Wells’ Hands-on Approach Earns Praise on the Hill

Posted June 13, 2007 at 5:08pm

After the endless City Council hearings, the intense staff meetings, the neighborhood visits and the scattered public appearances, Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D) often retires to his reserved seat at RFK Stadium and lets the scene of dusty bases and running players melt away the day’s stress.

“I know this sounds corny, but I look out on the field and it just calms me down,” said Wells, who represents Capitol Hill. “It’s just like, this is cool.”

As Wells nears his six-month mark as a councilman, his days are much less peaceful: He usually can be seen riding a bicycle to work, at a City Council meeting arguing over legislation or on the streets of Ward 6 talking about crime. His packed schedule forces him to work weekends and purposefully schedule dates with his wife.

“Sometimes it just feels like you’re steering through rapids and then you get to a pool, take a deep breath and then go to the next one,” he said in a recent interview in his office in the downtown John A. Wilson Building.

So far, his tactic seems to have residents cheering. The former school board member came out of nowhere; his predecessor, Sharon Ambrose, had worked years at City Hall before she ran for office. But while Ambrose worked behind the scenes to push forward large projects such as the revitalization of Barracks Row and the construction of the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium, Wells is constantly out on the street acting as a man of the people.

“Sharon really worked in subtle ways,” said Joe Fengler, a Capitol Hill Advisory Neighborhood commissioner who has worked with both Ambrose and Wells. “Tommy takes a more visible, on-street approach.”

To do so, Wells has turned his office inside out. Every staff member is empowered to make decisions on their own, without going through a long line of hierarchy. All six of them also work with constituents: Every call from a resident with a concern is assigned to a staff member and entered into a database. Trash pickup, vacant properties, those kids who hang out on the street corner — Wells said he makes his staff look into it all, no matter how small it seems.

“When someone says ‘they never pick up my trash on Mondays,’ it sounds like a little thing,” Wells said. “But I know that with one call we’re going to get their trash picked up every Monday.”

Such attention to detail restores residents’ confidence in government, said Charles Allen, Wells’ chief of staff. Big issues may be important, but it’s the everyday nuisances that can make people want to move elsewhere, he said.

“In the scheme of things, it may not be that big, but for that guy, it’s the bane of his existence,” Allen said. “That trash can is a symbol.”

One such nuisance has bothered Capitol Hill resident David Klavitter for years. Every Saturday, the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge convenes on H Street Northeast and blares 80-decibel sermons — usually highly controversial and anti-homosexual ones — into the homes of Klavitter and his neighbors. They are able to be so loud because of a loophole in the city’s noise ordinance that does not put noise limitations on noncommercial speech from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

After three years of petitioning the city for help, Klavitter found a willing politician in Wells. A hearing on a new bill to close the loophole is set for July 9.

“He’s engaged, connected, responsive — I’m thrilled so far,” Klavitter said.

But residents stressed that Wells is still fairly new to office and his popularity is not yet set in stone. It’s too soon to make a clear-cut decision on whether his political style works, but so far, he’s made good on his promises, Fengler said.

“Tommy has been doing a great job. He’s brought a new level of communication and integration,” he said, adding that Wells works closely with the Ward 6 ANCs. “He has certainly, in my mind, been trending positive.”

Wells said his close relationship with the ANCs enables him to get more done and keep close tabs on hyperlocal issues. When he stepped into office in January, he asked each ANC for a list of three to five of its most important goals and rolled those into a master list. Fengler said two of his ANC’s top three goals already have been addressed.

“I think I may use the ANCs more than some other council members, including Sharon, as a way to promote an agenda,” Wells said.

When one ANC wanted to enact a moratorium on single sales of beer on H Street Northeast, Wells announced his public support and pushed for the moratorium to also include small liquor bottles. The moratorium passed, and now residents are working to extend it further.

Getting residents and commissioners intimately involved with such goals helps out with the workload, Allen said.

“We can’t do all the work ourselves, so if we can engage them to be an extension of our office, we can get much more done,” he said.

So Wells not only meets frequently with ANC commissioners but has also set up “community office hours” on H Street Northeast and at the Channel Inn in Southwest. Over coffee and breakfast, Wells and his staff listen to residents’ complaints, compliments and questions. If the problem can be fixed while they’re talking, a staff member sometimes will make the calls on the spot. Every resident who files a concern later gets a letter on what has been done about it.

But amid the hundreds of projects on Wells’ plate, he does have a priority: crime.

“When it comes to public safety, I’m not weighing anything,” he said. “I don’t want to do the Bush thing with getting rid of all our individual liberties, but with public safety, it’s just not gonna — it’s nonnegotiable.”

When 6-year-old Crysta Spencer died from a hit-and-run at a Northeast intersection in April, Wells rushed to the scene. All he could see were the tennis shoes that had been knocked off her feet. He said he felt helpless, and then decided to ensure that stop signs would be put on that street. With the help of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), they were there the next morning.

“When I went to the funeral, the minister talked about those stop signs as if it was a new day, the government cares,” he said. “While that was horribly sad and took a lot out of me, it didn’t add to the stress and frustration because I did feel like we can get things done.”

Without such moments, Wells said the stress might get to him. But overall, he feels like the government can do things quickly, without getting tied up in bureaucracy.

“The thing that motivates me the most, whether I’m a council member or school board member or back when I was a child protection social worker, is I cannot stand feeling powerless,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of thinking that somebody ought to do something about something, not knowing who that person should be and how to get it done.”