Ward 8 shelter site
Ward 8 shelter site Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The District agency building new homeless shelters across the city has been roiled by employee turmoil and turnover at high levels over the past year, at a time when the construction of shelters in Wards 7 and 8 fell behind schedule. The new shelters are meant to replace the decrepit D.C. General, which is currently the city’s largest homeless shelter and houses about 250 families each night.

In May 2017, the Department of General Services created the new position of Chief Project Delivery Officer to directly oversee the division building the shelters to replace D.C. General.

DGS hired JocCole Burton, a public works specialist who owns a construction consulting firm, for the position. On a salary of $171,000 plus bonuses, Burton was charged with ensuring the timely completion of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s centerpiece homelessness project, in addition to overseeing school modernizations.

Burton lasted only nine months. Meanwhile, the team building the homeless shelters, which operated under her watch, has cycled through three different leaders since last May. The departures have alarmed Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose committee with oversight over DGS is holding a joint hearing with Councilmember Brianne Nadeau into the progress of building the shelters today. City Paper recently reported that construction on shelters in Wards 7 and 8 “are significantly behind schedule,” per the agency’s own characterization of the projects.

Wanda Sherrod led the “Short Term Family Housing” division tasked with managing the construction of the the replacement shelters before Burton’s hiring. But Sherrod left the agency after being removed from the initiative (though not fired), according to two former DGS officials. Robert Looper ran the division as of November 2017, but he was gone by the time Burton left the agency in mid-February, according to leadership organizational charts from DGS.

Looper, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5, declined to comment when reached by phone. Sherrod, now leading a private firm, did not answer why she left the agency, saying only, “It was about what God said to me.”

A spokesperson for DGS did not respond to City Paper‘s request for comment by press time. 

Brian Butlercurrently manages the Short Term Family Housing team. He referred questions to the DGS communications department. Butler formerly worked for GCS Inc., now known as GCS Signal, a certified business enterprise in D.C. The District has picked the contractor for many high profile projects, including the modernization of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Following a tense work environment under Burton, she was fired on February 12, 2018 after complaints from project managers, according to a former DGS official. One former project manager at the time said office “turmoil has been terrible” under Burton. When given the option to transfer out of the homeless shelter division, at least one project manager switched out, according to two sources.

Burton wrote in an email to City Paper Sunday evening that she was “thrilled to have served the District.” She said that her task was to “expedit the successful delivery” of over 85 “challenging projects.” Burton did not answer questions regarding the circumstances leading to her exit.

“I achieved those goals and/or set a systems thinking pathway for timely completion,” she wrote. “My task was completed.”

The position of Chief Project Delivery Officer was created after a searing 2016 report from the D.C. Auditor that criticized DGS for its modernization of Duke Ellington School, which finished a year late and $100 million over budget. Burton was to bring needed efficiency and accountability to the department’s key construction portfolio. “Our 2017 project delivery will be a marked improvement over last year,” DGS Director Greer Johnson Gillis told a D.C. Council committee on July 13, 2017.

DGS hired Michael Jellen to replace Burton on March 26, Gillis told a D.C. Council oversight hearing that same day.

Days before Burton was let go, and as DGS continued to deny known delays in building shelters east of the Anacostia River, Gillis maintained that the new position was fulfilling its mission. “This office is providing a high level of leadership to ensure projects are delivered on-time and on-budget,” Gillis wrote to the D.C. Council Transportation and Environment Committee on February 9.

Recent departures at DGS include other longtime top officials, resulting in a drain of experience at a critical time for the agency. The deputy director for capital construction, Jeff Bonvechio, left in December after a career decision to move to Texas, he said. A D.C. projects veteran, Bonvechio led capital projects at D.C. Public Library before moving to DGS in 2015, according to a biography from DGS. The agency hired Paul Blackman as its new deputy director for capital construction on March 26.

Currently vacant is the position of chief operating officer, after the departure of Spencer Davis. Jerome Fletcher, a former chief of staff to director Gillis, also recently left the agency.

Councilmember Cheh said on Thursday she is generally not told about staff turnover at agencies. “But you get to a critical mass and you start to worry,” she said about recent exits. Regarding turmoil at DGS leading to the exit of Burton, Cheh said, “I had no hint of that.”

At a February 20 performance oversight hearing, Cheh alluded to “low morale” at DGS and raised Burton’s departure, which she called “pretty quick turnover.” Greer said the department had implemented a “culture change” initiative and a new “code of conduct” for managers and employees, to instill “that respect, that teamwork, that collaboration that’s needed across the agency.”  

By December 2017, the work environment under Burton’s chain-of-command had grown so sour that Gillis began meeting with project managers to quell tensions, according to a former project manager. In one meeting, according to that source, a project manager stood up and flatly told the director that Burton ought to go: “If it were up to me, I would fire her.”

This post has been updated.