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The countdown began in the Washington Times more than three weeks ago: “Chief Few’s days are numbered,” read an editorial that appeared in the newspaper April 25. “Adieu Chief Few,” opined the daily on May 1. A succession of similar stories have followed in the past few weeks, all of them presaging the inevitable fall of Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Ronnie Few.
But in beating the drum for Few’s ouster, the Times has not proved to be a keen observer of Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
To wit: Williams doesn’t like to fire people anymore.
It’s quite a contrast to four years ago. The last time Williams stumped on the campaign trail, critics branded him a bloodletting autocrat: On Jan. 24, 1997, he issued pink slips to 165 D.C. government finance workers whom he evaluated as underperforming or incompetent. Serving as the city’s first chief financial officer (CFO)—a position from which he resigned to run for mayor—Williams indicated that the days of D.C. government as we knew it were over.
“Folks were removed because I thought it was vitally important to reconstitute staff to meet our critical objectives,” explained Williams at one point during the campaign. “This was essentially trying to make a call, under emergency conditions, about who could and couldn’t do the work. I would do what I had to do again. I don’t relish it, but I also don’t hide from it.”
These days, when Williams faces personnel decisions he doesn’t relish, he…heads for Copenhagen and Rome. This past week, after several of the city’s elected officials publicly asked the mayor to fire Few for his lack of leadership and other frailties, Williams took no action before disappearing on a 10-day junket to Europe. In the meantime, as Williams performs mental jujitsu to convince Few to leave quietly, the administration faces another very real problem: Who is really in charge of the fire department?
The fire chief’s performance and leadership have been on slow burn for months now. In budget hearings earlier this year, councilmembers grilled Few about poor fleet maintenance, facilities management, and response times. In March, the Washington Times reported on the resume embellishments of Few’s three top fire chiefs. Then the Washington Post followed a month later with a story detailing Few’s own creative-writing approach to his resume.
“I write to ask that you either clear the air on this matter immediately or replace Chief Few,” wrote Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Kathy Patterson, chair of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary, in an April 12 letter to Williams.
Williams ordered City Administrator John Koskinen to get to the bottom of the matter, but Koskinen kept his findings from the public. Now, D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox is investigating Few’s resume as well as his travel expenses while serving as chief, according to two sources interviewed by the inspector general’s office.
When D.C. voters punched the ballot for Williams three years ago, they expected a Wall Street approach to loafing city workers: prove your value or take a hike. But the mayor apparently forgot to pack his pink slips when he moved from the CFO’s office to the mayoral suite.
And that frustrates his counterparts in the legislative branch. “I just think it’s overdue that [Few] be terminated or resign,” argues Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, who has circulated a letter around the Wilson Building over the past week asking the mayor to oust the fire chief one way or another.
The 30-odd officials in Williams’ cabinet serve at his pleasure. Yet name almost any Williams administration official who faced questions about job performance and you’ll see heel-dragging on the part of the mayor over the past three years: There’s former Department of Public Works Director Vanessa Dale Burns, former Department of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman, and now Few.
Burns trekked to Washington with some of the same liabilities as Few. After conducting the standard search for a director, Williams settled on the trash-talking public-works director of Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
At Burns’ confirmation hearing, councilmembers questioned whether she had enough mettle to handle the bright lights, big city of Washington, where she would command approximately 1,400 employees and a $130 million budget; in Evanston, Burns lorded over only 200 city workers and a $40 million budget. She imported controversy, too: Questions also arose in council chambers about Burns’ job history. Before her stop in Evanston, Burns had a brief and stormy tenure in Cleveland’s public-works department.
The council confirmed Burns anyhow.
The cloud remained over Burns throughout her tenure. In February 2000, a snowstorm socked the District’s trash collection for weeks. Then utility cuts by cable companies turned District streets into Beirut. As the pressure mounted, Burns turned nasty with her employees, preferring to use Richard Pryor’s vocabulary instead of Williams’ standard-issue bureaucratese.
But Williams didn’t fire Burns for her management miscues. She eventually resigned.
Williams argues that his change in style is pragmatic: He doesn’t want to scare away competent managers who would face daunting reform missions as well as an activist community that loves nothing more than to torpedo naive newcomers with impressive resumes.
But Williams’ waffling affects the public’s confidence in government, as well. Former Parks and Recreation Director Newman, who re-engineered the name from Recreation and Parks, had less success turning around a department that couldn’t even cut the grass at city ballfields. News stories broke about Newman’s resume enhancement in the summer of 2000, along with a steady stream of complaints about poor recreation programs and facilities.
Add to that junkets to the Virgin Islands and Phoenix for department staffers.
As in the Burns case, Williams defended Newman up until his resignation in late October 2000.
By taking off to Europe, Williams at least can’t recite the same vote-of-confidence lines about Few. In her letter to the mayor, Patterson noted the end result: “The persistent rumors and press assertions regarding Chief Few and his top managers have had and continue to have a damaging impact on morale within a critical public safety agency.”
