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In D.C. business circles, an invite to a breakfast meet-and-greet with the city administrator at the offices of a powerful lawyer-lobbyist means you have been tapped as an insider. It shows the mayor who is or might be a player in city politics, which comes in handy when time comes to solicit campaign donations.
Such an occasion was scheduled for this Thursday at the Session Law Firm, where its founder, Warner H. Session, has presided over “the intersection of law, business, and public policy” for over 25 years. That is, until City Administrator Rashad Young backed out last Friday due to “scheduling conflicts.”
Loose Lips has a hard time envisioning a “scheduling conflict” over a breakfast meeting that is a staple of insider political culture and was scheduled more than a week in advance. Having inquired about the meeting just before Young’s cancellation, it seemed to LL like there had to be another reason—particularly with Mayor Muriel Bowser out of town on a taxpayer-funded business junket in Las Vegas. (Young’s office says he took “personal leave” related to a family matter he has known about for some time.)
Young has been on the hot seat since The Washington Post identified him in a D.C. Inspector General report about former schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson granting preferential treatment to city officials trying to bypass the dreaded school lottery.
His explanation—that he entered the lottery, missed a deadline, but somehow ended up with the school he wanted for his children—was no match for the barrage of parental outrage The Post served up. (Young’s children were home-schooled until they received a coveted placement at Murch Elementary School, adding to the furor.)
Yet the school lottery fiasco is just the latest problem involving Young. Since his arrival, he has drawn attention not for major accomplishments or agency improvements but for controversies that could make him a political liability for Bowser.
The function of the Office of the City Administrator depends on the mayor’s agenda and the city administrator’s strengths, according to D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson, whose committee had oversight of the office from 1997 to 2000 while she served on the D.C. Council. The CA does not require confirmation by the council, as agency heads do, Patterson says, and “because the role serves totally at the pleasure of the mayor, there’s not really anything to measure the person/the position against.”
Young’s 2018 budget submission consists of pages of bureaucratic speak with little data and few specifics. Several attachments on the D.C. Council’s website consist of blank spreadsheets. A list of salaries shows that Young expects to take home $349,870 next year in salary and benefits.
He drew immediate attention upon arriving in D.C. when he satisfied D.C. residency requirements by purchasing a $1.2 million home from Bowser’s 2014 campaign treasurer Ben Soto, later the treasurer of the controversial political action committee FreshPAC. The sale price and loan rate were market rate, Young said at the time, though he sought an opinion from the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which recommended he avoid future involvement in development deals involving Soto and Young’s lender, EagleBank, on whose board Soto sits.
Last summer, Young was embroiled in one of the messier Bowser administration dustups: the resignation of Christopher Weaver, former director of the Department of General Services. According to WAMU, Weaver declined to fire staff members overseeing competitive bids for the D.C. United soccer stadium and the St. Elizabeths sports facility after Fort Myer Construction, a key donor to Bowser and FreshPAC, lost out to a national firm. The employees were fired after Weaver resigned, and Young, who denied any knowledge that Fort Myer was a bidder and defended the action as a matter of “accountability, democracy, and public trust,” is believed to have directed the firings. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh convened a closed-door hearing to examine the matter, and a report is pending.
In April, LL reported on a similar matter in which Young’s office intervened to reverse the award of local business preference points on a $100 million, five-year energy contract—four months after the firm was notified that it had been awarded the points.
Young’s unwanted attention comes at a critical time for Bowser, as she prepares to announce her run for re-election and awaits Cheh’s DGS report. Whereas previous mayors favored highly competent city administrators who rode herd over the city bureaucracy, it’s hard to tell whether Young is a doer or an order-taker.
Before being hired in D.C., Young was city manager in Alexandria from 2011 to 2015, where he oversaw 3,700 employees and an operating budget of nearly $637 million. According to former Mayor William Euille—a friend of Bowser’s Green Team and a beneficiary of its campaign fundraising machine—Young’s tenure was marked by “improving communication, performance, and accountability throughout the organization.”
Young’s term in Alexandria was preceded by a similarly unremarkable time as city manager in Greensboro, North Carolina, which was preceded by stints in Dayton and Cincinnati as assistant city manager.
Two incidents stand out. The first is Young’s receipt of a retroactive pay raise, reportedly without the approval of Dayton’s legislative body. The mayor of Dayton at the time claimed she had authority to hand out raises without approval.
The second involves the 2002 hiring of Young’s grandfather at Young’s behest, as he was departing for the job in Cincinnati, according to court records detailed by the Dayton Daily News. He returned to Dayton in 2005 and got involved in a clash between his grandfather and his grandfather’s supervisor, who is white. Young persuaded his boss, the city manager, to give the supervisor a poor review and no raise, according to news reports. Young eventually signed off on the supervisor’s firing, at which point the terminated manager sued the city for reverse discrimination, forcing the city to settle the case for $145,000. Young’s grandfather later pleaded guilty in federal court to possession of child pornography, which he viewed on government computers, according to court records.
David Esrati, a citizen journalist, blogger, and Dayton activist, says that Dayton doesn’t hire strong city managers and that Young is a prime example. “They do the bidding of the mayor,” he says. “Their job is to help the mayor draw political support.” Informed of the DGS controversy and the school lottery outrage, Esrati says, “This is how things work in Dayton all the time.”
Young’s scheduled appearance at the Session Law Firm this week perplexes Pedro Alfonso, CEO of Dynamic Concepts Inc. and a longtime civic leader. “If folks feel left out, have them give me a call. They can have my spot,” Alfonso says. “One thing I can afford is a cup of coffee and a Danish.” (Note: LL is told that Session actually serves his invited guests a more elaborate breakfast.)
“[Young] doesn’t dish out any contracts,” Alfonso adds, “though he can pick up the phone and say to an agency director, ‘I’d like you to meet with so-and-so.’ There’s value in that, I suppose.”
Asked whether the Department of General Services controversy has hurt Young’s reputation, Alfonso replies, “Not in the local business community. He had to put his foot down. Those people needed to be fired. If not, he’d have lost a lot of respect.”