Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.
Speed bumps are on the agenda this week. In Virginia, new barriers to adoption for gay couples look likely to pass, while a bag tax stalls in Prince George’s County. District school bus drivers are linked to a fraud scheme, while DC firefighters are battling more than fires.
- David Catania D.C. Councilmember (I-At Large); Chairman of the Committee on Health
- Alan Suderman "Loose Lips" Columnist, Washington City Paper
- Edward Smith President, Washington D.C. Firefighters Association, Local 36
- Kenneth Ellerbe Chief, D.C. Fire and EMS Department (FEMS)
Politics Hour Extra
Catania said that when the council originally approved the lottery contract back in 2010, the contract did not include any information about Internet gambling, or “iGaming.” Catania said that the city’s Chief Financial Officer, Nat Gandhi, made material changes to the approved contract after the council had voted on it:
Ellerbe responds to Kojo’s questions about how a long-held undercurrent of racism has affected the department and, in particular, current tensions over proposed changes to shift hours:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood, but he's on vacation today. So today, we're starring Alan Suderman, "Loose Lips" columnist with the Washington City Paper. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is off this week. He felt the need to take off, to limber up for next week, during our membership campaign when we do "The Politics Hour." So he will be back next week.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur guest analyst today is Alan Suderman, "Loose Lips" columnist with the Washington City Paper. Alan, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALAN SUDERMANThanks, Kojo. I mean, how many vacations does Tom really need to take in a year?
NNAMDII think about 50 of the 52 weeks per year, he's basically on vacation.
SUDERMANHe might be a spy, you know?
NNAMDIHe might be a spy, but I think he's rolling the dice in Atlantic City or someplace else even as we speak. Today, we have, in a way, an abbreviated version of "The Politics Hour" because our first guest is the -- Councilmember David Catania at-large on the District Council who invariably has a lot to say. And because he has a lot to say, that causes us to have to constrain the rest of our time. So we have, in a way, an abbreviated version. Councilmember Catania, welcome.
MR. DAVID CATANIAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou'll see I introduce you right at the beginning...
NNAMDI...because some of the topics that Alan and I will be discussing, I am absolutely sure you have an opinion on, so feel free to join the conversation. Alan, what's up with District of Columbia employees who happen to be getting unemployment even as they are on the job, more than 90 employees, apparently many of them who happen to be working in the D.C. public schools?
SUDERMANRight. But a lot of them are actually school bus drivers, so, you know, they're not teachers. I mean -- just so that's clear. But, yeah, there's around 90 who have been allegedly working, pulling a city paycheck and at the same time getting unemployment benefits. And then there's about 40 or so former city employees who allegedly were doing part of the same scheme. So it was big news this week when the Gray administration came out and said, you know, we've -- this is what's happening, and we're suspending these people.
SUDERMANAnd many of them are probably going to get fired, though the attorney general said it's doubtful very many will actually be prosecuted.
NNAMDIBut when you get to as many as 90, David Catania, the Atty. Gen. Irvin Nathan's saying that it doesn't look like there was any ringleader or collusion in the scheme. It seems to me that somebody had to be spreading the word around someplace.
CATANIAI mean, it's just mind-boggling. You know, it's just there's something that permeates for some reason. You know, once someone does it and others kind of catch-on -- you know, but there's just -- there's an absence of law enforcement, an absence of integrity. There's just something that is not right. And I don't want to pick on just these 90 individuals. It's just across the board. You know, we've -- to some extent, we've lost our sense of right and wrong.
NNAMDIIt seems that there is, in some regard, a culture of hustlerism (sic) that takes place in some District of Columbia departments. But we wouldn't want to slander the majority of hardworking employees.
SUDERMANBut can I show you an illustration that came to my attention yesterday? A person was telling me how they just busted a Metro officer who would take Metro bags because there was no way for them to determine how much -- you know, when they would collect the money, you know, there was no controls. And so the Metro officer would simply take the bag of money to the nearest 7-Eleven and count the quarters out and buy the lottery tickets in his badge and in his uniform.
SUDERMANYou know, and it took -- this had been going on, evidently, from the person telling me the story, for some time, and no one thought anything of it, including the person at the 7-Eleven.
NNAMDIWell, how did the story get broken if the person from the 7-Eleven didn't drop a line?
SUDERMANWell, someone else kind of spotted it and thought that it looked suspicious.
CATANIAWell, maybe the 7-Eleven employee thought that Metro pays its employees in quarters.
SUDERMANWell, I -- or maybe that was Metro's way of making ends meet. I mean, maybe if they play the numbers, they could finally catch up on their capital...
SUDERMAN...you know, and their spending.
NNAMDIOne of the ways in which the District of Columbia has been either, A, helping with the traffic problems or, B, raising money, has to do with speed cameras, and Chef Geoff Tracy didn't like it at all in his neighborhood. Tell us that story, Alan Suderman.
SUDERMANYeah. So he got popped -- I forget what road he was on, but, anyway, he got...
SUDERMANFoxhall Road. He got popped with a couple tickets, so he offered to pay someone 1,200 bucks, I think, to stand in front of the camera with a sign saying, you know, speed cameras up ahead.
NNAMDICamera up above.
SUDERMANAnd it seems like, you know, with these speed cameras -- every time they put a camera in a new spot, people are going to get tickets that they weren't used to getting. There's going to be this huge cry about it. And, you know, once people get used to these cameras, generally, it dies down until they move them again. And then people get (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, he was just upset, and Foxhall Road is in one of the more affluent sections of the city. Way over on the other end of the city, on Branch Avenue, Southeast, there was a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit on a downhill, and apparently right at the bottom of that hill, there was another camera. And people came up with another kind of reason this time to oppose the cameras. Well, it's affecting low-income residents of the city.
