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In March 2008, Tori Fernandez Whitney’s leadership abilities under went a serious stress test. Whitney is the head of the city’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA), and she was getting grilled at her yearly oversight hearing [WMV video] by David A. Catania. The councilmember was delivering one of his trademark rants, calling APRA a “backwater disaster” and telling Whitney, his former employee, “You have probably the most miserable job in government.”
“I concur,” Whitney responded, to chuckles in the hearing room.
Fewer chuckles could be heard down at 1300 First St. NE, APRA’s home base, where functionaries watched on TV. Already, Whitney had summarily fired numerous managers and other employees and brought in her own hand-picked deputies—invariably younger. Whitney’s response only heightened the who’s-next dread running through the building.
There was a staff meeting not long after the hearing. Faced with drooping morale, Whitney had a bright idea for the agency’s 100-plus employees: a bake-off! The prospect of banana bread and snickerdoodles failed to arouse the rank-and-file.
Whitney barely mentioned the hearing, except to say that it had gone well. At that point, one of Whitney’s top aides, Jennifer Mumford, spoke up. As Whitney’s deputy in charge of agency operations, Mumford had been in the hearing room, and listened to her boss’ testimony. She brought up Catania’s rant and pointed out the hearing couldn’t have gone that well, considering the rancor she had witnessed. “What the staff wants to know is how we can work together to accomplish the goals of the agency,” Mumford later explained.
“This is not the time or the place to discuss that,” Whitney responded, according to Mumford and three persons at the meeting.
Mumford again urged that the discussion be opened. Again, Whitney demurred. She quickly called the meeting to a close.
Whitney disappeared into her office, and Mumford did not speak with her again until a week later. That’s when she handed Mumford her walking papers.
Since LL wrote about the allegations of fired APRA employee Catherine Bego earlier this month, he has been inundated with calls from former and current APRA employees eager to dish on Whitney’s managerial habits. Her perpetually closed office door. Her lousy people skills. Her micromanagement.
Those may be legitimate workplace gripes. But Mumford’s experience with Whitney blows away all other APRA gossip stories for drama and narrative arc.
The story starts with Mumford’s bona fides. First off, she can’t simply be tarred as a malcontent member of the ancien régime upset because change has come to a troubled agency. Nope: Mumford had spent time at APRA earlier in her career, but she had moved on to a job as a top assistant to health department director Gregg Pane. Both Whitney and Catania asked Mumford to come back to APRA to help overhaul the agency.
Second off, Mumford is a creature of reform herself. She took her first job in District government as an accountant at the Office of Tax and Revenue weeks before Congress instituted the control board. She rose quickly under Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams, and when Williams moved to city hall, she was promoted through a succession of fiscal management jobs. After her firing, in fact, Whitney sent an e-mail to agency employees praising Mumford for having “contributed significantly to the fiscal stabilization of the agency.”
Third off, Mumford and Whitney share an unusual personal bond. In 2006, Mumford had given a piece of herself to Whitney—that is, she donated her kidney to Whitney’s ailing mother. The two had known each other from when Mumford was doing her first stint at APRA and Whitney was a council staffer. Whitney’s mother was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and Mumford’s husband, lobbyist and political fixture Bernard Demczuk, hosted a fundraiser for her benefit at his Shaw townhouse.
At the time, Mumford explains, she’d been dealing with a loss of her own—her father had recently died, and she’d not been able to spend as much time with him as she wanted—so when it became clear that Whitney’s mother needed a kidney transplant, she volunteered. “It was a thrill to save someone’s life,” she explains. And “there was a guilt factor for not being there for my dad.”
Mumford says she remained close to Whitney’s mother after the surgery; she returned to work at health department headquarters, where she remained until she was detailed to APRA in August 2007. She resisted: “I wanted to go forward. I had already done APRA; I wanted to do something else,” she says, but ultimately, given Catania’s wishes that she help Whitney, “I had no choice.” (Catania did not respond to a request for comment.)
At Whitney’s shop, Mumford paints a picture of a tyro dropped in way over her head—someone with no idea of how to manage a large organization, someone who was constantly second-guessing herself. “She had me in there and she would say, ‘What am I supposed to do?’” Mumford says.
But it’s fair to say that Whitney has gotten some results: Waiting lists for treatment have steadily declined under Whitney’s watch at APRA, and the D.C. Appleseed nonprofit, on its yearly HIV/AIDS report card, has rated substance abuse treatment as improving from a ‘C+’ to a solid ‘B’ since Whitney took over APRA in 2007. “Largely because of efforts by the new director and her staff, APRA has accessed additional funding, and expanded its outreach and assessment services,” one report said.
