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City Administrator Robert Bobb is the man when it comes to fixing dysfunctional agencies or lighting a fire under lazy managers. Since he joined the Williams team in 2003, Bobb has blitzed community meetings from Sursum Corda to Hillcrest. Unlike his globe-trotting boss, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Bobb actually appears to enjoy spending time in town.
But like his boss, Bobb wants to leave behind a legacy from his years in the District’s municipal cockpit. Simply improving operations at the Department of Health or taking a new look at treatment of youth offenders won’t do. Someday, another mayor will come in and wipe away such advances, along with Bobb’s place in history as a can-do manager.
So Bobb took up the National Capital Medical Center (NCMC) as his legacy-builder. NCMC reeked of ambition—a new $400 million hospital to be constructed in partnership with Howard University on the old D.C. General Hospital site in Southeast. Bobb served as Williams’ go-to guy for every aspect of the project.
Winning approval for the NCMC was the kind of tough challenge Bobb devours. He spent countless hours on the project and endured numerous headaches. Bobb’s energy and Howard’s commitment gave the enterprise considerable momentum this past winter. Key councilmembers were endorsing the idea, and east-of-the-river residents were applauding a second coming of D.C. General.
In the spring, though, the mayor suddenly bailed on the NCMC. Bobb’s hard work ended up in the toilet. And some wondered how Bobb got rolled.
What was supposed to be a major Williams-Bobb landmark was all but declared dead shortly after the Washington Examiner and WRC–TV reported on April 10 that the mayor had abandoned the NCMC idea.
As a career public servant, Bobb knows politicians are prone to change positions. This case, however, was different. After months of hard work on the NCMC, he might also have expected his boss to extend the simple courtesy of letting him know his work on the effort was for naught.
No such heads-up ever came. As e-mails obtained by the Washington City Paper reveal, the Williams administration’s handyman couldn’t tell NCMC supporters or city staff what was happening while the deal he championed imploded, because the mayor didn’t tell Bobb he’d soured on the hospital project.
Here’s how it all went down. The early April press reports on Williams’ change of heart prompted some jitters among executives at Howard University. The university’s senior vice president for Government Affairs, Hassan Minor, sent an e-mail to Bobb requesting that the mayor clear up his position on the hospital project.
On the morning of April 10, Bobb had little intelligence to offer Minor. “Thanks! I believe it is appropriate fo[r] HU to state its position,” he wrote. “Particularly based on where the current thinking of this administration [is]. I cannot offer any current info on our position as I have not been consulted nor ha[s] my advise [sic] been requested from the home office.”
The mayor’s top man on the NCMC project wrote to Minor that he was “sitting tight awaiting our next set of instructions.”
The NCMC e-mail traffic heated up later that day, after Minor wrote to Williams’ spokesperson Vince Morris attempting to get clarification on the mayor’s position after Washington Business Journal reporter Neil Adler asked the university to comment for a story. According to Adler’s undated e-mail, Morris told the reporter that “the mayor would be ready to go in a new direction other than the hospital if another option could better improve access to health care for D.C. residents.” Minor e-mailed asking if Morris could “forward a copy of whatever statement you sent/provided to the WBJ so that we can respond appropriately.”
Minor also cc’d Bobb. Ten minutes later, Bobb weighed in. “Quite frankly Vince I too would like a copy of the statement!!” he wrote. The executive office of the mayor did not provide Morris’ response to either of the e-mails.
Other city-government employees roped in to advance the NCMC project had also seen the news reports. But Bobb had no answers for staff charged with pushing the project.
In an e-mail date-stamped April 11, 5:06 p.m., Deputy Chief Financial Officer Lasana Mack called on the mayor’s NCMC point man for some guidance. “I am seeking a quick update regarding the status of the proposed NCMC, given recent press reports, as a part of ensuring that our Official Statement language is factual and not misleading,” Mack wrote to Bobb and several other executive office staff members.
“We are proceeding until we have a direct statement face to face from the Mayor himself,” Bobb responded 20 minutes later. “Thus we [are] moving forward.”
Later that night, Minor and Bobb exchanged e-mails suggesting that after days of press reports and speculation about the NCMC, the city administrator was still out of the loop regarding his boss’ position.