SUDERMANOh, yeah, that's the Rev. Bill Bennett. He also happens to be running for the Ward 7 council seat, so that's a great way to get attention, is to protest speed cameras. You know, rich, poor, every neighborhood in the city, I think, there's been complaints about speed cameras, also in Montgomery County when they introduced them there. You know, very affluent neighborhoods, you know, were complaining about them.
NNAMDIBut I got to tell you the truth, David Catania, it seems to me that there are also reports indicating that the presence of speed cameras has led to a reduction in accidents in those parts of the city.
CATANIAWell, I mean, that really is the underlying issue behind the speed cameras, and I think that -- you know, I completely understand the concerns of residents who believe that, you know, these cameras are being used as revenue generators. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that, if you happen to watch us during appropriation hearings. But the real fact of the matter is these cameras, especially on highways, especially on those dangerous intersections, can reduce, you know, can reduce the speed with which people travel and can actually save lives.
CATANIABut there's such a cynicism in the city that people believe that we are actually doing this to raise money. And part of restoring confidence, you know, in our, you know, in this government, I think, is to take a step back and look at, you know, how -- the proliferation of fines over the last few years, especially to make ends meet, as things have gotten tighter, you know, reductions in income tax, et cetera, we've gone to other sources of revenue.
CATANIAI mean, I think it's time as our coffers slowly start to refill with improved income tax, improve corporate tax, that we look at lowering some of these fees and removing, you know, the revenue aspect of these fines and return them to their original purpose. In this instance, it's to promote public safety. So, you know, I certainly -- I think we need to be more selective in the application, but I don't want to see a departure.
CATANIAI mean, I don't want to see us become like Arizona, for instance, where I'm not mistaken, there's a -- they maybe have even included in it their Constitution that you cannot have speed cameras.
SUDERMANThey repealed. They used to have them, and they repealed them. I believe they repealed them. I'm not 100 percent.
CATANIABut when you're allowed -- in one state, you're allowed to have them in cities but not on long, you know, stretches of highways, et cetera. But in any event, my objection is they're using this as a revenue source, not as a safety promotion.
SUDERMANWell, you know, in Maryland, you can only charge $40 per speed camera ticket. In the District, I think that there's a scale that -- I think it's, you know -- in general, I think they're a lot higher than that. And I think that's what, in the District, leads to a lot of people thinking it's...
NNAMDIYou know what was the last one I got?
NNAMDI$125. That's just...
SUDERMANI think that's typical for the typical price they're charging. And, you know, that's a lot more than $40.
NNAMDIAnd Chef Geoff Tracy says for his cooks and busboys, they would have to work a day and a half...
NNAMDI...to pay off one of those (unintelligible).
CATANIAYou know, $40 is...
SUDERMANAnd I think that's the point. I mean, I think that, you know, what we've done is we've slowly inched these fines up. And, you know, and so, you know, had we gone from $40 to $125, there would have been a hue and cry, but this is over several years. We inch it up. And, look, I would favor a complete review of this fine structure because it is oppressive, and he is right. For people of modest means, you know, this is a bigger hit than it is to someone with more money.
SUDERMANBut, at the same time, I wouldn't want to say that poorer neighborhoods ought to be immune from these traffic enforcement devices because I wouldn't want to see poorer residents or residents in less affluent areas subject to less safe streets.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Catania on the politics program -- "The Politics Hour." He's an at-large District council member. He joins us in studio, along with our resident analyst today. Alan Suderman is the "Loose Lips" columnist with the Washington City Paper. David Catania, the United Medical Center, the struggling hospital in Southeast that the District took over a year-and-a-half ago, back in the news.
NNAMDIThe latest idea is developing the hospital's 17-acre campus to generate revenue. We know that Mayor Gray has said the goal is to make sure the hospital can be self-sustaining. Is this part of that plan?
CATANIAWell, you know, I just want to continue my objection to the notion of struggling. You know, I...
NNAMDII realized that as I was saying it.
CATANIAYeah. That's all right. Actually, we just received, you know, the financial performance reports for the last fiscal year, and you will recall, when the city took this hospital over in the summer of 2010, our CFO claimed that it would cost us between $750,000 to $1.5 million a month to operate. And it had accumulative capital needs of $30 million. And it painted this all into the belief that if we did not close or, you know, unload this hospital quickly, it would be a financial drain on the city.
CATANIAI made the case at the time that certain things that we had done, including increasing dish payments, DRG payments for Medicaid reimbursement payments and, you know, enhancing certain services that are offered there from OB-GYN to mental health, et cetera, that we could turn this hospital around. And the proof, frankly, is in the audit. So for fiscal year 2011, this hospital had a $2.5 million profit and self-funded all of its capital needs.
CATANIAAnd that is a remarkable turnaround. The D.C. Hospital Association has said that this is nothing short of a miracle. We've done this by increasing outpatient and inpatient throughput, increasing services and improving the bottom line across the board. Do I object to us looking at how we develop the 17 acres? No. But what I'd rather us focus on is making sure we get a couple of years of clean audits.
CATANIAWe continue to increase, you know, the admissions in the hospital and the outpatient services that we continue to look for strategic partnerships as we have with Howard University, the National Institutes of Health, Washington Hospital Center and Children's National Medical Center, to continue to bring first-class services to the residents in that city, that part of our city. It has to be the focus of that site.
CATANIAIt cannot be yet another real estate deal. And that's my fear often that the people in power become -- they become distracted with shiny things, and they take their eye off the prize, which is a fully functioning healthy medical facility.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. What you seem to be saying is that it's one thing to be looking at development on that site, the so-called shiny new objects. It's another thing to link that development to the self-sustainability of the hospital because you're saying that right now it's self-sustaining, so let's stop saying that.
CATANIAThat's right. Can I just say there's a self-fulfilling prophecy? I mean, there's no question that we have our work cut out for us in terms of rehabilitating that hospital and the minds of the people who live in that community. It doesn't matter the partners that we bring in some instances because after a decade of having been, you know, a drumbeat of poor services, people are not going to take a chance with their health and the health of their loved ones to go there.