MAYOR FOR LIGHT
Last Friday, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics released nominating petitions to this year’s electoral hopefuls. Though LL predicts that Mayor Williams will glide toward re-election as if he were canoeing down the Anacostia, he will probably encounter marginal resistance: National Capital Area American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Johnny Barnes and Southwest resident Victoria E. Gordon grabbed petitions to challenge Williams in the Democratic primary. Woodridge resident James Caviness and Stanton Park resident Nathanael Phillips picked up petitions to put their names on the Republican ballot, and Shaw resident Steve Donkin will likely try for the Statehood Green Party nomination.
Candidates have until July 3 to gather enough signatures to qualify for the September primaries.
Meanwhile, the Post has been actively recruiting a viable mayoral challenger to keep the Metro staff absorbed. In the past few weeks, D.C.’s newspaper of record has published two articles enticing Williams’ 1998 runners-up to give it another whirl. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous showed up to WTOP’s Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin on Friday accompanied by his wife and his press secretary, causing brief speculation that Chavous would make a big splash for the inaugural show, but Cautious Kevin continues to vacillate. He knows that the Post’s springtime encouragement comes minus a fall endorsement.
In an effort to bolster the democratic process, the American way of life, and our own blatant self-interest in making this something of a horse race, LL has taken up the Post’s challenge to draft a mayoral opponent.
LL’s first draft candidate? Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch.
Now retired, Welch has plenty of time to dabble in municipal politics. The legendary captain of industry turned GE around by shedding all units that weren’t either No. 1 or No. 2 in their respective industries. Under a Welch administration, that means the city would keep the Department of Motor Vehicles and whoever’s in charge of those speed cameras and sell off the Departments of Employment Services, Human Services, and Parks and Recreation.
Plus, there would be nary a complaint about darkened street lamps.
And Welch’s recently disclosed affair with Harvard Business Review editor Suzy Wetlaufer would offer WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood and Washingtonian writer Harry S. Jaffe a chance at co-authoring Dream City II.
* Members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A, on Capitol Hill, have a consistent record of disrespecting their peers in D.C. government. Earlier this year, for example, one of the commissioners called a colleague a “faggot-ass.”
The mudslinging seems to intensify anytime the ANC’s records are inspected. In an April 25 report, D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols concluded that ANC 6A had dispersed more than $30,000 in commission funds without proper authorization from its elected members. The report covers a 39-month period, from July 1, 1998, through Sept. 30, 2001.
Nichols detailed the expenditures, which include more than $4,500 spent on “office supplies” and nearly $3,300 worth of telephone bills.
At a May 2 public meeting, Commissioners Gregory Ferrell, Marvin Fields, and Daniel Pernell accused Nichols of “lying,” according to other commissioners in attendance. Ferrell and Fields both served as treasurers of the organization during the three-year period under investigation. Pernell, a former ANC chair who has been accused of soliciting ANC contributions for his own personal use, vowed to “make a liar” out of the auditor.
Nichols stands by her report.
Until the commissioners unravel the great Nichols conspiracy, LL suggests they help out legendary Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie by dialing 10-10-321.
* In its April 10 pitch to the D.C. Retirement Board, the executive search firm DMG/Maximus touts the “thoroughness of our documented reference and background checks”: “We will review, acknowledge and evaluate all resumes received,” the company claims, in response to the board’s request for proposals to conduct an executive-director search. The retirement board’s current director, Jorge Morales, plans to step down next year. “Preliminary screening will be based upon criteria contained in the Recruitment Profile, information contained in resumes submitted to us, and our knowledge of the people and organizations in which they work,” the company notes.
The firm has cast its net for the District before: DMG/Maximus was the firm involved in the search two years ago that vetted Morris Brown College alum and “1998 Fire Chief of the Year” Ronnie Few. The chief later deleted those honors from his resume.
D.C. Retirement Board General Counsel Bruce Gamble tells LL that the board has received proposals from competing search firms and has ranked them in order of preference. Though he declines to disclose the ranking order, Gamble says that DMG/Maximus did not earn the top slot.
* Last week, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson circulated a letter asking that the Williams administration not impose liens on the estates of mentally retarded residents who died while in the District’s care. The city hopes to recoup some Medicaid dollars that would defray potentially costly lawsuits accusing the District of negligence.
Mendelson corralled 11 out of his 12 council colleagues to sign on.
After some back-and-forth editing, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham decided to pen his own missive to Williams. “I wasn’t entirely pleased with one of the sentences,” Graham confesses to LL. “I disagreed with the language. There was something in there not necessary to make the point. I wanted a more straightforward presentation.”
It turns out Graham’s a harsh editor, reducing Mendelson’s four-paragraph letter down to two sentences.
“All I can say is that the edits Jim wanted would have made the letter less strong,” Mendelson responds. CP
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