“[H]ow goes the war?” queried Minor of Bobb at 10:08 p.m.
“It goes!!!” Bobb responded three minutes later, apparently unaware that the project was all but dead. “Will see what happens @ tomorrow’s press conference. I am sure the press will ask questions regarding NCMC.”
At 10:17 p.m., Minor was looking for some of Bobb’s signature straight talk. “[H]ave you been told anything w[ith] r[egard] t[o] where we are?” he asked.
“No not @ all,” Bobb wrote at 11:08 p.m. “I feel that I am totally in the dark.”
For Minor, the time for gallows humor had arrived. “[Y]ou may not be able to see me but I am in here with you,” he wrote at 11:13 p.m.
Bobb finally did get the mayor’s direct statement face to face when Williams was asked about the NCMC at his April 12 weekly press conference. “I wouldn’t say we are abandoning the NCMC,” the mayor said in response to a reporter’s question. When asked directly to outline his position on the hospital, the mayor delivered a line now recognized as the death knell for the NCMC: “I would say that my position is evolving,” he said.
Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood even pressed the mayor on what instructions Bobb had been given, considering he had spent months toiling for the NCMC against stiff opposition. Williams offered up a gem with Bobb standing in the room: “What I would do is just wait for some future announcements,” the mayor said.
Just minutes after the press conference concluded, Bobb resumed his e-mail conversation with Minor: “Have you seen today’s press conference? We should talk,” he wrote.
“Want to have one of our dinners?” Minor asked.
With the battle lost, Bobb was left with one response: “Yes.”
•At-large D.C. Council candidate A. Scott Bolden spends a good amount of time on his weblog bashing his opponent, incumbent At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. In keeping with a long-held blog tradition, he encourages others to pile on or offer a response to his thoughts. A survey of his campaign blog reveals a truly impressive number of comments on his semiregular diatribes. His March 17 thank-you note to all the people who were sharing their views with him drew an astounding 230 responses. A brilliant April 12 missive on the mayor’s crime bill drew 62 comments. He got 112 responses to a May 11 posting on efforts to collect signatures for his nominating petitions.
Those responses, though, don’t come from concerned citizens and do-gooders. They’re mostly ads for everything from online gambling sites to discount Viagra. Input on Bolden’s crime bill commentary, for example, includes ads for “online college degrees” and “play roulette.” Other candidates face the same problem, but Bolden hasn’t yet decided he needs an administrator to edit out the ads for blackjack or strike a comment encouraging readers to “visit sailing girl.” Bolden did not return calls seeking comment.
•LL is still waiting to find out how proponents of a new ballot initiative to bring slots to historic Anacostia plan to gather the necessary signatures. The treasurer for the Video Lottery Terminal Gambling Initiative of 2006, Barry Jerrels, tells LL to expect a rollout of the signature-gathering plan very soon.
He’d better move fast. Jerrels needs nearly 19,000 signatures—five percent of the voters citywide including five percent of the registered voters in five of the eight wards—by July 10. Unlike slots boosters in the 2004 election, when shady initiative signature-collection practices netted the biggest elections-law-violation fine in the city’s history, Jerrels is committed to a “clean” effort this time around. He won’t share his magic formula, saying only that signature collection will be done in accordance with city laws.
One thing is certain: The only gimmick left over from the 2004 effort is the clever renaming of a slot machine, now a “video lottery terminal.” The local activists looking to make a buck on a rushed signature-gathering effort in 2004 are staying away. Lawyer John Ray, who never seems to pass on any money-making venture, is out. So is Northeast D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso. But one thing remains constant. City attack dog Dorothy Brizill won’t let Jerrels out of her sight. Sources report that last week, after the slots initiative was approved, Jerrels attended a Board of Election and Ethics training session for signature gatherers. Brizill, who has little need for a briefing on petitions, followed Jerrels into the room. She’s also been haunting the places where slots proponents gathered signatures in 2004. Brizill says she’s also staked out the hotel where the paid signature gatherers stayed and stalked the initiative attorney Jeffery Robinson to no avail. “I can’t find any place where these people are set up,” Brizill says. —James Jones
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