CATANIAAnd that's why we've been bringing in these strategic partners that I've mentioned to help increase people's confidence, but my point is, every time we talk about that place as being on the financial brink when it is not, it resurrects the view of the place that existed several years ago, when they didn't have money for pharmaceuticals, bandages, broken elevators, et cetera.
NNAMDISo what do you say to people like the D.C. Nurses Association, who obviously think that this is yet another attempt to close down this hospital? They've sent a letter to Mayor Gray last week that said, in part, we do not plan to endure the closing of this facility under the ruse that you want to turn the hospital into an outpatient facility. Are they right to be concerned about that?
CATANIAWell, the McGladrey report, which did mention, you know, increased outpatient services and others. I mean, it was actually a pretty solid report. What wasn't clear was that, you know, some of the suggestions made in the McGladrey report have already been well underway for some time, including enhancing outpatient services. You know, I think the objection that the nurses have is increasing outpatient at the exclusion of acute inpatient.
CATANIAI happen to agree with the nurses. I happen to believe that that part of our city is growing. That part of our city needs an important, high-quality acute care facility, which is what we're offering. It's good and getting in better. And that should be our focus. That should be our focus. I mean, let's face it, we have 13 council members, at this point, 11 and a mayor, and we have limited time and attention, and we have to decide where our priorities are and how we will spend our time.
CATANIAYou know, I continue to go back to the partnership with Children's National Medical Center there that now runs the children's pediatric ER. And that has served as a benefit for the entire city, and here's how. There's 24,000-plus kids per year that are going to that facility on Southern Avenue. We've actually decreased the wait time on main campus as a result. So we're treating kids closer to where they live.
CATANIAWe're relieving the wait time on the main campus, and we're providing high-quality care, same standards across the city. That should be exactly what we'd do with all of the other services at that site, giving people the opportunity for high-quality care where they live.
SUDERMANWhen's the last time you talked to the mayor about the hospital?
CATANIAWe actually spoke right after the McGladrey report and -- I mean, the mayor and I have the same vision. We just have, perhaps, a slightly different way of getting there. He believes, as I do, that -- and it's part of his mantra, that if we're going to have one city, that means one city. That doesn't mean two sets of services. It means one set. And so I just choose to spend my time trying to improve on a daily basis the quality of our partners and the quality of outcome.
CATANIAAnd that doesn't mean making excuses where there are problems. It means, looking for ways constantly to do it better. One of the things we're looking at now, frankly, is getting the hospital, is getting United Medical Center, to purchase on the supply schedule of MedStar. And there's a perfectly good, you know, reason. I mean, MedStar has better credit and they purchase in aggregation. We can save hundreds of thousands of dollars if we simply buy on their supply schedule.
CATANIAAll of these things go to the bottom line of improving United Medical Center. But I just want to -- I want to just say, for the record, this hospital is making money and it is a miracle what we were able to do there. There's not another safety net hospital in 2012 America that is making a profit.
NNAMDIWhat do you think should be the future of United Medical Center? Call us at 800-433-8850, or any other questions or comments you have for Councilmember David Catania. Mayor Gray announced his truancy reduction campaign yesterday, which is related to one of the issues that you're focused on right now, addressing youth violence in the District. Tell us about the bill you put forward.
CATANIASo, Kojo, you and many of our listeners will recall that in March of 2010, it was one of the most horrific evenings in the history of our city, where four young people were killed over nonsense, over a missing bracelet. You know, and what's so...
SUDERMANA fake gold bracelet.
CATANIAWell, what so bothered me about that was, you know, we have the typical -- and it's -- I don't want to just diminish our elected officials here. This is what happens across the country. Whenever there is a catastrophe, politicians come out with the community. And we have candlelight vigils, and we swear it'll never happen again. And then everyone goes home. Well, for the last two years, you know, I was determined not to do that, and so we -- you know, and I have to credit Nardyne Jefferies, who's the mother of Brishell Jones, one of the four young people who lost their lives that night.
CATANIANardyne became kind of an emotional laser beam, for lack of a better term. She refused to let us take our attention away from the subject. So we spent the last two years crafting what is the most comprehensive youth behavioral health and truancy intervention program of its kind in the country. And individuals who want to know more than we can talk about here can go to my website, davidcatania.com.
CATANIABut, I mean, we're essentially going to have, you know, we're looking at collecting the epidemiological data on what are the issues which we've not done before. We're expanding early childhood and school-based services. We're improving the truancy infrastructure, improving the Department of Mental Health and also the way in which we treat children who are in our Department of Youth -- Youth Rehabilitation Services and Child and Family services.
NNAMDIWho pays for that? How do we pay for all of that?
CATANIAMany of these children are Medicaid-eligible. We actually have the resources to pay for them now if we just get our acts together. And this bill has a lot of very, I think, simplistic, but kind of common sense-oriented solutions. Number one is I want all of our teachers and all of our daycare providers to be, to have continuing education in how to screen and spot behavioral health issues and also how to refer. That's a very simple issue.
CATANIAI want to expand our infrastructure within our DCPS and charter schools to have a full-time behavioral mental health specialist in every school. I want to make sure, for instance, that, you know, we are doing, you know, adequate programming on reducing aggressiveness and impulsive behaviors, also improving emotional competency and social competency. One of ten in of our children, we know anecdotally, has emotional conditions sufficient to require, you know, substantial therapy, substantial intervention, and yet too few receive it.
CATANIATruancy in our city is at an epidemic level, where at any particular point, 20 percent of our kids will miss 15 days of school or more per year. And we know for a ninth grader, if that child misses 15 days or more, there's only a 41 percent chance that that child will graduate. But we also know, which is perhaps not intuitive -- but the evidence suggests that the number one reason for truancy actually has to do with behavioral health issues. And with no infrastructure to deal with behavioral health issues, we're not ultimately going to deal with truancy.
NNAMDIAlan Suderman, interrupt at will. Tom Sherwood would have.
