Two months after spurning federal government suitors to become the District’s umpteenth director of the Department of Human Services (DHS), Carolyn Colvin is causing controversy. She has brought in cronies from Maryland, where she served during the William Donald Schaefer administration as secretary of the Department of Human Resources. She has renovated her office suite, installing a window where there had been a wall, re-carpeting her inner office, and buying new chairs and a fancy mahogany-finished executive desk. Her new chief of staff appears to have used District government resources to complete a consulting job unrelated to city business. And, according to one of her critics, Colvin has marched into the agency’s Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration “like the Gestapo,” reassigning longtime employees, including that division’s director, Essie Page, and Page’s deputy, Mike Jones.
“The new director and her team are the most disruptive force to hit the city in a long time,” says one DHS source, who requested anonymity. “[Management and morale] have never been worse.”
LL would think a litany of these kinds of complaints might slay most management hawks. Not Colvin; she continues launching missiles, albeit quietly and politely.
Yes, Colvin says of the cronyism charge: “It’s probably true. I need people around me that I can trust. I brought in people who were part of an outstanding team when I was in Maryland,” naming Chief of Staff Stacey Rodgers as among the four former colleagues she recruited.
Patting herself on the back for not coming in and “cleaning out the place wholesale,” Colvin says her changes have been more surgical. She says she is “assessing the strengths of people inside the agency at the same time I am recruiting for people outside.”
“Sometimes that kind of process might be intimidating for some people,” says a pro-Colvin source at DHS.
Colvin says she doesn’t know the cost of the renovations of her office, which is located in Southeast on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital. But she asserts that the renovations were “not extravagant” and promises more alterations of the plant, noting that the department was supposed to be at its current site for only two years. “It’s been seven years. They say we will be here another two years. But the way things work, it will be five years.” She says the money is coming from the capital budget, not operations. (LL can’t help wondering how Colvin can be so sure of the source of the funds and not know the amount that was spent on making her digs more comfortable.)
LL may like Colvin’s tough demeanor, her candor, and the plans she has for improving the troubled agency, but suspects that when it comes to Colvin’s personal staff, the lady hawk may have a blind side. Colvin denies that Rodgers has been helping to plan a fatherhood conferencea consulting project left over from her previous jobon District government time, using District government resources. But she says she decided to allow Rodgers to finish the project and simultaneously transition into her new DHS job. She says Rodgers has not been double-dipping but has been paid by the District only for hours when she was engaged in city business. “Stacey has put in more hours than anyone around here,” Colvin adds.
According to documents obtained by LL, Colvin may need a quick primer on what constitutes government resources. At least one e-mail message, part of an exchange regarding the upcoming June fatherhood conference at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, dated March 30, 2001, at 2:35 p.m., was sent to Rodgers at her work address. Rodgers also received on a District government fax machine a transmission from the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership dated March 29, 2001, regarding an upcoming International Fatherhood Conference.
For her part, Rodgers insists she’s done nothing improper and has not been paid by the District for noncity business. She concedes that she received “a few” e-mails and faxes, but says she sent herself some of those documents to prepare for an eventual fatherhood initiative in the District. “In any transition, you’re going to get a phone call here, an e-mail or fax there,” Rodgers says.
“People are just waiting to see what we’re going to do and hoping we’ll fall on our faces,” says Colvin. “I didn’t come to make a name for myself; I already did that. I came because I think I can make a difference.”
Colvin’s infractions may seem minor. But LL’s been around the District long enough to know that minor can fast become major.
TOO MUCH RACKET?
Initially there were problems with the toiletsnot enough of them, and those that were there began to back up. But no one said anything: It was opening day for the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, the newest facility of the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and tennis wonder girls Venus and Serena Williams had come to help kick things off. When company comes, you pretend things are fine.
But since the April 21 official opening of the $5 million complex that features nine courts, computer labs, and multimedia rooms, critics are growing more vocal. “It was like Lortonthere’s this big fence around everything,” says Ward 8 resident Kevin Linberger, adding that the weekend after the opening, he and his wife and granddaughter went to use the facilities and couldn’t get in.
