When Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Richard White and aide Herb Leonard showed up on the 11th floor of One Judiciary Square on Jan. 25, they were prepared for a scheduled meeting with Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The two Metro execs had come to strategize on a plan to upgrade subway service along New York Avenue, one of the prime axes in the mayor’s “gateway” enhancement initiative.
Ever courteous, the mayoral staff gave White and Leonard plenty of time to hone their pitch to Williams. While the mayor conducted his business, the Metro guys sat on ice outside his office, in a reprise of the daily scene in the court of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
Finally, one of the mayor’s top aides intervened and arranged for an abbreviated meeting with Williams. They were there to talk business, but as it turned out, White and Leonard hadn’t made it onto the mayor’s schedule. “There was some confusion on the scheduling,” said Metro government relations aide Deborah Lipman.
White and Leonard had stumbled into the Williams administration’s scheduling fiasco, one of several management crises plaguing the new mayor.
During the first month of his administration, Williamswhose mayoral campaign was predicated on his ability to replicate for the whole government his successes as the city’s chief financial officerhas stayed pretty much on message. He’s nattered incessantly about “cost-effectiveness,” “front-end” resources, and “long-term improvement toolkits.” He’s upbraided managers in the most distant corners of D.C.’s bureaucracy.
But it turns out that there’s one pesky little place, a fiefdom that doesn’t administer any licenses or process any personnel forms, where Williams’ management has bordered on the disastrous: the mayor’s office. This week, for instance, no one remembered to invite control board Chair Alice Rivlin, a key Williams supporter, to a ceremony celebrating the city’s financial surplus. It was the sort of mismanagement that has the potential to be far more damaging than any Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs screw-up.
Oddly enough, Tony the alleged neophyte pol is effortlessly spinning away while Tony the vaunted manager is messing up. Diverting attention from the real problem is understandable: Elected on a promise of management über alles, Williams knows that any admission of mismanagement on his part means a short term in the mayor’s office.
Williams’ campaign to reinvent the D.C. government may be stymied by things his supporters evoke all the time, like the legacy of dysfunction, bureaucratic saboteurs, and the ’50s-era technology that crowds every governmental cubbyhole. Still, reformist spin notwithstanding, Williams’ greatest danger appears to be his own bungling.
Williams’ PR machine spun his first error as a victory for his brand of do-it-yourself cleanup. On Jan. 7, Williams capped off a political triumphshoving Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett out the door with a hefty severance packageby announcing that he would have an interim city administrator in place by the following week. When the time came to explain whom he had chosen to serve in that capacity, Williams said the choice was obvious: Williams. “I’m going to run this thing myself for a while,” the mayor told LL in an interview on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He gave the same account to other media.
The results came straight out of a media relations seminar. LL credited Williams with cutting the layers of bureaucracy that Barnett had placed between herself and agency directors. The Washington Post penned a similar account. It took Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood to explain the mismanagement behind the spin: The search for an interim fix came up empty, and Williams had no choice but to do it all himself.
Reluctance to pay attention to the job he was elected to do also helped send a second hubbubthis one over staffer David Howard’s “niggardly” momentonto the international news wires. Williams piped up prematurely, saying that Howard’s resignation was “appropriate,” and held forth on the offensive sound of the adjective. He denied allegations of racial pandering and dismissed any notion of political correctness gone awry.
For all the flack he was catching, that’s just where Williams wanted the debate to stay. Attacking Williams on racial politics is one thing, but hitting his management abilities is something far more ominous. After all, Williams never promised the city a racial healer. He just said he’d improve city services. That’s it.
Yet bad management played as big a role in the Howard affair as did PC semantics, fifth-grade vocabularies, and racial animus. The mayor’s initial statements on the incident revealed that he had accepted Howard’s resignation without knowing all the factsan omission that has been blamed on mayoral Chief of Staff Reba Pittman Evans. But a good chief of staffwho, it doesn’t take John Sununu to tell you, is a key to good managementwill keep the boss from making just that kind of screw-up.
Williams and his spinmeisters will have a harder time convincing the public that mismanagement doesn’t lurk behind the recent blundering by the mayor’s scheduling office. According to mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong, the scheduling crunch hit in late Januaryafter Williams assumed city administrator duties. That decision prompted a cut in his public appearances following a couple of weeks of Willard Scott-caliber PR hi-jinks, including an appearance as guest conductor of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” with the National Symphony Orchestra.
The cutback has boosted the number of scheduling snafusdemand for the mayoral mug has stayed steady, while supply has been slashed. Weeks ago, Channel 4’s Viewpoint program secured a commitment from Williams’ office that he would appear for a taping of the show on Feb. 4. But when a producer from the show called the mayor’s office the day before the taping, she was told that the appointment was not on the schedule. After much wrangling, the station got the scheduling office to fix the problem, and the mayor showed uplatefor the taping. “The mayor was scheduled to arrive at 12:30 and didn’t arrive until 1,” said Channel 4 spokesperson Angela Owens.
To account for the scheduling blunders, Williams staffers point to staff turnovera hallmark of bad management everywhere. Responsibility for sending the mayor from appearance to appearance fell to Stephen Oliver, who took over for his departed predecessor, James Day, on Jan. 17. Day left his job over a salary dispute with Williams, according to Armstrong, who said the office has been working hard to breach the transition. On Monday, Williams announced that Howard’s return to the administration would involve a scheduling job. Nice irony, that: One management blunder is used to solve another.