SUDERMANDid you ever skip school?
CATANIANo. I missed one day of school in the fifth grade. My mother was just not -- she would not have had that. Everyone got up. Everyone did their job.
NNAMDIYou want to move to snow shoveling?
SUDERMANNo, let's talk about...
CATANIAMay I mention the truancy, that what I want to do differently here with respect -- I mean, the mayor and I certainly appreciate his focus on this.
NNAMDIWe've got to tape this conversation, but go ahead.
CATANIABut here's what's different. Right now, the adults in the city, from their teachers to the principals to the parents, have failed these children. Our truancy rate is sentencing these children to diminished lives, and no one seems to be doing anything about it.
NNAMDII've often wondered that we've been focusing on teachers at the expense of looking at things like truancy.
CATANIAWell, let me just say this, that, right now, you can have your child truant for 25 days in a school year. They can miss more than a month. Before, there's even a notion of referral to court services, social services. I want to remove that to 15 days, which is more inclined with the rest of the country. But I also don't want this to simply be punitive. So what my law -- what my bill would is it creates students support teams within schools that at your fifth unexcused absence, you are brought before this student support team.
CATANIAAnd they are under an obligation to look at the root causes of your particular truancy. That doesn't happen. So for some children, it might be they're bullied on their way to school. For some, it might be a parent who's absent. For others, it might be a transportation issue. But the adults in that school are required in concert with the parent at the fifth unexcused absence to get to the bottom of it.
NNAMDICompare that with Virginia or jurisdiction in Virginia, which we'll be talking about on Monday, in which going to school late too often can have your parents end up in court. Alan.
SUDERMANYeah. I want to shift gears a little, if we could. So there's a lot -- I mean, there's not a lot, but the talk has started already, Kojo, if you can believe it, about the 2014 mayoral race. And I wanted to ask Councilmember Catania if he (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, first, I wanted to reveal what you have already revealed in your -- in "Loose Lips," and that is that there's a ground swell, if not a ground swell talk for one Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser?
SUDERMANYeah, I can't take credit for that, but, yeah, that was the story. Chuck Thies, he's a political consultant...
SUDERMANYeah, sorry, Chuck -- has written -- but, you know, lots of people have talked about that. I believed The Post was working on a story like that so that we could see something...
NNAMDIOK. But, now, to the councilmember-at-hand.
SUDERMANBut now to the -- so people are talking about Councilmember Muriel Bowser. People have talked about council martyr Tommy Wells. So I wanted to know if Councilmember Catania was interested.
CATANIAYou know, to be honest, I'm interested in getting this South Capitol Street act passed. I'm eager, you know, and right now, what we're working on is just implementing this and, you know, and some of the other measures that we've had a hand in creating and advancing over the last couple years. You know, I think if you spend too much time trying to get your next job, you're not doing your current job.
CATANIAAnd, to be honest, I mean, there's some really exciting things that are happening in our city that just don't get the attention that, I think, they deserve, including our work with respect to nursing homes. It wasn't that long ago that the District was really at the bottom of the barrel. And...
NNAMDISee how he changed the subject? In other words...
NNAMDI...yes, but I'm not going to reveal my plans to you right now.
CATANIANo, no, no, no. Listen, Kojo, I've been coming here long enough to know -- you should know by now that if I have something to say, I mean, I'm going to say it.
NNAMDIThis is true.
CATANIAAnd if I am thinking something, I'll say it. I'm usually the second person to hear what I say, right? And so, you know, I really believe that there are very serious issues right now that we should be focusing on in the 2014...
NNAMDIBut snow shoveling is the one that seems to be getting to your colleagues on the council riled up. What action should be taken against homeowners who do not shovel their sidewalks when it snows? Councilmember Graham offered an amendment that residents should only face fines if their streets had already been plowed by the city. He says, if we're going to go this far, let's at least have D.C. government before we start ticketing those same residents on the streets that have not cleared. But you, in response, said, that strikes me as rotten, selfish ideology.
NNAMDII want to live in a city where we feel a responsibility to help out our neighbors. We got an email from Paul, who says, "I wanted to indicate my support of Councilmember Catania's comments on the Councilwoman Cheh's snow-shoveling legislation. Residents should act responsively. Residents should help their elderly neighbors. Fines should be issued when this does not happen. Depending on when storms end, the eight-hour rule should be discussed, but when it's days after the storm, non-shovelers should be ticketed."
NNAMDIYou have sentiments like that one?
CATANIAI agree. And I think, you know, the important thing is to make sure that fines won't get out of control like we discussed in earlier with the speed cameras.
NNAMDIWho fines the city?
CATANIAWell, you know what, here is the thing though. What -- I thought there was something cynical about the amendment that you just mentioned. It was the two-wrongs-make-a-right amendment that I don't like.
CATANIAJust because the city doesn't do its job doesn't relieve me of my responsibility to my neighbors. And with respect to, you know, the snowstorm we had two years ago that was apocalyptic, you know, if the city were to maintain the kind of staff and snow removal equipment, et cetera, that would be required of those once-in-a-century storms, that would blow our budget every year. So we make a calculated guess on what we can afford and what we need given in a normal snow fall.
CATANIAThere are times when it goes beyond that, and it just is incumbent upon us all to understand that this city belongs to us. It doesn't belong to the government. We are the government. There's a Tea Party element that I said, you know, during my remarks this week that seems to permeate this debate that, well, the government doesn't do it, so what? I just don't understand that.
SUDERMANYeah, but how can you expect someone -- a government employee with a straight face to write someone a ticket while the street behind them is filled with snow?
CATANIAWell, you know, but not all streets are major streets. Let's be honest. And one of the reasons we do -- I look at our citizens kind of as a National Guard in an emergency situation, right? The regular Army is busy trying to plow the major streets, and so we enlist the National Guard, our regular rank-and-file citizens, to help us at the same time. And so, you know, I live on a very small, one-way street block.