LL called three addiction treatment providers about the state of APRA under Whitney; all either declined comment or did not return calls. He also requested an interview with Whitney to defend her record at APRA; instead, he was sent this statement from her boss, health department director Pierre Vigilance: “Over the past two years APRA has steadily improved allowing us to get closer to our goal that all District of Columbia residents in need have access [to] high quality treatment and rehabilitation services for their addictions.”
That’s one version, anyhow.
Whitney’s firings of top managers and other employees created what one current APRA employee calls a “climate of fear”—and that’s what had settled upon that staff meeting last March. “The atmosphere in the room was that finally someone on that upper management team got it,” the employee says. “When people are suffering, it’s hard to deliver treatment services yourself.”
At the center of that climate is Hurricane Catania, with his comments about how APRA “needed a housecleaning more than any administration in this government” and how it “did nothing on behalf of the people of this city suffering from addiction.”
And it’s that climate that led Mumford to speak up. “We go back to the office [from city hall]—she’s expecting people to work for her.…You should have seen the faces of these employees.” Mumford says she “didn’t think it was detrimental” to raise her concerns in front of agency employees. “Psychologically, I thought it was a good thing to do. Careerwise, I guess not.”
Mumford joined the ranks of fired at-will managers that include Bego and scores of other city employees. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. told LL Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation next week that would require agency honchos to show cause before firing any “management supervisory service” employee after a one-year probationary period.
These days, Mumford says, she still takes calls from APRA employees seeking advice and that she bears no ill will against the agency she was forced to leave. “They all keep in touch. They call me every day,” she says. “They’re ultimately a good group.”
But, personally, Whitney’s spurning has been much harder to get over. Since she was fired, Mumford has not spoken to the woman she gave her kidney to, though she says she’d like to. “I just don’t know what her daughter has said, why Tori and I fell out,” she says. “I myself do not know why we fell out.”
“I want my kidney back,” Mumford says. “If I could get my kidney back in a jar, that would be nice.”
• Harry Thomas Jr. has been walking a mighty fine line the past couple of weeks.
When you’re representing a ward that contains both quickly gentrifying (and gayifying) areas like Bloomingdale, Eckington, and Brookland, in addition to the generally conservative Bungalow Belt and many of the city’s most politically active churches, same-sex marriage would be one of those issues you might wish would go away.
Thomas veered heavily to one side of that line when he voted this month to recognize other states’ same-sex marriages here in D.C. He leaned even further when the Washington Blade reported last Friday that Thomas was on the record in support of a full gay marriage bill—-a story LL had highlighted in his Friday news roundup.
Leaned too far, perhaps: That afternoon, Thomas spokesperson Victoria Leonard called LL to say the Blade story, by Lou Chibarro Jr., wasn’t true. Her boss, she said, wasn’t committed either way.
Chibbaro says that he went with his story after Leonard mentioned to him a questionnaire that Thomas had filled out for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance ahead of his 2006 election. It asked,“Do you support legal recognition of marriages between partners of the same sex?” Thomas replied,“Yes.” Leonard told Chibbaro that her boss stood by his response three years later.
“She was very upbeat and definitive,” the veteran reporter says. Thomas himself was in Las Vegas for the shopping-centers conference at the time and unavailable for direct comment
Leonard says she indeed told Chibarro that her boss stood by his old line. Giving such an unequivocal response, she says, was a mistake.“I’m not an attorney, and I’m not a councilmember,” she tells LL.“As a spokesperson, I’ll have to learn to be more careful, especially on tumultuous issues.”
LL finally got Thomas himself on the horn yesterday:“That’s why I always speak to you guys directly,” Thomas says.“My spokesperson’s statement was taken out of character a little bit.”
OK, fine, unfiltered, straight from the horse’s mouth. No confusion, right? Well, see if you can parse these comments from Thomas:
“We’re going to have to make sure whatever we do passes the congressional smell test. And so I am looking at how we look at possible referendums and other options where we have a true voice of the people on this issue, to strengthen our position when we go forward.”
So you favor a voter referendum, then?
“Well, I want to look at the possibilities of having one…make sure that we as councilmembers ensure we have due process in this whole piece. I think we’ve gone a long way in a quick period of time, and people need to have input in this process. And I’ve stuck to my guns about my position on it, but at the same time, we must be open to making sure that the whole citizenry feels like it was engaged in this process.”
Stuck to your guns? What guns?
“My position is that, I’ve supported the equity issues in recognizing what other states have already done, so people would not have those legal issues here in the District of Columbia.”
What about the questionnaire?
“I am supportive of that, but again, in defining that support, you have to look at how you get to that point. I think there’s legislative [ways] and there’s ways through referendums to do it. And so I haven’t hedged from my support on the issue. My issue is how you bring others along in a city with such a diverse opinion on it.”
Haven’t hedged, huh?
“Have you ever seen me hedge? I’m not a hedger, man. That’s not in my nature!”
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