Spokesperson Armstrong doesn’t deny rumors that she has clashed with Oliver over scheduling problems. “I can only confirm that it has been frustrating to balance the demands of the press with everything else,” Armstrong says. “It’s been hard for the last two or three weeks.”
No matter who’s at fault, scheduling is a bad function for the Williams administration to mishandle. Barry’s ancien régime, after all, built its dysfunctional reputation in part on the reliable tardiness of Hizzoner at scheduled events. Instituting official punctuality would appear an obvious place for the new administration to signal a new order for city government. Spinning away, Armstrong says that getting the scheduling office “up and running” is a priority for the mayor and attributed the problems to the “start-up” of a new city administration.
Armstrong should know something about those burdens. Although her openness with the press was a key to the success of Williams’ chief financial office, she proved about as easy to reach as J.D. Salinger while the Howard scandal swirled. Reporters from major media outlets and free weeklies alike, whose calls went equally unreturned, got the hint that, like former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s press aides, Williams’ flacks hadn’t learned the lesson that you have to talk to the media when you don’t want to as well as when you do. Disappointed newsies were offered no better excuse than that Armstrong’s office was simply overwhelmed and would do better next time.
To accept that excuse is the charitable approach: Give Williams and his appointees some time to get organized and implement their agenda for the District. Then hold them accountable for all the promises they’ve made.
But we never gave that much slack to ousted Inspector General Angela Avant, who was run out of town just as she finished putting her office together. Nor to discredited D.C. public schools czar Gen. Julius Becton, who tried to face down the most intractable bureaucracy in the free world. Nor to the ousted and discredited Barnett, who couldn’t reform city government in one year.
To do so for Williams would be unfair.
Lest it miss out on the citywide reform craze, the D.C. Council is now reviewing proposals from the D.C. Appleseed Center and the National Conference of State Legislatures on streamlining its functions. One of the items on the table is to yank council committee staffers from councilmembers’ offices and relocate them to a central staff office.
The logic behind the proposal is to prevent councilmembers from using committee staff for political ends and to ensure continuity on the committees. On its face, the proposal sounds boring and bureaucratic. But professionalizing the staff gains some currency when you consider what committee staffers under the current setup did with the operating rules for the D.C. Retirement Board.
For decades, the board operated on some pretty simple parliamentary procedures: The panel consisted of 11 members, and a simple majoritysix memberswas required to certify a quorum.
‘Round about 1993, Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson’s Government Operations Committee decided to add two representatives of the D.C. judiciary, giving the board a total of 13 members. On the proven theorem that two plus two equals God knows what, the committee boosted the quorum requirement from six to eight, changing the quorum requirement from a simple majority to a super majority.
Three years later, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil determined thatsurprise!the super-majority quorum requirement was exerting a “deleterious effect” on the board. So he sponsored temporary legislation reducing the requirement again to the simple-majority standard.
In 1997, the feds intervened, taking over the city’s pension plan as part of the National Capital Revitalization Act. Congress passed legislation reducing the number of board members from 13 to 11. Meanwhile, Brazil’s temporary legislation had long since expired, and he had never introduced a permanent bill to reduce the quorum requirement. Result: board members11; quorum requirementeight. Super-duper majority.
There’s more. Perhaps taking its cues from council staffers, Congress wrote in its legislation that the “Board shall consist of 11 members selected as follows”: two members from the police department, two members from the fire department, two members from the public schools, three members appointed by the council, and three members appointed by the mayor.
That slice of mathematical wizardry comes from the same folks who review the city’s budget sheets.
Despite all the legislative drama in its orbit, Chair Betty Ann Kane said the board has “no problem” getting a quorum. “We have good turnout at our meetings,” said Kane, who helps oversee $5 billion in retirement funds.
•Last summer, Ben Zanganeh, owner of the controversial downtown strip joint the 1720 Club, donated $4,000 to Jack Evans’ mayoral campaign$2,000 from his own pocket, $2,000 from his company. Zanganeh’s wife kicked in another $1,000. When he learned of the donation, campaign aide John Ralls sent word to Zanganeh that money wouldn’t buy him love. “We made it very clear to him that the contribution would not change Jack’s position,” said Ralls, referring to the longstanding controversy over whether the club could secure city approval to do business at a new location.
Zanganeh learned last week that he’ll have to kick in a lot more cash before he gains the allegiance of a politician who has raised $3 million in the past eight years. Evans voted for a bill introduced by Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose to bar strip clubs from reopening at new locales. “It was a seldom-seen act of political courage,” said D.C. lobbyist Art Schultz, who was hired to kill the club on behalf of its commercial neighbors.
•Good news on LL’s ongoing investigation to determine the size of Brazil’s staff. Last week, LL received a call from Jason Haber, an alleged new addition to Brazil’s Judiciary Committee staff. “I am now in the office here,” said Haber in the message. Haber discussed his boss’s hearing schedule and an initiative under consideration at the Judiciary Committee, all of which sounded legit to LL. A receptionist at Brazil’s office firmed it up: Haber is indeed on staff. The Haber revelations bring the confirmed Brazil staff total to four: a receptionist, press secretary Mike Morgan, Judiciary Committee aide Jim Abely, and Haber. As a committee chair, Brazil is entitled to up to nine staffers. Stay tuned for more updates. CP
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