CATANIAI don't expect to plow down my street, but I expect my neighbors, and I expect I will, you know, that we will collectively clear not only our sidewalks but those of our neighbors, which has happened during -- which would happen during that snow about a couple of years ago. And so again, I just think that there's something kind of selfish about the point of view that, well, if the government doesn't do it then I'm relieved of my obligations, because it detaches me from my community. And I just don't like it.
NNAMDIYou mean you don't use your personal influence to get your street cleared? That may be why James in Washington, D.C., has this sentiment about you. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESGood morning. Good afternoon, Kojo.
JAMESThanks for taking my call. Hi, David.
JAMESYep. Whenever you're ready to run for mayor, I will support you.
CATANIAOh, thank you.
JAMESYou going to -- I want you to know right now, you're going to get a problem winning the race, not because of the color of your skin, but because of your intellectual ability.
JAMESI'll go way...
NNAMDIWhoa, whoa, whoa...
JAMES...back to the days of Mayor Williams.
NNAMDIYou're saying that David Catania may be too smart to run for mayor, or to be voted for?
JAMES(unintelligible) you know, he's just too articulate. I'll go back to the days of Mayor Williams. He used to give those guys so much (word?). I said this guy got somebody who is doing proper research for him. So I -- I'll be the first to support you.
SUDERMANThe councilmember does have...
JAMESYou're very welcome.
SUDERMAN...someone doing proper research for him. He's got a spreadsheet here with highlighted notes on very different topics.
CATANIAAbsolutely. I'm very lucky. Can I tell you? I mean, I would've -- I just...
NNAMDISpeaking of council members doing proper research, the council voted Tuesday to repeal the District's Internet gambling law. The vote was 10-2. You were one of those who voted to reverse the law. Councilmember Tommy Wells said that council members were unaware of what they were voting for when they voted -- when they approved Internet gambling in 2010, quoting him, "They didn't even use the word Internet gambling. They used the word I-gambling. We voted as" -- well, it goes on.
NNAMDIIf you're doing that much research -- and I know that a lot of council members don't read every word of every bill, but you certainly have staffs who do -- I find it to difficult to accept the excuse that we didn't know what I-gaming meant.
CATANIAWell, if I could just take a second to highlight the extraordinary staff that many of us have, these are great public servants in their own right. I know many who could go out and instantly triple their salaries. But they do it, and they support us. And they often take slack because of it. So we've got great staff. With respect to the idea...
NNAMDISo nobody caught that I-gaming?
CATANIAWell, no, but the issue really wasn't that. I mean, I have a slightly different take from Councilmember Wells. In March of 2010, when we approved the lottery contract, it didn't say anything about I-gaming or Internet gambling or anything of the sort. It was simply approving the lottery contract. What happened between December of 2009 and March 2010 is that the chief financial officer, according to the inspector general, materially altered the contract in such a way that would permit I-gaming to occur.
CATANIAThat's the problem, you know, and I'm often accused for being the biggest critic of our CFO. And I'll be the first to say he's very competent in a lot of ways, but there are some areas -- I think he's been in the position too long, and I think it's gotten to his head and he's starting to act in ways that are not consistent with his responsibilities, and this being one of them.
CATANIAIt's the council's job to approve contracts, and any material change would require a return to the council for a supplemental approval or a retroactive approval. So the fact is that the contract was changed after we approved, which opened the door for I-gaming, and that is the problem.
NNAMDIYou get the last question, Alan Suderman. We're running out of time.
SUDERMANYeah. But you knew what you are voting for, right, when you guys approved it, I think, it was at December 2010?
CATANIAI knew I was voting for a lottery contract. That I did know. But what I didn't know was that subsequently, Nat Gandhi would insert language and materially change...
SUDERMANNo, no, no. I'm talking about when you guys actually put the language into legalize Internet gambling, that was a later vote.
CATANIAThat -- absolutely, but it was with the understanding that we would have a large dialogue that would follow it, not that there was a, you know, an event that had happened beyond our knowledge that had already set that -- those actions in play.
NNAMDICouncilmember David Catania, there's a lot more we have to talk about, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Will you come back and visit with us sometime in the near future?
CATANIAAbsolutely, Kojo, can I just ask the people to go to the website davidcatania.com and learn more about the South Capitol Street? I want to thank Nardyne Jeffries for all of her work over the last two years. And I know we, you know, sometimes things moves slowly, but I think getting a really good product that's going to revolutionize the way we help our children deal with their environment and improve themselves is a critical thing for our city.
NNAMDIWe'll try to make sure we put up a link to your website...
CATANIAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDI...at davidcatania.com. David Catania is an at-large...
CATANIAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDI...District councilmember. You're more than welcome. You're listening to the Politics Hour. Our guest analyst today is Alan Suderman. He is the "Loose Lips" columnist with the Washington City Paper. Of course, we take your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWe are moving on now to the issues confronting the D.C. Fire Department. If you have comments or questions about that, you can start calling now, 800-433-8850. We will be talking later with Chief Kenneth Ellerbe of the District Fire and EMS Department. But first, joining us by phone is Edward Smith, president of the District of Columbia Firefighters Association, Local 3. Edward Smith, thank you for joining us.
MR. EDWARD SMITHGood morning. Afternoon I should say.
NNAMDIYes, indeed, it is afternoon. The fire department has been in the news quite a bit lately. It seems relations between firefighters and fire department officials have been deteriorating, and maybe it's a something of a low point. Would you say that that is accurate?
SMITHWell, that's probably a pretty accurate assessment.
NNAMDIWhat's the biggest issue as you see it?
SMITHOh, there's numerous issues.
SMITHThe biggest? Well, obviously the shift change, but we're currently in collective bargaining, which I can't really speak to that. So...
NNAMDISo I've been made to understand. But communication also seems to be a big issue. Do you ever actually meet with the fire chief?
