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On Wednesday morning, Mayor Anthony A. Williams led off a slew of appointment announcements with the Godfather of Soul’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).” The funk classic introduced the city’s new director of the Office of Cable Television and Communications, James D. Brown Jr., yet seemed equally apropos for the biggest addition to Williams’ second term: Robert C. Bobb, who will replace John A. Koskinen as city administrator.
The mayor acknowledged Bobb’s municipal rock-star status right away. “There are very few city managers who are known as national figures,” said Williams about Bobb, who served as city manager of Oakland, Calif., until July. He resigned after some very public disagreements with Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, including a clash over building a downtown ballpark for the A’s. Bobb supported the stadium; Brown didn’t.
“You don’t take the quietest and most relaxed horseyou take a good horse,” answered the mayor about his final selection. The mayor’s search team had recommended two other candidates: Deputy Mayor for Operations Herbert Tillery and Teree Caldwell-Johnson, the former county manager for Polk County, Iowa. Though the mayor appoints Bobb, the D.C. Council needs to greenlight his salary of $185,000. Koskinen, who earns $135,000, leaves the administration Sept. 12.
The new city administrator dismissed concerns about his reputed Bigfoot style. “These cities belong to the citizens and their elected representatives,” said Bobb, who will start on Oct. 6.
Bobb’s dominant personality is the talk of administration insiders, who wonder how the aggressive No. 2 will work with the technocratic No. 1. At one point in the press conference, after rapid-fire questioning from D.C. Shadow Inspector General Dorothy Brizill, Bobb gripped the podium and seemed to take control. Then he turned back to Williams, who was standing behind him, and kindly asked permission from the mayor to keep the floor.
With this week’s resumption of the 11 p.m. curfew for District residents under 17, those D.C. public-school students interested in seeing Superintendent Paul L. Vance muse at Board of Education meetings will head home disappointed. At each month’s meeting, Vance sits back in his chair, rubbing his eyes, while board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and her colleagues fill the hours going back and forth on matters of policy and budgeting.
Finally, just around the time Cinderella’s carriage turns into a pumpkin, Vance delivers his superintendent’s report. For anyone whose nerves are on edge from all the late-night bickering, Vance offers a soothing, soporific tonic. He speaks like a 78-rpm Sammy Davis Jr. record slowed down to 33 speed.
His talking points betray no hint of strife.
“He does give off an air of going at [slow] speed,” says one schools observer. “You want somebody who has a little more pizzazz
If only the D.C. public-school system could be as placid as its superintendent. The schools face a budget crisis, lawsuits, the threat of teacher work stoppages, and misspending by systems officials. Yet Vance expresses little opinion in public about any of these matters. The superintendent’s low profile hasn’t escaped the attention of D.C.’s self-proclaimed education mayor. Earlier this year at one of his weekly press briefings, Williams chided local reporters for giving so much ink to the agitated school-board president and so little to the superintendent.
Who knows the name of the school-board president in New York? Williams asked. The mayor pointed out that most in the press room knew the name of the New York City schools chancellor: Joel I. Klein.
Well, Vance may have some name recognition, but nobody talks about him. He has a reputation for being a smart, politically savvy operator. Yet Vance’s private machinations haven’t saved the system from ignominy.
Take the latest flare-up with the teachers’-union contract. Facing a potential budget shortfall of $82 million before the first day of fiscal year 2004, school-board members in a close vote opted to freeze agreed-upon salary increases for teachers and others. Vance sat calmly and silently as board members wrestled and finally decided upon breaking the contract.
Now, the union has gone to court to enforce the contract provisions.
Yet Vance never bothered to call union leadership to negotiate a new agreement. The superintendent and board members knew for months about the financial train wreck. “I think we made a terrible mistake in not talking to the unions,” says board member Tommy Wells, who represents Wards 5 and 6.
It’s not as though Vance is new to schools management. Back in July 2000, the D.C. financial control board brought him out of education retirement. For eight years, from 1991 to 1999, Vance was superintendent of Montgomery County’s public-school system, which served 129,000 students in his final year there. During his tenure, the Montgomery school system went from serving a largely white and affluent student body to serving a much more racially and economically diverse population.
As chief of Montgomery schools, Vance earned a reputation for being shrewd and having a knack for dealing with the county’s elected leadership. He was credited with improving test scores and building the school system as student enrollment expanded and diversified. Some school-board members, though, complained that Vance failed to give direction and guidance in important decisions.
