Get our free newsletter
Mayor Anthony A. Williams should have had every reason to present a solemn, rueful public face at a press conference Jan 28 at One Judiciary Square. His administration, after all, was releasing a report showing that D.C.’s Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA) had “allowed for the neglect, abuse, and death” of District citizens. And the report didn’t even stem from enterprise sleuthing by the mayor’s management goons. Rather, a Dec. 5 story in the Washington Post had alerted Williams to the fiasco.
But when he faced the public, Williams wasn’t standing on his heels or mouthing rehearsed regrets. This mayor, in fact, looked positively gleeful—punching his fist, exhorting workers, and outlining how his reforms will penetrate the innermost coils of the city bureaucracy. And the starting point, apparently, was the previous day’s decision to fire five MRDDA officials and suspend two others for misdeeds in overseeing group homes for the mentally retarded.
With the bloody heads all but hanging from the podium, Williams was in his prime:
“There have been critical failures in oversight, critical failures in systems, and this has to stop, and it’s going to stop—starting now,” intoned the mayor, who is temporarily putting group-home management in the hands of private providers.
Elaborating on continued efforts to probe the Department of Human Services for screw-ups, Williams all but promised more sackings: “We’re going to find additional findings that show management problems, and there’s no way we can do this in a cosmetic way. We’re going to take deliberate—yes—careful—yes—but decisive action….The train is leaving the station: Get on board.”
Only in the District of Columbia can the mayor get so worked up over such an unremarkable step. If he were chief executive of just about any other city, or if he were CEO of Williams’ Widgets Inc., a few dismissals would be viewed as minimal, de rigueur measures with few ramifications for the broader work culture. Here, though, firing workers for incompetence is revolutionary, a step every bit as important to D.C.’s renaissance as good schools and safe streets.
“I’m very happy to see summary dismissals of people who are blatantly obstructing the programs of the city and putting people in danger,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, summing up citywide sentiment on the firings. “The signal it sends is: ‘Straighten up.’”
Liberal use of the pink slip got Williams where he is today. In January 1997, then-Chief Financial Officer Williams axed 165 workers in the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue. The flotilla of bureaucratic deadwood had separated the CFO from the model of financial accountability that he’d promised. The fired workers were the ones who had left mountains of tax returns sitting unfiled in a holding pen, failed to answer taxpayer inquiries, and otherwise managed to turn black ink into red.
But, whereas the dismissals helped CFO Williams extract unprecedented productivity from his staff, they were treated as a political liability for candidate Williams in the summer of 1998. Rival mayoral hopeful and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous slighted the number-cruncher for the cold, heartless way in which he had sent his employees packing—providing no notice and, in many cases, one day to empty their desks. In pursuit of the labor endorsement, Williams even apologized for having given sacked employees the corporate treatment.
As it turned out, there was no need for any apology. Williams handily beat Chavous and two others, even without support from anti-firing advocates. LL suspects that Williams might have widened his 15-point margin if he had been even less contrite—by pledging, say, to publish photos of all fired employees in the D.C. Register. Chavous, Williams, and labor leaders alike had underestimated District voters’ hunger for a culture of consequence downtown.
Reading from Ax Man Williams’ manual on how to be popular in the new D.C., the D.C. Council last year passed personnel reforms making it easier for managers to fire subordinates for cause.
And now with the civic embrace of dismissals is a concomitant fury against the oldest bureaucratic solution to District incompetence: the transfer. In scandal after scandal over the years, government managers faced with hard evidence of employee wrongdoing have simply sent the poor performers to another sinecure. Then they’ve hired new employees to fill the void—a tactic that has helped swell the public payroll to around 50,000 workers.
Disgruntled D.C. General Hospital employees have come to regard the name Ann Jackson as a synonym for the government’s penchant for transfers. In 1995, the city’s inspector general fingered Jackson for taking sick leave from her D.C. General post to work at Chartered Health Plan Inc. According to a report by Channel 7 (WJLA-TV), the IG recommended that Jackson be dismissed. In the five years since, though, managers have repeatedly ignored the recommendation. Instead, they’ve transferred Jackson to the Commission on Public Health—and the Office of the City Administrator. This week’s government shutdown prevented verification of any subsequent transfers.
Of course, by ancien regime accountability standards, even a transfer sans pay cut looks positively onerous. To get a sense of the culture Williams is up against in firing bureaucrats who screw up, just check out these examples:
* In 1994, a group of aggrieved female D.C. Department of Corrections employees filed a lawsuit alleging that their male managers regularly demanded sexual favors in return for jobs and promotions, and routinely groped, kissed, and fondled them. After a trial that produced scandalous revelations, the class of victims prevailed, and the city eventually paid out $8 million in damages. Corrections officials fired not a single official implicated in the suit.
* On Aug. 4, 1997, dump truck driver Willis Curry secured a restricted D.C. license for his truck, even though he’d been cited in Maryland for more than 274 violations of 24 federal safety requirements. Eight days later, Curry drove through a red light at the intersection of Military Road and Nevada Avenue NW and tipped over, flattening a car driven by 17-year-old Benjamin Cooper, who died in the crash. An inquiry last month by Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson found that the five D.C. employees responsible for issuing the license to Curry, who is now serving a 10- to 30-year prison sentence, have all received pay hikes since the crash.