SMITHCommunication is a issue. We do hold a labor management meeting once a month. Out of the last five labor management meetings, I believe the chief would step in the room for about five minutes, generally sits with the labor relations officer, so no direct interaction.
NNAMDIYou've said that federal mediation may be needed. That would be a serious step. Is there anything that can be done in your view to avoid that?
SMITHWell, you know, I received a phone call yesterday reference to possibly stems from the labor management partnership council, and I requested more information on it. You know, I'm not opposed to anything that will get it back on track, but, you know, it comes to a point where you get tired of buzz words and you want to see results.
NNAMDIWell, you're also concerned about a few specific things, the state of your equipment and a shortage of emergency medical service personnel. Care to talk about that?
SMITHYeah, the apparatus of the fleet is deplorable currently. And on any given day, there's really no reserves. When a frontline apparatus breaks, there isn't any replacement, so that essentially leaves that fire station, that piece of apparatus closed. If there's a major event, such as terrorism, there's no apparatus for returning firefighters to ride on. And, currently, there's a brand-new ambulance sitting at the shop that haven't been tagged or titled, and I'm not really sure how long it's been sitting there. They're desperately needed on the street.
SUDERMANEd, I was wondering...
NNAMDIHere is Alan Suderman.
SUDERMANYeah. Hi, Ed, could you give...
SUDERMAN...your version of events in terms of what happened on Saturday regarding the mayor's state of the district speech?
SMITHYeah, Saturday. Well, let me go back prior Saturday, actually, Tuesday, the week prior Saturday. You know, I've started receiving intel that members were organizing a grassroots effort to go to the mayor's state of the district address, which I subsequently took steps to quell and so it's not the proper forum to go do that. So then Saturday came along and the on-deputy -- the on-duty deputy fire chief working that day had a conference call with the battalion fire chiefs.
SMITHThey referenced to behavior for members attending, and if they acted inappropriately such as they did at the state of the department speech, they could face disciplinary charges.
SUDERMANI'll just step in and explain. At the chief's speech, about 100 firefighters, after the chief had spoken, they stood up, turn, you know, turned their back towards the chief while wearing DCFD, which stands for D.C. Fire Department, a logo that the chief has outlawed, and then walked out of the speech. So that's what Ed's referencing there.
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Ed.
SMITHSo I alerted that both Deputy Mayor Quander and Chief Ellerbe with my concerns. And then there was a subsequent flurry of emails. And by Sunday morning, they said it was entered in one journal in one firehouse inappropriately. So I then asked the chief via email to clarify in writing what expectations our members attending the State of the District address to quell any rumors and help me out, help me relay to my membership what's going on.
SMITHAnd then -- and the chief subsequently denied my request, and he insisted that I should reinforce the expectation of my members, which I plan on doing anyhow. And as you can see, there wasn't any protest at the mayor's speech. They just attended.
NNAMDIBut 100 firefighters walked out on Chief Ellerbe during the speech in which he proposed this shift change. A lot of people thought that was disrespectful. What do you say?
SMITHOh, I have to disagree with that. They sat there and were behaved and listened to the chief go through his presentation. They did not get up and leave until the question and answer portion.
NNAMDIOK. Alan Suderman, do you have any further questions for Ed, Edward Smith?
SUDERMANNo. I don't have a question. But I would say that I do think those 100 firefighters were obviously trying to make a point when they stood up and turned their backs so...
SMITHOh, they did make a point.
NNAMDIWhat point were they trying to make, Ed Smith?
SMITHOh, that we just want what's fair and reasonable and that, you know, we want a seat at this table.
NNAMDIAnd they are in contract negotiations right now. Edward Smith is the president of the District of Columbia Firefighters Association Local 3. Ed Smith, thank you for joining us.
SMITHKojo, can I leave a closing comment?
SMITHI just want to reassure the listening audience that we have the right tools and resources. We love our job, and we're proud to protect and serve the citizens and visitors of the District.
NNAMDIOK, Ed. Thank you very much for joining us, Edward Smith. Joining us in studio now is Kenneth Ellerbe. He is the chief of the District's Fire and EMS Department. Chief Ellerbe, thank you for joining us.
MR. KENNETH ELLERBEOh, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd of course, during the course of your responses, you are free to respond to any of the things that Ed Smith said while we were talking to him. But you have proposed shift changes for firefighters and EMS that are getting quite a pushback. It's my understanding that because of the contract negotiations currently taking place, you cannot go into the details of that. But, if you could, give us the bottom line of why you proposed those shift changes.
ELLERBEI don't even know if I can do that, to be honest with you. There are some documents, historical documents in the department that probably would be better served by answering your question to those documents. What I want to talk about is the state of the department address initially.
ELLERBEThat address was conducted because members had questions. They were curious about what we were doing and how we were doing it. We were -- we've had a pretty successful foist year in terms of maintaining our budget, managing our budget and reducing a lot of extraneous expenditures. I was prepared to answer questions, and that's what I thought we were doing when the members got up and turned their back. It was not a complete surprise, but I don't think that's the appropriate form in terms of expressing yourself.
ELLERBEI thought it'd been much better if they decided to ask the questions that they've been posing through BlackBerries, blogs and other places. And I was prepared to answer their questions. So, I mean, but people have a right to express themselves any way they want, and that was their choice.
NNAMDIBut you say the state of the fire department address or the state address was put together in response to the fact that members had questions so there were questions that were ask. They got up and left during the question and answer session?
ELLERBEWell, yes. To answer your question, the state of the department was put together to answer the firefighters' questions. It was an open forum so nobody had to feel intimidated or anything like that. And there were a few questions that were asked after the ones who decided to leave got up and left. And that was the whole purpose, to give them an opportunity to ask questions.
SUDERMANYeah. So could we get to -- could you clarify what happened in terms of the, you know, these orders or non-orders?
