We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett made headlines on Jan. 15, 1998, her first day in command of the D.C. bureaucracy. Area forecasters were predicting the sort of snowstorm that had shut down the city in previous years, turning uncleared District streets into a metaphor for dysfunctional government. Determined to use the impending blizzard to her own symbolic advantage, Barnett rose before dawn and plotted the city’s response with her new subordinates. The storm never materialized, but the local media chronicled her every command.
Almost a year later, on Friday, Jan. 8, the weather experts were calling for another whopper. This time, however, the city’s management czar took a less aggressive management tack: She stayed home.
“She sat on her butt all day long,” says a control board source.
Of course, that’s just where Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the control board wanted her. One day before, Barnett had announced her resignationa departure considerably eased by a $275,000 goodbye payment OK’d by Williams and control board Chair Alice Rivlin. The last scene of the self-styled Dragon Lady’s yearlong misadventure was a bizarre charade in which D.C.’s new mayor and its congressionally mandated watchdog pretended that Barnett was a successful public servant, leaving town on her own terms.
“Only over the coming years will we see the fruits of what she started,” said Rivlin. Those fruits apparently won’t be growing in public view: Rivlin explained that Barnett had been busy working behind the scenes in the District bureaucracy.
That’s an assessment that LL won’t dispute.
One example of Barnett’s behind-the-scenes genius provides a peek into Dragon-thought, the mind-set that doomed Barnett’s term. Last summer, Department of Public Works (DPW) Inspector Tom Day wrote a pile of tickets against Grade A Excavating Inc. of Capitol Heights, Md., for dropping up to 26 loads of construction debris on a fallow patch of public property at 8th and M Streets NW. The dumping raised the ground level on the site by nearly 5 feet.
But that was apparently a few feet below Barnett’s threshold for crimes against the environment. Acting through one of her assistants, Barnett urged some sort of relief for Grade A, which was facing $130,000 in pending fines. Barnett’s emissary, according to DPW sources, brandished a letter from Grade A complaining about the severity of the penalty. The CMO’s reasoning, according to three DPW sources, was that the fines were not “business friendly.” Although her office did not specifically order a rescission, “the message was obvious,” says a DPW insider. Barnett’s office did not return repeated phone calls.
In issuing her orders, Barnett reportedly bought the same bill of goods that Grade A tried to sell to DPW and convention center authoritiesnamely, that it had secured permission from the convention center’s demolition contractor, Washington Excavating Inc., to pile construction debris on the site. “She thought we didn’t know whether the dumping was real, and that if we fined them without knowing what the deal was, it would be bad business practices,” says a DPW source.
DPW’s inspectors had had it right all along. In hearings before DPW adjudicators, convention center brass refuted the notion that Grade A had ever received permission from anyone to dump its garbage on their site. “That claim was totally false,” said Washington Convention Center Authority spokesman Tony Robinson. Leave it to Barnett to accuse a District agency of bad business practices while a suburban company pisses all over the city.
In most jurisdictions, 26 loads of litter and a pile of lies warrant big-time fines and a referral to the DA. In Barnett’s business-friendly D.C., though, they merited a pardon. DPW dismissed all the penalties on the condition that Grade A clean up the mess it had made.
Throughout the case, Barnett stayed true to a school of thought long hewn to by outsiders bent on curing the dysfunctional District government. The tradition holds that there’s not a single competent manager in the D.C. bureaucracy. The route to recovery, then, is simply to review and reverse every decision made by longstanding employees. “This was one of many cases where in final analysis it turned out that DPW was right and it was a bad idea for the CMO’s office to get involved,” says former DPW Director Cell Bernardino.
This same school of management-by-second-guess was displayed on a largerand far more expensivescale over the past year as the CMO delayed management-reform projects that the control board had already set in motiona move that will severely punish D.C. taxpayers, to borrow Rivlin’s phrasing, “over the coming years.”
For starters, Barnett was apparently unhappy with a control board-backed plan to outfit the Department of Motor Vehicles with a new computer system. A better agent for the project, Barnett decided, was an old friend from her Texas days, consultant Cheryl Dotson.
Dotson, of course, had to start from scratch, putting off DPW’s target dates for revamping the archaic systems. After waiting for movement on the project for several months, the control board was asked to examine how the CMO was handling the matter. The result of the inquiry was a contrite admission in late August by Barnett that she had illegally awarded an $893,000 contract to an associate without opening the project to bidding.
In addition to holding up the motor vehicle project by over eight months, the Dotson fiasco has all but scuppered other key DPW management reforms, including creation of a departmentwide call-in center and various technology upgrades.
Would that Barnett had had the same work habits then as she does nowi.e., stay in bed.
Exiling Barnett and her well-staffed PR machine marks an enormous political victory for the Williams administration. Among the items on Williams’ wish list are clear lines of authority to allow city residents to hold him accountable for their tax dollars. With Barnett off the flow chart, they’re now possible.
Uprooting the CMO’s legacy, however, may require some more work. In her ruinous romp through city government, Barnett dumped various appointees in choice spots at the agencies, spawning a municipal deputy-directocracy of sorts. For example, Robert Bowers arrived at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) last May to assist with Dotson’s technology-upgrade contract. After the control board killed the contract in August, Bowers traded in his position as consultant for a full-time slot with a handsome salary as the deputy director for mission support.
In similar fashion, Barnett last year assigned Clayton White to bird-dog Bernardino and the other alleged slackers over at DPW. After Bernardino announced his resignation late last year, though, White turned into an acting deputy director at the agency. No doubt the herd of deputy CMOs and assistant CMOs under Barnett’s command wished they’d crossed the line into the regular government agencies before Barnett’s resignation.
