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OPM’s Berry: Early closure was the right call

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Washington was flummoxed by yesterday’s flash snowfall, which came right at rush hour and caused an astounding 13-hour traffic jam. This, of course, is a town that loves to find a scapegoat in such circumstances, and Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry seems to want to deflect any attempt to put the blame on him. He said at a press conference this afternoon that he stands by his decision to close the government two hours early, and would do it all over again.

Berry said that thousands of federal employees seem to have not taken the early departure option. If properly executed, Berry said the departure of some 300,000 Washington-area feds would have been staggered throughout the afternoon and gotten most people safely home before the snow.

The key, Berry said, is to leave two hours before your standard punch-out time — not once the snow starts. Because many feds come to work early — some as early as 4:30 a.m., he said — some could have been driving home at 11:30 a.m., when the early closure was announced. “Hypothetically, people should have been leaving as early as 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Berry said. “That way, we don’t dump everybody on the road at the same time.”

But many feds didn’t, including Berry’s own secretary, because there wasn’t a flake to be seen for much of the afternoon. “It’s just human nature,” Berry said. His secretary “stayed at work because she looked out of the window and didn’t see snow. She regretted it later. That was the fastest accumulating storm I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

And when the snow started rapidly accumulating, Berry said, the many feds who were still in their offices seem to have taken to their cars all at once (including President Obama). This snarled the Beltway, GW Parkway, I-66, and many of Washington’s other major arteries (which are already clogged on the best of days) and completely collapsed the traffic infrastructure.

“What I hope comes out of this is that people will more seriously take our advice,” Berry said.

Berry doesn’t think closing the government even earlier than he did would have made a difference, and reminded reporters that he doesn’t have the authority to order feds to evacuate their offices and go home. That’s up to the Homeland Security Department, and is only to be used in dire emergencies such as Sept. 11-scale attacks.

And for hours yesterday, Berry was looking at the snowless skies, wondering if he had blown the call and needlessly closed the government.

“If there was no snow, you would be yelling at me right now for letting people go,” Berry said.

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Democrat questions Obama administration openness

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Interesting news on the government transparency front this week, with a Democratic congressman complaining that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is unjustifiably redacting (i.e., censoring) some records related to the BP oil spill response.

“I believe NOAA’s redactions violate the spirit and principle of the accountability you promised,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote President Obama on Tuesday. “These redactions are unacceptable and overreaching.”

Along with the letter posted on his official web site, Grijalva, who chaired a House natural resources subcommittee last year, added dozens of documents, including examples of NOAA records completely or partially blacked out, and email traffic that shows the jousting between his office and Obama appointees over the scope of the redactions.

The White House bounced Federal Times’ request for comment to NOAA, where spokeswoman Shannon Gilson provided a copy of a letter last month in which the agency says that it is delivering about 3,500 pages of records to Congress with “a limited number of redactions” to a small number of documents “to protect pre-decisional and deliberative material.”  The letter, from NOAA legislative affairs chief John Gray, adds that the agency is providing other such material unredacted “as a discretionary matter.”

Anyone interested in an even heavier-handed example of administration redaction in action can check out postings on the web site of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. PEER is seeking records from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy regarding development of scientific integrity guidelines. Let’s just say the White House response doesn’t stint on black ink.

Tweets of the day: Federal News Radio catches OPM snoozing

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I’m just going to let this series of tweets from Federal News Radio’s Amy Morris speak for themselves:

Response to Interview request from @fednewsradio and @wtop from OPM PR person, “I’m in bed, I can’t help you. I really need to sleep.” (About 7 hours ago)

Apologies to feds who follow us…#FedDrive wants to give u info re: OPM’s decisions, but apparently their PR person would rather sleep. (About 6 hours ago)

@cdorobek I’m so furious I could spit. WTOP and WFED have talked about it on the air. A totally unacceptable response. (About 6 hours ago, responding to Chris Dorobek of the Dorobek Insider show)

Update on OPM interview: Director John Berry has responded to WFED personally…we hope to get an interview today. (About 5 hours ago)

@DCRadioDan We got OPM Director Berry. He was gracious enough to join us in the 8a hour. We’re about to replay the interview again. (About 4 hours ago)

Morris’ interview with Berry on the snowstorm and how he decided to close the government early yesterday can be heard here. In it, Berry refuted criticism that the government’s early dismissal contributed to the epic gridlock that paralyzed the DC area last night. He said feds who didn’t heed the advice to go home early and beat the snow, along with the sheer speed at which the storm developed, “combined to make a bad situation even worse.”

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2 hour early closure for feds in DC area

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With a major snowstorm on the way, the Office of Personnel Management just announced offices in the Washington area will close two hours early today.

Your early departure should be tied to when your usual workday ends. That means that someone who would usually work until 5 p.m. today will go home at 3 p.m.; someone who works until 6 p.m. will go home at 4 p.m.

Emergency employees and teleworking employees are expected to remain on duty.

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Hispanic employees council to meet Feb. 11

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The Office of Personnel Management has scheduled the first meeting of the Hispanic Council on Federal Employment for Feb. 11.

The Federal Register notice announcing the meeting said the council is an advisory committee made up of representatives from Hispanic organizations and senior government officials. It will advise OPM Director John Berry on the recruitment, hiring and advancement of Hispanic people in the federal workforce.

The meeting is open to the public and will be held at OPM headquarters at 1900 E St. in NW Washington at 2 p.m.