ELLERBEYeah. I'll be happy to do that. And I did talk on the phone with Ed Smith, Josh Williams and the deputy mayor of Public Safety and Justice, Paul Quander, about this incident. As soon as I was made aware of it, I looked into it. And what we found out was that one of the union members inappropriately entered information in the journal that was not part of their communication. And that -- it -- and incited the firestorm of controversy. We went to the journal itself. We got copies of it.
ELLERBEThere were emails exchanged. And to answer President Smith's request that I, in turn, send out an email or a formal written letter to the department to tell folks how to respond and how to act, my response was I don't think that the chief or anybody else needs to tell folks about appropriate behavior in a public forum.
SUDERMANRight. Could you explain what these journals are? My understanding is every firehouse has an official journal where orders -- you know, when they come down, they're entered into the journal.
ELLERBEEvery journal -- every firehouse has an official journal. That's where all of the activities are recorded. All of the daily activities are recorded. We went and looked at that journal. We made copies of it. And there was a later addition to what the member put in earlier that fully clarified what the chief's response -- what the chief's remarks were. So we went back to the member in question and had them put in exactly what they were told. And what they put in the second time was a little different from what was put in initially.
SUDERMANBut the firefighters are saying that there was more than just one journal. There were about half dozen or more firehouses around the city who got -- it wasn't word for word, but, basically, the similar order is coming down from your deputy chief of operations saying, if you go to this mayor's speech and you misbehave by my orders, you know, you're going to get written up on insubordination.
SUDERMANYour spokesman and the deputy mayor have both said, you know, that's not true. Those orders did not come from management. So there's, you know, a disparity there.
ELLERBEWell, I expect there's a difference of opinion, and the deputy chief may have said something about folks behaving properly. But the bottom line is we have had an incident already during the state of the department address where members behave in a way that some folks find to be inappropriate, and there was no disciplinary action. So to say that I was even considering saying something like that about the mayor's State of the District address would be a little bit different.
NNAMDIAlan, I've got a question for you and then I'm going to out it to the chief because the chief knows that I, like he, have been around for a long time, and I go back to what was called the Professional Firefighters Association way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alan, there has been, for decades, an undercurrent of race in a lot of the conflict in the fire department. In your coverage so far, have you picked up that undercurrent? And I'd be interested in hearing what you picked up and what your observations are about it.
SUDERMANWell, sure. That kind of came to the forefront this week when the chief suspended his spokesman Lon Walls.
NNAMDILon Walls, who I've also known for about 30 years.
SUDERMANYeah. And it -- just as an -- as a side, I want to ask the chief, do you -- does -- Lon is a national...
NNAMDIWell, how come I'm asking you a question, and you're responding by asking the chief a question?
NNAMDIThink about that.
SUDERMANSo Lon was fired -- was suspended because after the state -- the chief's speech where they walked out...
NNAMDIChaos. Lon made a comment that it was disrespectful and racist.
SUDERMANLon went on Twitter and Facebook and said it was not only disrespectful but plainly racist, you know, and that kind of touches the nerve in this department. There's been lawsuits going back -- discrimination lawsuits going back for a long time.
NNAMDIBut that's been -- what's been reported openly. I'm asking you if when you were actually talking to firefighters that comments they made to you off the record, which, obviously, we can't repeat on the air or in other circumstances, indicate to you that there are some fairly tense and sometimes hard racial feelings here.
SUDERMANYeah. I mean, I didn't get any specifics other than, yes, that there, you know, that there always has been and that they seem to have simmered up a bit higher than usual, you know, in light of, you know, the recent controversies so...
NNAMDIChief Ellerbe, how do you handle knowing yourself of that undercurrent, the racial undercurrent for a long time? How do you handle that? How do you negotiate that on a situation like this?
ELLERBEWell, I think we have to be very careful when it comes to the issue of race, and that was why Lon was placed on administrative leave just to give us all time to breathe a minute. We never want to interject race in an area or an environment where you already have some perceived challenges or even hostilities. That just exacerbates the problem, and I think Lon understands. Coming from the private sector, he was speaking on his own personal account, but, still, he is a government official at this point.
ELLERBEHe's no longer a private sector Lon Walls. He is now D.C. government Lon Walls, and we have to have a higher standard for the way we respond personally and professionally. And we'll have a conversation with him when he comes back to work, that, you know, people take what you say seriously. Even in a private environment, you have to be very careful about how you comment and, you know, discuss your observations.
NNAMDIIs there anything you have had to do or can do to diffuse the racial tension aspect of the differences between you and the firefighters?
ELLERBEI think that we are working toward that. One of the things that we take great pride in is the fact that there are two classes of employees, two training academy classes that had not been paid properly for years. Now they won't tell you this, but that's one of the things that we have resolved within the last two weeks.
ELLERBEYou know, making sure people get paid properly, making sure people are fairly treated, even when it comes to discipline, I think goes a long way in terms of setting the tone that diffuses those other extraneous issues that impact how we do our job.
NNAMDII have two callers who want to address different issues. I'll start with Allan in Northwest Washington. Allan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLANYes. Hi. Thank you, Chief and Kojo and all. I was curious about the Paul Rosenberg lawsuit settlement in terms of the training that was required. Instead of a cash settlement for the family, they wanted workers in the EMS trained to do the right thing in terms of bringing someone to the nearest hospital and not making stops and that sort of thing. And I also was curious that the people involved in that, I guess, were reinstated because of a time issue. It seems very unfair that that would have happened as well. Are they still working on EMS rounds, and how is the training going?
ELLERBEThe training is going very well. We have a new doctor, medical director, David Miramontes, who's instituted a different approach to training. Some of it is modular. Some of it is hands-on. Regarding the employees who are reinstated, there is a time frame that we have to respond to in terms of discipline. That was something that occurred before I became fire chief or fire and EMS chief. And sometimes we have to live with those timelines and the resultant outcomes.
ALLANYes. I mean, it's disappointing that the death of an individual is caused by negligent behavior, and behavior that now would be illegal and cause a disciplinary action. But just because of time, you know, requirements and legal actions or union requirements, it just seems a little scary that those people are still out there transporting...
