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The District Relents: The Group Home Story

Eugene Sampson no longer need fear being thrown out of his home, the only apartment he has ever had to himself. John Cook can rest easy about the D.C. government's threat to fine him thousands of dollars and haul him to jail. After my column Tuesday about the District's efforts to harass one of the city's best-run group homes for the mentally disabled, D.C. council member Phil Mendelson (At Large) jumped into action against the bureaucracy.

L'Arche runs an extraordinarily comfortable and welcoming home on Ontario Road NW. There's plenty of room for several more residents than the city bureaucrats have allowed. But a months-long battle over the certificate of occupancy led to three D.C. departments abusing their authority by throwing the book at L'Arche's director, John Cook.

Now, after the column and a call from Mendelson, the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department has miraculously ruled that--poof!--the house can actually handle eight disabled people rather than five. And the Fire Marshall has informed Mendelson that it has rescinded all penalties that were levied against Cook for failure to conform to regulations. The city had threatened Cook and L'Arche with fines of $300 a day and 90 days in jail for each passing day.

"I happen to know both Gene [Sampson] and the L'Arche community, and they are the model for what group homes should be in this city," Mendelson tells me.

But why did this happen? Why did three city agencies gang up on a little group home that is doing its work superbly, when the District is known across the nation as a place that permits truly awful group homes to exist for years on end? "L'Arche is a small outfit and they don't have the bucks for a fancy lawyer downtown to represent their interests," Mendelson says, "so it's very easy for the bureaucracy to catch them up in red tape."

Amazingly, some city bureaucrats yesterday tried to defend themselves by contending that the problem was being fixed even before the column ran, that changes were being made at the end of last week. Still, that would have been after I'd peppered city agencies with calls seeking comment on the situation at L'Arche. The problem is how those agencies treated L'Arche in the first place, not how they respond to calls from a newspaper.

The councilman is frustrated because "it shouldn't be necessary for me to get involved" to fix a situation like this.
But unfortunately, that's all too often how the D.C. government operates. Another case in point: A D.C. restaurant owner came to Mendelson a while back complaining that the city was forcing him to buy a $25 permit to burn candles in his dining room. It's just a nuisance fee, the restaurateur complained.

Mendelson checked with the fire department, which confirmed that such permits were required, and that they actually cost $100, not $25. Mendelson, seeing no reason why a restaurant should have to get a permit to burn a candle, wrote a bill changing the regulation. The fire department went ballistic: Candles could start fires, they said. This was a safety issue! But Mendelson determined that only a few dozen eateries had bought the permits, and obviously many more places use candles. More important, fire inspectors already had the right to check how candles were being used at any restaurant in the city; the permits didn't add a bit of extra safety. The council went ahead and changed the regulation, and, Mendelson says, "Life has gone on, and everybody's just as safe as they were before. There's just this insensitivity in the bureaucracy."

At least the L'Arche case has a happy ending--but is it really an ending? People throughout the agencies that devote themselves to the care of the city's mentally disabled say that the bureaucratic ruthlessness and incompetence that L'Arche has witnessed is all too commonly aimed at the good players in the industry, while some of the bad guys go unpunished. That's the challenge that Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty faces in one of the city's most chronically mismanaged areas.

By Marc Fisher |  December 7, 2006; 7:43 AM ET
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Good job, Marc. It's amazing how many things can be solved when a little bit of light is shined on them. If only there were more people who could bring the sunshine to the dark corners of the bureaucracy...

Posted by: imgoph | December 7, 2006 10:22 AM

Marc, good job. Somehow, even after all your years, you manage to write with fresh outrage over how arbitrarily and capriciously regulations are sometimes implemented.

But I'm curious where you stand on an underlying question, which is: How should the government go about allowing reasonable exceptions to regulation? Obviously one could start with a review of the laws/regs on the books (there are many), and then one could proceed to discarding those deemed not necessary (again, there are probably many), but what process do you think should be in place to allow for reasonable exceptions to those that remain? Who should have that authority? The inspectors? A judicial body, like OAH? The Mayor's Agent? Council, with their oversight ability?

Posted by: Mark | December 7, 2006 11:02 AM

This story disgusts me. By and large, many DC government agencies like DCRA and the Dept. of Health are still a total joke. I hope those involved in this particular case feel the utter contempt I and other DC taxpayer/residents have for them. If you are one of the DC bureaucrats involved, you should be ashamed of yourself.

I hope that Fenty and Tangherlini can weed through these inept organizations and make sweeping changes. Government organizations like DOH are supposed to be looking out for people like Mr. Sampson. As the saying goes, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

Posted by: Mike in NW | December 7, 2006 11:46 AM

What, no diatribe from the "g" man on this one?

Seriously, well done Marc. Another good read.

Posted by: GunOwner | December 7, 2006 1:42 PM

From one who knows about L'Arche

The fire department has partially relented on this issue but there will be more regulations - like no bathroom door locks allowed (fire dept), cat doors required (health dept), etc.

One time the health department fined us for each paint chip on all doors and woodwork in one of our houses.

The list goes on and on and will probably continue unless Fenty takes tight control!

Posted by: Anonymous | December 7, 2006 2:33 PM

I have found, in my 50 years here, that most people in the DC government (or the feds) are stupid, or have been stupified. None of these employees, whose salary I pay, can think for themselves or use any common sense to deal with these things on a day-to-day basis (before they blow up like this or they have totally screwed you).

I wish I had a job that consisted solely of firing them, one by one, day after day. I would love that job, work seven days a week, without ever taking time off.

Well, they aren't that stupid - they are very good at raping your wallet for the most chicken sh$t of reasons. However, I feel their days are numbered. (I pray I see their demise in my lifetime.)

John Guay, NE

Posted by: John Guay | December 7, 2006 3:09 PM

Gene is my Uncle and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. He loves L'Arche, apartment and Joseph. And he's happier than I've ever seen him. Good job.

Posted by: Linda Goette | December 8, 2006 7:51 AM

Thanks so much for shedding light on this issue, Marc. L'Arche is an exemplary community, Gene Sampson is a fine man who deserves to be treated with dignity, and those bullies in D.C. government are nothing but a headache. Council member Mendelson is right---he shouldn't have to hound government incompetents bent on abusing their mandate.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2006 5:51 PM

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