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Federal Times on Federal News Radio today

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Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins and Senior Writer Sean Reilly will discuss the many proposals out there to cut federal employee jobs, pay and benefits on Federal News Radio’s “Your Turn With Mike Causey” show today at 10 a.m. on 1500 AM in Washington. Podcasts of the show will be available at federalnewsradio.com.

Call in to Mike’s show and let us know what you think of these proposals or on what you think of President Obama’s proposal, announced in his State of the Union speech, to cut spending and reorganize federal agencies.

Obama: Consolidate federal agencies

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By H. Darr Beiser, USA Today

President Obama just said in his State of the Union address that he wants to consolidate and reorganize federal agencies:

We shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable. We should give them a government that’s more competent and efficient. We cannot win the future with a government of the past.

We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV. There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.

Now, we have made great strides over the last two years in using technology and getting rid of waste. Veterans can now download their electronic medical records with a click of the mouse. We’re selling acres of federal office space that hasn’t been used in years, and we will cut through red tape to get rid of more. But we need to think bigger. In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote – and we will push to get it passed.

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OSC: Bush administration violated Hatch Act

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The Office of Special Counsel last night released a report that found President Bush’s Office of Political Affairs repeatedly violated the Hatch Act up to and during the 2006 elections. According to the Associated Press:

The report says the electoral success of the Republican Party and possible strategies for achieving it often were on the agenda at some of 75 political briefings at 20 federal agencies from 2001 to 2007.

The Office of Special Counsel concluded that such briefings should take place away from the federal workplace during nonbusiness hours and that attendance should be completely optional.

Those who gave the briefings said they were intended to boost morale among political appointees and provide an overview of the “political landscape.”

However, witness testimony, e-mail messages and PowerPoint slides used at some of the briefings indicate that the meetings were more overtly political.

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Update: WUSA’s report on federal building lights misses the mark

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So some of you readers might have seen a WUSA report in the D.C. area that took aim at federal workers leaving the lights on. Well, Andrea McCarren had noted that in many federal office buildings, the lights were being left on at night, which costs taxpayer dollars.

So she filed a report on how much each agency pays in energy costs for each month and came away with some striking figures.

The video package seems to have everything: Taxpayer dollars being wasted, federal employees behaving badly and federal agencies paying through the nose for electricity because they leave their lights on.

In fact, at the 1:35 minute of the video the camera zooms in on the Labor Department’s monthly bill and shows – weird techno soundtrack to highlight the number – a bill of $1,042,098.92 for July 2010.

Outrageous! Scandalous. The reporter decides to ask people how much a utility bill should be for these buildings. She then springs the million dollar number on them after they answer to record their shock.

There is only one problem. That number is not true.

A clue that there might be more to this story is that if you freeze the video at 1:35, you can see their totals for the other months. It looks like April’s number is around $40,000. A huge change month to month.

So what is the deal?

That number was the amount the Transportation Department was billed but not its utility cost for that month. Because of previous bills that undercharged them they had to make it up in those months. The amount they paid per month in electricity is actually as follows.

April-$344,656.61

May-$344,667.25

June-$364,781.19

July-$390,466.43

August-$365,105.56

Sept.$374,519.35

How did I get these numbers? I did my own request and found out about the error.

Phillip Puckett, the Department of Labor’s Director in the Office of Administrative Services states that:

The $1 million electric bill highlighted in the news report does not reflect a single month’s bill, but a billing correction where the General Services Administration vendor played catch up with under billing for previous months.  The actual monthly electric bill for July was $390,466.43, not the $1,042,098.98 as reported.

The Department of Labor, Frances Perkins Building’s total electric bill for FY2010 was $4,244,040.13.

The reason the bills climbed from April to July was the bill corrections.  The General Service Administration’s electric contract is broken down into generation and transmission fees.  The vendor providing the electricity did not properly process and correctly bill DOL in the initial months of FY2010.  The differences in the April to July bills reflect billing corrections.

Also, total building size should be taken into consideration for the electric bills. The Department of Labor, Frances Perkins Building’s is just under 2 million gross square feet in size.

I am not arguing that the lights being on don’t waste taxpayer money, they probably do. But lets note that on average commercial buildings use only 25 percent of their energy on electricity for lights. The rest is heating, cooling, appliances and other related costs.

Also, the Frances Perkins building spends about $2.10 per square foot on energy costs, which is below the commercial sector average for office space of about $2.28, according to the Energy Department.

Snow watch: Wednesday night could bring 5+ inches to DC

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Washington-area feds may want to get ready to telework on Thursday. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm watch that says snow could hit the nation’s capital, starting in the late afternoon Wednesday, and we could see five or more inches drop when all is said and done.

We won’t know until very early Thursday whether the snow will be enough to throw a wrench in the government’s operations. So it wouldn’t hurt feds who can telework to bring their laptop or a few files home Wednesday night just in case the Office of Personnel Management declares an unscheduled leave/unscheduled telework day.

OPM Director John Berry last month touted the new telework option as a way to keep the government operating as much as possible during moderately bad weather — for example, when some snowy roads are dangerous, but not snarled badly or widespread enough to warrant a complete government closure. The alternative for feds who can’t telework, but feel they can’t safely make it in to work, is to take a day of unscheduled leave. OPM’s already done this once this winter, and Berry said it worked out well.

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