There’s nothing like a few firings, Williams reasons, to inspire a major attitude adjustment among those front-line workers. And in a campaign to find the rot before the investigative journalists do, Williams is asking agency heads to submit “risk-management” plans for all offices under their jurisdiction. In plain English, the initiative means that agency directors won’t take the fall for subordinates who bring as much shame and liability to D.C. as the folks at the MRDDA did, so long as the agency directors ID them to the mayor in advance—and are at work trying to fix them. It’s a nifty incentive for bosses to stop covering for their underlings.
“It’s a new day,” said Williams at the MRDDA press conference, coining a phrase that’s true in more ways than one: After a year in office, Williams will in all likelihood get the blame for the next scandal.
PLAYING THE NUMBERS
In congressional testimony last Friday, D.C. financial control board Chair Alice M. Rivlin noted that “implementation problems” with the city government’s financial management system had “complicated the closing of the fiscal year 1999 audit.” Snags in the system, continued Rivlin, have limited the District’s “ability to produce timely, accurate information for decision makers.”
Rivlin’s broadside against the city’s untimely financial system is, at least, timely: The D.C. government’s financial people, after all, are required by Congress to produce final numbers on the previous fiscal year by Feb. 1. D.C.’s missed that deadline in the past, but the snafu this year could push back the timetable for consideration of next year’s budget—and give an early black eye to Valerie Holt, whom Williams appointed to be chief financial officer in May.
“We may not see the audit until March,” says a source close to the financial management system. Last year, the audit came out one week after the deadline. Holt said early this week that she was not prepared to make a statement on the rumored delay. “I’ll be ready to say something on this later in the week,” said Holt.
The monster that Holt, Rivlin & Co. can’t tame is something called the System of Accounting and Reporting (SOAR), a $32 million financial management system that the District bought from the KPMG Peat Marwick consulting firm in late 1997, according to Patterson. Budget officials planned to have the system fully operational by early 1999, but they still haven’t worked out all the bugs. Last year, studies by Patterson’s Committee on Government Operations, the D.C. inspector general, and the General Accounting Office highlighted numerous glitches associated with SOAR.
“The system doesn’t produce what the old system produced and what people want,” says control board Executive Director Francis Smith. “It’s not what people want their reports to look like.” As advertised, SOAR was to provide an integrated system capable of handling all the disparate financial operations of a city—contracting, payroll, budget, and performance measurement.
“KPMG and its SOAR system have provided all the information requested by the auditors,” maintains KPMG’s Marcie Odens Peck. “However, only the auditors or the District’s CFO can speak to the schedule of the audit completion.”
Patterson says that financial policy issues—as well as system problems—have held up the audit. For instance, says Patterson, the CFO’s office this month has been haggling over how to count expenditures on the controversial December bonus for union workers. “If you’re still deciding in January whether to book funds to 1999 or 2000, that doesn’t bode well for meeting the deadline,” says the councilmember.
* Last Friday, D.C. Taxicab Commission member Sandra Seegars pulled off a stunt that no one in her obscure position has ever managed—namely, becoming the focus of a congressional hearing.
At a Jan. 21 session of the House D.C. oversight subcommittee, Republican Rep. Connie Morella singled out Seegars—an African-American Ward 8 resident—as a champion of racial profiling, citing her warning to cabbies not to do business with the following types: “When I say dangerous-looking,” said Seegars in the Jan. 15 edition of the Washington Post, “I mean a young black guy, okay, with his hat on backwards, shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants down below his underwear, and unlaced tennis shoes. That’s the look.” Seegars’ comments came in reaction to a string of violent crimes committed against cabbies in the city.
The Montgomery County congresswoman asked Mayor Williams whether the city was returning to the state of affairs of 1993, when a study commissioned by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights found that one-third of all D.C. hackers refused to service black customers. “Do you have to look like you—with a suit and a bow tie—to get cab service?” asked Morella. Williams replied that in big cities he has had trouble hailing cabs “even with my bow tie” and cautioned against attributing his appointee’s opinions to the mayor’s office. “Those remarks are inexcusable, unfortunate, and don’t reflect the position of this administration,” said Williams.
That may be, but Williams chose one of the city’s most independent thinkers to represent him on the taxi commission. In 1997, she turned on onetime ally Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., launching a recall movement that embarrassed the mayor at Metro stations and shopping centers across the city. Seegars’ foot soldiers in the petition-gathering effort were city cabbies—the same folks whose desire not to pick up young men late at night Seegars now defends.
“Harsh comments need to be made to bring attention to this problem,” says Seegars. When asked if Morella understood the plight of the city’s taxicab drivers, Seegars responded, “Yeah, right.”
* Yes, we know that the MRDDA is poorly managed and perhaps criminally negligent. But the Post, which broke the story of the agency’s failings, took the dysfunction to politically incorrect extremes when it—momentarily—posted this headline on its Web site last week: “Five Axed at Retarded Agency.” CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.