we wanted to get away from. We need more collaboration and not contention.
JACOBSAnd I'm not suggesting that, in any way, that there would be some automatic situation in that case. I'm just suggesting that, you know, we're now talking about, as you just said, sort of expansion of and moving chairs of -- you know, moving the chairs of adults. Again, we need to be talking about, what are we going to do for children?
JACOBSAnd I think that was also one of the very things that we heard loud and clear from our constituency, which is, where is the plan? You know, if we're not -- you know, Mr. Baker has consistently said that progress has been -- he agrees with us, us and the state board of education, that the progress has been steady. It's been consistent. It's shown double-digit gains.
SHERWOODThis is -- but going back to the -- trying to craft this compromise plan of who's going to be in charge...
SHERWOOD...across the country, here in the District of Columbia and other places, in Chicago and New York and other places, school systems have been taken over by someone to manage them and appointed directly by mayor in that case. Michelle Rhee was in town last week, I think it was. I spoke to her. And she said you have to clarify the upper levels of who's in charge. You cannot make reform and changes by committing.
JACOBSWell, that's absolutely correct. I mean, I certainly agree with her on that. The reality is, you know, if you're going to design the kind of plan that totally restructures and overhauls our system, there has to be accountability, I mean, and I think that's what we've really been talking about here. Who's -- you know, one of the things that county executive says is that now you know who's accountable for education.
JACOBSWell, you know, our argument has consistently been we're all accountable for education, because at every single level of government, including the board of education, we all have a role in this process. And so I think what we have is that -- you know, it's one of those things where they're saying, let's just work out the details once we get through this part. But in the meantime, children can't wait. We have to make sure that we don't, you know, regress.
NNAMDIWell, when the county executive was on this broadcast yesterday, he said indeed that with this new system, the buck stops with him. If you want to know what's wrong or why something is not being corrected at a school, come to him. That's what he wants because he says, prior to this, you didn't know whether to go to your individual school board member. You didn't know whether to go to the whole board. You didn't know whether to go to the superintendent's office. He says, in future, the buck stops with me. What do you say?
JACOBSI say -- you know, all due respect, that's just not -- I mean, I'm glad that he accepts that responsibility, but it doesn't stop with the rest of us. We all feel responsible. You know, at the end of the day, he's saying -- you know, I think during one of the budget processes that he had, there were constituents who were asking him questions about education. And he said that he -- that they thought that he was responsible. Well, they were right. He is and so are we. So I think...
SHERWOODWell -- excuse me. I apologize for interrupting. The problem is the cliché is that if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. That's what's happened in other places. If he has such diverse -- dispersed, not diverse, but dispersed leadership, then everyone -- I mean look at this Silver Spring transportation disaster up there with three or four people pointing fingers in the circle. I just don't see where the clear lines of authority are, are going to be.
JACOBSWell, let's think about what you just said for a minute. So, first of all, the superintendent runs the day-to-day operations of the school district. That's the way it is by law. The school board, you know, is the governing body. So let me -- so, for example, think about what you just said -- I mean if that were true across the board, what do you think about nine county councilmembers?
JACOBSWhat do you think about 13 county councilmembers? You think about 24 in a delegation. I mean at the end of day you're supposed to collaborate around the very important issues of your community. And this is one where every single person that runs for elected office said education is number one. So that means we're all responsible, and it means we should collaborate around what that looks like.
NNAMDIOK. Well, if you're making the argument that the adult-shifting musical chairs won't help the children, you have said that that won't solve the problem, that won't fix the root of the problem the schools are facing, what is the root of the problem, or what are those problems to you?
JACOBSSo I can tell you, you know, we have been on this sort of on this path now. This is my seventh year on the board, and we have when I started on the board, let me give you an example. Fourth grade reading and math was at 48, 50 percent, fourth and fifth grade. We're now -- the gap is closing. So we're talking about this gap now. We're not talking about some huge divide. We're talking about students now at 78 and 82 percent.
JACOBSSo from the top district if you will in Maryland to the lowest district in Maryland, whether it's between Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Dorchester from a ranking perspective, if you wanted to use that, we're talking about a gap that is nowhere near what we are used to. Oftentimes, when you hear people talk about Prince George's County, they'll say, back in 2001 and 2002 when -- so we need to update ourselves.
JACOBSSo to answer your question, 74,000 of our 123,000 students are eligible for free or reduced meals. We're the second highest in the state for special ed, second highest in the state for English language learners. That means that we have to do reform efforts which we have been doing now for several years that are geared to students, and not just because I'm saying it, but we have the data to prove it.
JACOBSThe State Department of Education demonstrates that our students are foreign, free and reduced meals, special ed and ELL students are doing just as well or better than even the top-performing schools -- school districts in the state of Maryland. So we're doing the work is what I'm saying. So...
SHERWOODWill we be able to go to -- back to your fifth district and all the schools that does elementary and other schools in your district and say to those parents and teachers and administrators that whatever is coming out of the legislature in these closing days, we'll make the school system better? Are you hopeful that it will be? Are you certain that it will be?
JACOBSI can tell you that I'm hopeful, and I'll go back to my district, and I'll tell -- and I'll make sure that my constituents know that I'm going to continue the work that I have been doing for kids because that's why I'm here. And I think that if we really stay focus on what we're talking about, that's, you know, at the end of the day, that's what we should be concentrating on. I mean I started this work some seven years ago, but I've done 23 years in the Department of Corrections and served by the hearing examiner for kids who were suspended and expelled from school before that time.