The cushion that Barnett placed between herself and the agency directors won’t last long under Williams’ watch. In an interview with LL, the new mayor said, “It’s not a bad thing to have hands-on contact in an era of change. I’m going to take this thing and run it myself for a bit.” As a model for his new, streamlined government, Williams pointedagainto Indianapolis, where there’s “basically nothing between [Mayor] Steve Goldsmith and his agencies.” The Barnett model, by contrast, is a bit more top-heavy: By some counts, there are as many as 50 management aces between the CMO and agency directors.
As evidence of Barnett’s incompetence mounts, so does the outrage over Rivlin’s outfitting her with a $275,000 golden parachute. In a tribute to their political skills, both Rivlin and Williams managed straight-faced praise of the CMO at her Jan. 7 press conference. Williams gushed about the CMO’s “can-do” attitude, her zeal for “performance management and benchmarks,” and the “fine cadre of public administrators” that she installed.
Rivlin struck the theme again at the town meeting hosted by D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on Jan. 11. “She did a good job under difficult circumstances,” said Rivlin, her words barely audible over the jeers from the packed room at the Cannon House Office Building. “She gets $275,000 total. I described it the other day as a performance bonus, and I think that’s right.”
Shocking as those proclamations may seem, they were spoken by officials who have a pretty good idea just how much damage Barnett has done in her one-year tenure. To them, $275,000 is no outrage. It’s a bargain.
In his 1998 bid for mayor, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil sustained attacks from the public for his lax oversight of DCRA. In its two years under Brazil’s watch, the decrepit agency, cried critics, wasn’t abating nuisance properties, enforcing liquor laws, policing zoning requirements, or watchdogging construction contractors.
Perhaps that’s just how the councilmember wanted it.
According to neighbors and acquaintances, Brazil undertook renovations on his home at 139 North Carolina Ave. SE during the spring of 1997. Although the councilmember was tight-lipped about the scope of the work, it was significant enough to produce a hefty mound of construction debris in the alley behind his house.
Yet DCRA has no record of any building permits issued for the work.
Brazil may have used his position to keep DCRA inspectors at bay, but he had no such juice with DPW, which issued a warning at his property in April 1997 for “accumulation of construction debris.” DPW spokeswoman Linda Grant said the materials were removed promptly after the warning was posted at the property, so no citation was issued.
When asked by LL how he had pulled off the renovations without permits, Brazil reprised his campaign-trail performances.
“You’re presuming there was work done that required a permit,” Brazil told LL.
Well, was there?
“No comment,” replied Brazil.
Did the contractor fail to pull the required permits?
Who was the contractor?
Does he really live at 139 North Carolina Ave. SE?
“I admire your tenacity,” said Brazil, who this month became chair of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, “but I just don’t care to comment.”
THE TRUCK STOPS HERE
By his own account, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous is “completely re-energized” for the current D.C. Council session. This time, he has proof. Piercing oversight hearings by his Education Committee exposed a bona fide scandal involving unqualified public school bus drivers and led to its resolution. And Chavous has scheduled an ambitious run of hearings on other school problems yet to be addressed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
The two-term councilmember, however, will have to take care of one pesky little matter before the new Chavous era begins in earnest: $155,000 in debt from his failed 1998 mayoral run.
According to recently filed records at the city’s Office of Campaign Finance, Chavous followed an equal-opportunity policy in stiffing vendors to his campaign. There are outstanding debts of $23,801 in promised payments to staff, $23,000 to a Boston-based political consulting firm, $2,701 to PEPCO, and over $10,000 to local companies for printing and campaign materials.
Another item on the debt sheet lists a $2,581 bill to Rentals Unlimited Inc., for “vehicle rental.” Translation: the flatbed truck from which Chavous promised to turn the debt-ridden city around in the waning days of his campaign.
“We thought we were going to win, and we ran a campaign like we were going to win,” says Victor Reid, Chavous’ campaign treasurer.
The campaign reported $49,000 in cash reserves to pay off the debt.
Chavous loyalists have yet to take their grievances over unpaid bills to the public. “It’s being taken care of,” said Bonnie Cain, an education activist who is owed an unspecified amount by the campaign. “We have worked out a plan for payment.”
James Hudson, who served as chair of Chavous’ finance committee, told LL that “one fundraiser” could wipe away commitments to Cain and all other creditors. “We’ll probably get some help from other people, including the mayor,” said Hudson.
To meet Hudson’s goal, Team Chavous might want to enlist legendary stock-picker Warren Buffett as well.
D.C.’s developers and deep-pocketed restaurateurs are about as likely to shell out their big bucks for a Mitch Snyder tribute as a Chavous debt retirement party. The trouble is that Chavous came out against the pet issues of the business community, such as the Children’s Island amusement park boondoggle, and the new multi-million-dollar convention center. Positions like Chavous’ may help the city blossom and beat back efforts to turn downtown into a taxpayer-subsidized Disneyland, but they don’t do much for a campaign in debt.
Chavous might help his bottom line a bit by keeping track of it. In an interview with LL, the councilmember said his obligations totaled “maybe $50,000 to $60,000.” Reid requested five separate extensions to file the finance report, which was due on Oct. 10. The excuses ran the gamut from “the press of professional matters” to the “Thanksgiving holiday” to “difficulty in operating the [campaign’s] software package and data-base.” The report finally reached the Office of Campaign Finance on Dec. 30.
At a time when pledges of hands-on management are bringing voters to their knees, Chavous should consider reviewing the records for himself.
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