Sherwood’s Notebook: Be Afraid, Be Very…

Homeland security is much in the news again this week. On the one hand, U.S. Department of Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson was all over network television amplifying the latest terrorism threats that encouraged attacks on American shopping malls, especially the Mall of America in Minnesota.

"I'm not telling people to not go to the mall," Johnson explained Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press. "I think that there needs to be an awareness. ...I'm saying that the public needs to be particularly vigilant."

That gives new meaning to the old phrase "shop till you drop." The latest security theater was playing out, with its now-standard appeal to Americans to go about your regular life but... be alert and afraid. And it played out while the homeland security bureaucracy itself was in the news for a couple of other reasons.

First, the leaders of the Republican Congress were trying to retreat from their threat to shut down funding for the federal Department of Homeland Security unless President Barack Obama caved on his executive order protecting some undocumented immigrants. Funding for the agency expires Thursday.

The fight isn't just a federal budget issue in Washington; nearly $2 billion in federal grants of all sorts to local and state governments is funneled through the agency. The department itself has more than 190 locations across America.

But whatever the terror threat may be, new reports and surveys suggest that the most apparent and real enemy may be the federal security department itself. It is a massive, unwieldy cauldron of competing agencies and soured employees.

Here's how Washington Post reporter Jerry Markon last week summarized the department's multiple morale issues even as the agency embarks on more efforts to fix itself:

"Many DHS employees have said in the annual government ‘viewpoint' survey of federal employees that their senior leaders are ineffective; that the department discourages innovation, and that promotions and raises are not based on merit. Others have described in interviews how a stifling bureaucracy and relentless congressional criticism makes DHS an exhausting, even infuriating, place to work."

To those Americans being encouraged to go about our normal lives, there's only hope that this tortured bureaucracy somehow will do good. The Notebook previously has noted that the usual next step after creating a massive bureaucracy is calling for it to be broken apart. Stand by. But please, go about your normal business. The bureaucracy is.

■ Snow and ice. The weekend blast of bitter cold, snow and ice was nothing compared to the Twitter storm of biting comments on how Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration did or didn't respond adequately. If you're inclined to think her administration did well enough, there's a Twitter snap for that. If your streets were missed, plenty of comments on that, too.

The fact is, weather response is almost a no-win game. Call a snow emergency early to give people time to remove their cars from emergency routes, people complain you're too early — it's not even snowing. Wait too late, and people can't move their cars. It's the same with school closings: You're damned if you do or don't.

The bottom line is any city must have a reasonable game plan, as well as the equipment and employees to carry out the plan. Back in the late 1990s, the District particularly was bereft of equipment, training and staff until then-Mayor Tony Williams and public works director Leslie Hotaling made commitments to correct all that. "Bring it on!" Hotaling once confidently shouted as the mayor displayed new snow-plowing equipment.

When Hotaling retired from government service in January 2004, the mayor noted the diminutive director's hard work and sense of humor in a difficult job. "She has led the department to a new level of professionalism and performance," he said. "She is, without a doubt, one of the finest public works administrators in the nation. Although small in stature, she has proven herself to be a heavyweight in a world dominated by heavy equipment and heavyset males."

Significantly, current public works director William Howland Jr. has been in the same job ever since, through Williams, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and now Bowser. That's staying power. Whatever shortfalls, he must be doing something right in that high-profile post.

■ A pot postscript. As our deadline approached, Mayor Muriel Bowser was preparing to meet with D.C. Council members to discuss how the city will carry out the marijuana legalization law that the city says goes into effect at midnight Thursday. There were still some expectations that Congress might try again to block the law.

If it becomes law, the simple thing to know is that pot possession (up to two ounces) will be legal for private consumption in private spaces for those over 21. But it will still be illegal on any federal property, and that includes Rock Creek Park, traffic circles like Dupont and any of the many federal buildings in town. As D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine told the WAMU Politics Hour last Friday -- be cautious out there. The city is on new terrain.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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