“There wasn’t even a schedule of programs….It’s this big white elephant. What we had before wasn’t great, but at least we had access to it,” continues Linberger, recalling the outdoor tennis courts that used to be where the grand center is now. “The mayor is bragging that we have this tennis center, but you can’t brag on something that’s not running.”
Other critics and One Judiciary Square sources say they are not happy about the string-pulling activities of Cora Masters Barry, who as founder and chief operating officer of the Recreation Wish List Committee can be praised as the inspiration for the facility but who doesn’t deserve the accolades for its construction. District taxpayers deserve that pat on the back. Barry’s committee raised only about $400,000 for the project. The remainder of the money came from city coffers via a special allocation from Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ administration. Critics say that Barry pressured parks officials to appoint Arnold W. McKnight as center manager, although he was initially hired only as tennis coach; they also say that Barry has determined the portfolio of programs.
Barry says that McKnight is “eminently qualified” for his position, and she refers specific questions about the center’s personnel and programs to him and DPR Director Neil Albert. But she won’t say much more. “I am not going to deal with people who are trying to tear down something that is so great,” Barry says.
McKnight, who was previously a tennis coach for Barry and her husband, former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., isn’t as reticent: He takes strong exception to the complaints. He argues that the center scheduled its grand opening when it did because that was the only time it could get the Williams sisters. And McKnight asserts that his qualifications are “impeccable” and that Albert courted him for the nearly $66,000-a-year position.
“I was the head tennis coach at an elite facility in Northern Virginia where they only deal with a speckling of people like those we have here,” says McKnight, who holds a doctorate in education from American University and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Health and Physical Education at Bowie State University, according to his résumé.
“He was the most experienced and the most qualified of the people I interviewed,” says Albert. “There is a personnel process. If he didn’t have the qualifications, believe me, he wouldn’t have been hired….Does he know Cora? Absolutely.”
Albert says he has heard complaints about Barry “interfering” with operations at the Southeast center. “That might be the perception, but that is not the reality,” he adds.
Well, excuse LL, Mr. DPR Director, but it’s far more than a perception. The memorandum of understanding between the DPR and Barry’s Wish List Committee makes clear that Barry’s group will have extensive involvement in designing the tennis center’s programs, drafting its budget, and selecting its personnel. Barry also maintains an office with a secretary at the facility. Further, McKnight wasn’t just the Barrys’ tennis coach. According to McKnight’s résumé, he served as coordinator for the Wish List tennis tournaments from 1996 through 1999. He also was appointed to the city’s Boxing and Wrestling Commission during Mayor Barry’s last administration. McKnight is now that commission’s chair.
Last week, Albert and McKnight initially disputed claims that the center had been closed when residents came to use the facilities, saying the hours of operation are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. But the DPR’s official Web site lists the hours as noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Correcting himself, McKnight says the longer hours “cannot be kept” because he is the sole staffer. “I am the center manager and the tennis coach. Any individual who doesn’t understand the magnitude of that responsibility, then I am sorry.” He blames the staff shortage on the District’s Office of Personnel, which he says has been sitting on the DPR’s request for additional people for eight weeks.
But this week, when LL decided to take a little look-see for herself, there were three maintenance persons on duty, a privately contracted security guard, and Denard Smith, a DPR staffer who says he is the “center manager.” McKnight refers to him as the office manager, although Smith’s duties as identified by McKnightopening and closing the center, preparing daily sign-in sheets for all DPR personnel at the center, forwarding time sheets, managing the pro shop, and circulating fee-collection schedulesclosely resemble those of other DPR center managers.
“[Smith] will do the work, but Dr. McKnight has the title. That’s because Cora won’t let them give the title to anyone but her boy,” says one Judiciary Square source, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
When LL asked for a copy of the center’s program schedule and fees, McKnight was unable to produce one. He did, however, have several sheets of information that he says must be approved by DPR headquarters before they can be distributed to the public.
Albert admits there are a few bumps in the center’s operation: “There is ramping-up time that is necessary for any new facility.”
But who forced the DPR to hold that fancy grand opening before it had things in place? Wasn’t it reasonable for Linberger and other residents to expect that “grand opening” means open for business? How much more time will the DPR need before the center is fully operational? Wasn’t the five years it took to complete the project adequate time to think through such basics as hours of operation, programs, and sufficient staffing? Jonetta Rose Barras
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, x 454, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.