ELLERBEWell, one thing I can say is we have a different approach to reviewing how our cases are resolved. We have a quality insurance group that looks at how things are done. And we've taken much swifter action in terms of ensuring that the public is safe. All of us need to understand the person that we work for, the people we work for are the community, the public at large. The fire department members don't really work for me.
ELLERBEThey work for the city. They work for the community. I work for the city and the community. And I think that we have shown, over the last year, despite the challenges that we have externally, that we are still performing at a very high level. We have a great department. And most of our members are doing a really fine job. There are very few who come -- who run into these challenges, and we either remediate that or we do something different.
NNAMDIAllan, thank you very much for your call. Got to move on to Mark in Columbia, Md. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKThanks, Kojo. I'm a firefighter on the job in Northern Virginia, and I think one of the key issues that, I think, the chief didn't address right out the gate was the work schedule. I understand they've got a contract, and that's still being worked on. But that work schedule, that type of work schedule is -- it's not healthy. It's not productive. A lot of jurisdictions have -- view that schedule as already years and decades ago now and got away from it for that simple reason. That type of shift leads to sleep deprivation.
NNAMDIWell, the proposal the chief made that he can't talk about because of contract negotiations, but I can talk about is that he is proposing that EMTs and paramedic will -- paramedics will all work 12-hour shifts, firefighters on a three-three-three schedule, three days on, three nights on and three days off. Currently, firefighters can work 24-hour shifts. Why do you think his proposal would cause firefighters to be more tired, I guess?
MARKWell, it's a function. A 24-hour schedule, some people view that as, oh, they sleep, and it's wasted money. And we'd rather have them "working the entire time." But if you look at the timeline of working three 12s during the day, 12 at night, by the time you get into -- just 'cause of the sleep cycle, by the time you get into those night shifts, you have people that are going to be making bad decisions in an already real hectic environment.
MARKIf you look throughout the Metro region, I don't think you'll find anybody working 12s. If you do, it'd be kind of an aberration. You look at Northern Virginia...
NNAMDIOK. We're running out of time very quickly, but it is my understanding, Chief Ellerbe, that that's one of the things you're negotiating right now?
ELLERBEIt is in negotiations.
NNAMDIOK. So we can't talk at greater length about that, Mark. I'd like to talk to you, Alan Suderman, about one of the things you're -- the things that you have written about. If President Barack Obama is in the middle of the night, channeling his Al Green and singing and doesn't...
SUDERMANKnocks over some candles.
NNAMDIKnocks over some candles, doesn't notice the room heating up. What's the likelihood of his rescue?
SUDERMANWell, according to a bunch of firefighters and people in the fire department who I talked to, the city has one tower truck, and that's different from other ladder trucks in that it has this huge bucket at the -- at its end, and you could put a bunch of people in there. This tower truck is old for a fire truck. It's -- they bought it in 2003.
NNAMDIBasically, you reported it's not working half the time.
SUDERMANOne of the drivers called it -- I don't know if I can say this on public radio -- a piece of crap. We good?
NNAMDIThat's appropriate. Yeah.
SUDERMANOK. And said that it's been out of service about 500 out of the last 1,000 days, and that, you know, it's supposed to go to a designated spot and save the president -- excuse me -- and his family.
NNAMDIChief Ellerbe, it's my understanding that this has been blamed on budget woes.
ELLERBEWell, I did talk -- first of all, I did talk to one of the Secret Service agents. And rest assured that if the first family is ever in any type of situation like that, we have equipment that will get them out of the White House, if necessary. That's the first thing. Second, we have 16 trucks in the city. The unit in question is in the shop right now, as a matter of fact. And the apparatus challenges that we are facing are not anything new.
ELLERBEThey've been going on for a while. But we have a new apparatus replacement schedule, and that's one of the things I wanted to talk to the firefighters about. We are purchasing new equipment. We are purchasing ladder trucks, engine companies and ambulances. So we are working as quickly as we can through our Office of Contracting and Procurement, with the help of Director James Staton, to resolve those challenges. So we do -- the truck could be replaced. We need it to be replaced, and we're working on it.
SUDERMANRight. You know, Ed brought it up. If the -- there's no, currently, no reserved fleet, is what I've been -- or what they're saying, and that if there was a catastrophic event, if all these firefighters came back to town -- and that actually touches on the shift debate. You know...
NNAMDIYou only got about 20 seconds.
SUDERMAN...you said you want people closer who -- to the town, to the District. You know, what's the state of the reserved fleet? Where...
ELLERBEWe have some reserves. We also have a mutual aid agreement. So if something catastrophic happened in the city, the region would be responding, not just the city.
SUDERMANAll right. I got one last question.
NNAMDIYou got 10 seconds.
SUDERMANI keep hearing -- and I'm sorry to repeat the same questions, but I heard you are also interested in running for mayor. Is that true?
ELLERBEWhere did you hear that from?
SUDERMANAll over: Fire Department, Gray administration.
ELLERBEDid you hear that from me?
ELLERBEI'm interested in being the fire chief and serving the citizens in the position I'm in. This is my dream job. And so everybody listening, I'm having the time of our life. I think we have the absolute best department in the city, and we serve the community. We're here for that.
SUDERMANWho's a better kickboxer, you or Lon Walls?
ELLERBEBut I'm pretty good.
SUDERMANHe's a -- Lon's a national champion.
ELLERBESo am I.
ELLERBEBut I trained under Lon, so -- many, many years ago. Lon is a much better kickboxer.
SUDERMANThat was my aside, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIKenneth Ellerbe is the chief of the District's Fire and EMS Department. Thank you so much for joining us.
ELLERBEThank you. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Alan Suderman is the "Loose Lips" columnist of the Washington City Paper. Alan Suderman, thank you for joining us.
SUDERMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDILon Walls forgot that stuff I said about kicking your butt. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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