D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser last month may have removed as many as 30 or more members of the Metropolitan Washington Regional Ryan White Planning Council in a major shakeup that surprised and roiled local AIDS activists.
Bowser and her director of the city’s AIDS office, Michael Kharfen, were in the process of appointing replacements for the ousted members. But former members and activists familiar with the development said the mayor’s office had yet to publicly disclose who the new members were.
“We need to know what is really going on and what their intent is because they’re not saying anything,” said Laurence Smith, a member of the Planning Council from Prince George’s County who is among those whose membership was terminated.
“They dissolved us as of last month and they still don’t have the new Council fully in place,” he said.
In response to a Blade inquiry, mayoral spokesperson Christina Harper said late Wednesday that the mayor plans to announce the new members in the coming weeks.
“Since taking office, Mayor Bowser did a top to bottom review of all boards and commissions,” Harper told the Blade in an email response to a series of Blade questions about the Ryan White Planning Council changes.
“With recent changes in the health insurance and health care systems, the mayor identified a need to appoint members to the Council with expertise in system reforms and analysis of health care utilization to plan for an optimal Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program,” Harper said.
“The decision to reconstitute the Planning Council was made to enhance the capacity of the Council to plan for the care and support services of people living with HIV/AIDS in the eligible metropolitan area,” she said.
Under the federal Ryan White CARE Act of 1990, which created planning councils in D.C. and other major metropolitan areas across the country, Bowser and mayors in other cities have full authority to appoint and remove members of the councils.
The Metropolitan Washington Regional Ryan White Planning Council covers Ryan White related programs in Maryland, Virginia, and parts of West Virginia as well as D.C.
The Ryan White law assigned the Planning Councils, among other things, the task of deciding how federal AIDS funds under the Ryan White program should be allocated among local programs operated by municipal government agencies or private organizations and health care providers under contract with local governments.
AIDS activists point out that the federal statute requires mayors and their subordinates to follow strict guidelines calling for Planning Council members to reflect the diverse populations they serve, especially people with HIV/AIDS. The Ryan White statute calls for at least one-third of the Planning Council members to be people with HIV who are not affiliated with an organization or service provider that receives Ryan White funds.
Others who have traditionally served on the Planning Council are local government officials, representatives of community-based health organizations and health care providers, and AIDS advocates.
A handbook published by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that administers the Ryan White program, says mayors in cities in which Ryan White Planning Councils operate must adopt “procedures that ensure open meetings and an open nominations process to identify nominees for the planning council.”
According to the handbook, “Openness requires member vacancies and nomination criteria to be widely advertised.”
Smith and former Planning Council members Ron Swanda and Geno Dunnington told the Washington Blade that members of the Council first learned of Bowser’s plans for the shakeup at the Council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 27.
The three said Kharfen, who heads the city’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Administration, known as HAHSTA, announced at the meeting that the mayor was reorganizing the Council and that anyone who wanted to remain a member had to reapply and go through the same vetting process through which new members must undergo.
They said they were unaware of a public announcement by HAHSTA or the mayor’s office informing the community that there were vacancies on the Planning Council, a development that could be a violation of federal rules for recruiting and appointing Planning Council members.
Dunnington said he’s concerned that the mayor’s changes would result in the Planning Council being stacked with representatives from healthcare providers and others who would become a “rubber stamp” for HAHSTA, which Dunnington said would prefer to silence dissenting voices.
Harper said in her email to the Blade on Wednesday that Bowser directed the city’s Department of Health to consult with HRSA and that HRSA “has approved the design and plan for the newly constituted Planning Council.”
She added, “The process for submitting nominations is open and like all boards, vacancies are posted on the Mayor’s Office on Talent and Appointments website. It is also posted on the Department of Health website at doh.dc.gov/rwpc,” she said.
Smith said he chose not to reapply. Dunnington, who has been an outspoken critic of HAHSTA and its predecessor agencies during his tenure on the Planning Council, said he learned from someone on an elevator that he missed the deadline for reapplying and was no longer a member.
“We were literally on the elevator,” he said, going to the Planning Council’s Sept. 24 meeting at the city’s One Judiciary Square building, when someone he thinks was a HAHSTA staffer broke the news.
“It’s like well if you haven’t been interviewed by yesterday you’re no longer on the Council,” Dunnington recounted the person as saying. “That’s how we got the news – everybody,” said Dunnington. “That’s how we found out that the previous meeting was our last meeting.”
Swanda, an advocate for LGBT senior citizens, including seniors with HIV, said he did reapply but was quickly told that Bowser and Kharfen had decided not to reappoint anyone who had served more than just a brief period of time on the Planning Council.
“When I had my interview and told them I was on the Council they told me thank you for your service,” Swanda said. “That was it.”
Smith said Planning Council members learned at an earlier meeting before Kharfen announced the membership changes that the mayor and HAHSTA decided to restructure some of the Planning Council’s operations. One major change included making the Council’s chair a paid city employee rather than be a volunteer member of the Council as had been the case since the Planning Council was first created in 1990.
Among the other Planning Council members who reportedly have not been reappointed as of this week was Patricia Hawkins, the longtime LGBT rights and AIDS activist who has served on the Ryan White Planning Council under five mayors since the Council was created in 1990.
Hawkins, a former deputy director of Whitman-Walker Health, is considered an expert on the ins and outs of the Ryan White program and the city’s AIDS programs. She didn’t immediately respond to a request by the Blade for comment.
Another Planning Council member who said he wasn’t appointed is Justin Goforth, the current director of community relations at Whitman-Walker. Goforth served as the Planning Council’s interim chair until last month when Bowser put in place the changes in membership.
In her email to the Blade, Harper included a list of what she said were 34 of the as-yet-unannounced, newly named or reappointed Planning Council members. But among those on the list were Swanda, Smith, Goforth, and Dunnington – all of whom told the Blade (Goforth through a Whitman-Walker spokesperson) they are no longer on the Planning Council.
Upon being told of this, Harper said she would check back with Department of Health Officials to confirm whether the list she provided was current and updated.
“The mayor is considering both current and new applicants for the Planning Council,” Harper said in her email. “The mayor directed DOH to develop a new membership recruitment process. The Department is still recruiting members and accepting applications.”
Among the new members included on the list released by Harper is D.C. transgender activist Earline Budd.
Transgender activist Ruby Corado, founder and executive director of Casa Ruby, the D.C. LGBT community center and social services provider, said a representative of the mayor’s office in August invited her to apply for membership on the Planning Council. Corado said she applied and has been notified she’s been appointed and would be sworn in sometime this month. Corado’s name isn’t on the list provided by Harper.
“I had no idea that others were being removed,” Corado told the Blade.
Although she doesn’t know the reason for the mayor’s shakeup of the Planning Council, Corado said she believes changes are needed in the city’s response to AIDS.
“The HIV rate in the trans community has doubled in the past 15 years,” she said. “In some areas I think a new approach needs to take place. I feel change is needed.”