The Montgomery superintendent did attract public attention for something else: his health. During his tenure, Vance had a couple of notable accidents that made the newspapers. In June 1995, Vance crashed into a parked car outside Seneca Valley High School in Germantown after feeling lightheaded. Almost a year later, he had a similar spell, crashing through a hedge and a 2-foot stone patio embankment and into the side of a house in a Gaithersburg retirement community.
After the Gaithersburg incident, Vance announced that he would not seek a renewal of his contract with the Montgomery County School Board.
So it was surprising when D.C. signed up Vance three years ago, to replace Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The control board initially introduced Vance as an interim hire, then signed him up for two years of service. “My original contract with the D.C. financial control board states that I will be here no less than one year and no more than two years,” Vance stated in September 2000. “That is what I agreed to do. I feel that is a moral obligation on my part.”
Like any other new schools chief, Vance promised the moon: improvement in test scores, a reduction in central administration bloat, more attention to facilities. Within his first few months, he announced that he intended to shake up central administration. He later repeated calls for transformation in 2001 and 2002, saying that he would make the school system’s bureaucracy leaner, more economical, and more efficient.
Yet a March 2003 report showed that the school system had about 640 more employees than it had budgeted for that fiscal year. Ten months earlier, Vance promised to transform the central administration by cutting 126 positions and saving $16.3 million a year.
“The financial controls are not good,” says At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who sits on the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. “I don’t know how you impose controls if you don’t have a detailed budget.”
The 14-hour days have taken their toll on the 72-year-old superintendent. In February 2002, Vance had double-bypass surgery. He returned to work two months later.
Since his obligation with the control board expired, he has been working without a contract. The Board of Education has been working on a new one for the past year but has yet to seal a deal.
Mayor Williams faced some dilemmas last Friday morning at the grand opening of the new H&M store in the old Woodward & Lothrop building downtown: First, what to wear? The Swedish retailer has a reputation for hip clothing, the type of threads worn by all those childless, disposable-income-dumping, aspiring urbanites whom Williams wants to see “city-living, D.C. style.”
Second, which entrance? If he approached the outdoor ribbon-cutting ceremony from the F Street NW sidewalk, the mayor would have to shake hands and act nice with the growing horde of would-be H&M shoppers. But if he sneaked in a side door and worked his way indoors to the front entrance, he would have to navigate the Saturday Night Fever-ish sales floor, where enthusiastic H&M employees and his acting head of constituent outreach, Linda Perkins, had decided to shake some booty in celebration.
A little before noon, Williams walked through the black-T-shirted H&M employees, wearing a classic seersucker suit, blue-and-white bow tie, and penny loafers, waving his hands Wheels On the Bus-style as the H&M staff chanted
“Go Tony! Go Tony!” to bass-throbbing house music.
When he reached the podium outside, he faced an even bigger challenge: What to say about Douglas Jemal, the building’s developer and head of Douglas Development Corp.? For five years, Williams touted Jemal’s efforts to revive retail shopping and residential housing downtown. Now, though, Jemal is entangled in the Williams administration’s latest embarrassment, a scandal in the city’s Office of Property Management that has attracted the attention of the FBI. Jemal has exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in D.C. Council hearings investigating the matter. “I certainly want to acknowledge [Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] Eric Price for working with Douglas Development Corp.,” Williams told black-suited H&M executives, conservatively dressed members of the local media, and eager consumers.
That was the mayor’s lone mention of Douglas Development or Jemal.
Jemal avoided the grand opening of his real-estate jewel, telling LL he had a family wedding to attend in New Jersey. Douglas Development’s Blake Esherick stood quietly on the sidewalk during the 10-minute grand-opening ceremony without acknowledgement.
“I commended his corporation,” Williams later said, elaborating on the brevity of his comments. “I commended [Jemal] publicly in front of everybody.”
•Over the past year, Mayor Williams has often mentioned how much he relies upon D.C. Youth Mayor Michael Clark for advice. LL has often spotted Clark, a tireless dynamo at retail politics, glad-handing and chatting with constituents both young and old at community events throughout the city.
Too bad the mayor didn’t rely on Clark for some political pointers.
Clark’s term ended in August. LL wishes the former youth mayor well in his senior year at Hyde Leadership Public Charter School. CP
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