JACOBSSo I get it. I get what's happening to our community. But the other thing I think is really critical that I'll say to my district is, you know, we have to own what's ours. You know, we are a wealthy county, but we have pockets of wealth. And then we have to own the conditions of poverty. And I think that the very fact that sometimes we want to just own the wealth of Prince George's County is where we find we have problems. We have to be able to bring others up, and that requires a commitment that's about kids.
NNAMDIYou have offered to suspend the search for a new superintendent to put the brakes on this plan, but it looks as if d plan is going forward. If indeed the House agrees with the Senate and votes to put this plan into play, what happens with the superintendent search? Apparently, according to the county executive yesterday, it starts over again.
JACOBSWell, what we actually said just to be clear I know what The Post reported but what we actually said was that we were willing to have that conversation about where do we go from here. So, for example, we invited our county executive in the initial interview at the very beginning before we got to our finalists, but when we did get to our finalists, we had another round of interviews.
JACOBSAnd he interviewed all three of the clients -- of the finalists. And so we would have liked to have gotten some feedback, something from him relative to the three people, and we were actually told that we would get some feedback. But -- so -- but to your question, clearly, as long as the -- as long as we have the authority, we are not going to do anything that shows bad faith to individuals to have committed themselves to apply for this job, be willing to move if necessary. And so we wouldn't do anything that would be in bad faith to enter into a contract agreement knowing that this is hanging out there.
JACOBSSo we have delayed the process. And certainly, if the county executive is -- I mean, obviously, I think, you know, hopefully he'll have the county attorney's office, you know, talk to legal issues quite frankly because these people have, in fact, put themselves out there. But all I'm saying is that if the legislation passes in its entirety the way it's currently situated, then that's a conversation that will obviously has to happen.
NNAMDIHere is Oscar is Oxon Hill, Md. Oscar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OSCARYes, good evening. Well, two things to -- one, let's be clear. There's no super star superintendent out there who's willing to come and magically wave a magic wand and make -- there's just nothing. It's not about who...
OSCARNow, hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
NNAMDIBut, Oscar, seven and 10 years is a lot. Go ahead, please.
OSCARWell, it's not about the superintendent. I mean, if anything with that -- Michelle Rhee proved that that doesn't work. Here's the thing: The two things that matter most is accountability for students and parents. Until someone is willing to hold students and parents more accountable for the achievement of their children, nothing's going to work. And all you have to do is look at the demographics. Wherever there's a height -- a level of socioeconomics, you get better results. And what is it? That the kids -- there's no urgency amongst the kids to get things done.
SHERWOODWell, certainly, charter schools in the city, the District of Columbia and in other places, charter schools have gone to very poor neighborhoods that are socioeconomic neighborhoods and have done terrific jobs with students and parents.
NNAMDIWell, your turn, Verjeana Jacobs.
JACOBSWell, let me just say this. I think that we do have to -- we have to think. So one of the policies that the board put in place talks about parents being our partners, and we define that as parents who defend their kids, ready for school, ready to learn. And so -- but what we recognize is that we do have communities where that's not happening. And so that means that school impact has to have a great impact.
JACOBSAnd to -- but to the gentleman's point, I mean, he's correct. It doesn't -- it's not one person that's going to do it. And I just want to say this because I think the reporting, which is what I was getting at earlier, I've been on the board since 2006. We've had two superintendents. We're on our third one now. I'm not suggesting that we're happy about that.
JACOBSBut, you know, this whole thing of keep throwing out this -- how many superintendents we had in certain number of years, you know, I'm in my seventh year. We've had two superintendents. We only hire one. And so we just need to start updating ourselves on where we are today and how do we move forward and how do we contain to hold all of us...
NNAMDIWhich brings us to the bottom line once again and that's the children in the system relying on the adults to make this a smoother path for them through the process. If, indeed, this is passed in the Maryland General Assembly, what is your level of confidence that after all of this, you, your board and the county executive will be able to work together with degree of harmony?
JACOBSWell, I can tell you this. We don't have a choice. If we are really in this for children and these are not about adult-driven decisions, then we must make -- both sides, everybody must make the decisions that we have to do with in the best interest of kids. And I think -- and so at the end of the day, what I would hope to see happen is that the county executive would also look at what we already have in place and actually bring us a plan that says, you know, this is how we want to move...
NNAMDIVerjeana Jacobs is the chair of Prince George's County Board of Education. Thank you so much for joining us. Tom Sherwood, where's Loose Lips going?
SHERWOODHe's going to work for some public...
NNAMDIThe Center for Public Integrity.
SHERWOODYes. Yes. They're going to look at the state funding for election, maybe look into Virginia.
NNAMDIHe's be -- he's going to be stopping by the Politics Hour next week. Alan Suderman, that is, Loose Lips of City Paper...
SHERWOODA job is open right now.
NNAMDI...as part of his farewell tour. There should be some kind of Loose Lips legacy organization that this...
SHERWOODMaybe I can become the next Loose Lips.
NNAMDIOh, I doubt whether they'll have him. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's not going anywhere. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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