Mayor Loses On Money For Bonuses
D.C. Council members yesterday rejected Mayor Anthony A. Williams's plan to use money from the District's tobacco settlement to finance $9.9 million in bonuses for unionized city workers, directing him to find the money in this year's budget.
A half-hour later, the council dealt Williams a second blow by approving a measure that could eventually change a D.C. panel's decision on how to redevelop the center of the Columbia Heights neighborhood. It could force an unwilling Williams to get involved in the development controversy.
Williams (D) said he was "outraged" by the council's actions and suggested that some members had allowed their personal feelings about him to get in the way of governing the city. The council's moves reflected the increasing tension between Williams and some council members, who are determined not to be a rubber stamp for the mayor.
Council members did approve giving bonuses to the 5,807 unionized employees. But Williams said that under the conditions approved by the council, it would be "very, very difficult" for him to meet his agreement with union leaders to deliver $1,700 to each unionized employee by Dec. 15.
Council members spent two hours debating Williams's proposal, which was introduced as emergency legislation. They used the opportunity to lecture the mayor, the city's former chief financial officer, for his proposal to pay for the bonuses by borrowing from the tobacco settlement fund and repay the money from the budget surplus or next year's operating budget.
"Would CFO Anthony Williams have approved of this kind of a tactic for Mayor Marion Barry? I don't think so," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). He said Williams's proposal for paying for the bonuses was "irresponsible. . . . This is how we got into trouble before."
The District's $1.2 billion share of the tobacco funds over the next 25 years is to go for health care costs associated with tobacco-related illnesses.
Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) said Williams showed a "despicable example of bad faith" by promising the bonuses without knowing how he would pay for them.
Williams, in a later interview, shot back: "For the council to say this was 'despicable and dishonorable' is grandstanding at its worst. . . . I think the council is allowing their own personal issues with me to cloud their judgment and interfere with the people's business."
The council members made a point of expressing support for the bonuses, which were negotiated three years ago and are a reward for D.C. employees who had endured furloughs, wage rollbacks and salary freezes during the financial crisis. The contract called for the administration to reopen discussions on bonuses if the city ended the last budget year with a surplus.
Some union leaders and city workers were frustrated at both Williams and the council.
David Schlein, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, predicted there would be "a lot of disappointed people" if the checks aren't ready next week.
"If it doesn't come through and can't be resolved, certainly the mayor will be held responsible but so will the city council," Schlein said, adding that he still expects the mayor to honor the commitment he made to workers.
Joseph Davies, 56, an electrical inspector and member of the American Federation of Government Employees, said: "I knew from the beginning it sounded fishy. The mayor should have known he had the money before he announced the bonuses."
That was the same argument used by some council members, who ignored efforts by council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) to tinker with the bill's language to make it palatable to a council majority. They were unswayed by D.C. financial control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin's support for the plan.
One by one, Cropp's colleagues chastised Williams and let Cropp know that they would not approve the mayor's request if it allowed him to use the tobacco money or the surplus--or to dip into next year's operating budget.
Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) offered an amendment specifying that the dollars for the bonuses would come from the operating budget for fiscal 2000, which began Oct. 1. Cropp and Harold Brazil (D-At Large) abstained from the vote.
In other action, the council gave tentative approval to a plan to reconstitute the board of the D.C. Housing Authority. It is the first step toward returning the agency, which has operated under court-ordered receivership for four years, to local control. A final vote on the matter is likely before the end of the year.
David Gilmore, the court-appointed housing receiver, attended yesterday's council session. He worked with Ambrose to draft the legislation, which calls for a nine-member housing panel with most members appointed by the mayor and three elected tenant leaders. The legislation would make the authority an independent agency, with its own personnel and procurement rules. Gilmore expects the federal government to give him the green light in January to begin a six-month phase out of the receivership.
The council also tentatively approved a plan to deregulate the sale of electricity in the District beginning in January 2001, as well as a plan to require the names of people convicted of certain sexual crimes to be listed on a city registry.
Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.