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When Camille Cates Barnett began her job on Jan. 15, 1998, as the control board’s chief management officer (CMO), no one was confused about what ailed the District government. To supplement the volumes of reform reports done over the years by the D.C. Council and private consultants, the control board had already spent $6.5 million diagnosing the problems of nine key agenciesfrom the Department of Public Works to the Department of Employment Servicesthat had fallen apart during the home rule years. Coincidentally, those same nine agencies would report to the CMO, who had been hired with a heralding of trumpets. The review of those agencies had yielded a list of reform recommendations ranked according to priority for D.C taxpayers.
High on the chart of problem areas was the legendary Bureau of Motor Vehicles, an appendage of the Department of Public Works (DPW) responsible for the loss of more man hours than Beltway traffic. The control board’s diagnosis zeroed in on its rickety computer system, which would crash for days on end. The solution, decided the control board’s consultants, was to install a system identical to that of a smooth-running “model state,” according to Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who participated in consultations on the reform project. No need to reinvent the wheel, just find the right technology and get it online as soon as possible.
Barnett arrived and decided the problem needed yet another closer look. She hired her own high-priced consultants to re-plow the ground covered by the first group of consultants. While this new group of consultants worked, complaints from residents mounted like a 10-car pileup. On the advice of an aide, Barnett fired the city’s chief technology officer, Michael Hernon, and replaced him with Suzanne Peck. After Peck painstakingly reviewed the motor vehicles situation, she endorsed the control board’s original recommendation. The city had lost almost five months in its never-ending effortmostly because it never beginsto fix the troubled bureau.
Nine months into her tenure as the city’s government reform guru, Barnett has failed to understand the reigning political reality of her office: After waiting decades for responsive government, District residents are in no mood to delay progress for so much as a day. Barnett says she’s just getting her bearings, but observers suggest that she is missing a fast-closing window of opportunity.
“The trees, the streets, the things people see and feel every day haven’t changed. There is a general dissatisfaction, because services haven’t improved visibly,” says D.C.Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who, as chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, is in the best position to know what has and hasn’t happened under Barnett’s rule.
Patterson’s willingness to take a shot at Barnett might be written off as the jealous snipes of an elected official who doesn’t have the juice that the CMO does. But Patterson is hardly alone. The smoldering fire that threatens to engulf the self-described “Dragon Lady” isn’t simply the result of over-aggressive media, covetous elected officials, or an impatient citizenry. Barnett has done herself in. She has substituted her judgment for those of elected officials and the control board, claimed credit for work that began before she started the job, and responded to criticisms with public relations campaigns.
But she didn’t stop there. She has surrounded herself with high-priced consultants who are busy restating the obvious, built an organizational structure that places two levels between herself and agency directors, and given out so many sole-source contracts that everyone from Congress to the D.C. Council is wondering what kind of show she is running.
In a recent appearance before the American News Women’s Club, Barnett herself summed up her tenuous job security: “I am here to work myself out of a job,” she declared.
Outsiders who come to town with a mandate to resolve the District’s governing crisis inherit a small margin of error and a short honeymoon. Angela Avant was heralded as a crack auditor when she was installed in 1996 as the city’s inspector general. When she failed to produce immediate results, the control board fired her. Franklin Smith had an excellent reputation when he took over the D.C. Public Schools in 1991. His reputation was shredded when the control board kicked him out in 1996. Ditto for Gen. Julius Becton earlier this year.
Dwight Cropp, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, says that Barnett is being roasted on the same set of coals as Avant, Smith, et al. “In Washington, we chew people up and spit them out. And then, we’re ready to bring someone else in to chew up,” he says.
The District, so long a basket case, has become mighty choosy about its saviors. And Barnett’s sharp-elbowed approach to running the city has attracted potshots in record time. To ward off the headhunters, Barnett has prepared a list of her achievements, which she rattled off at the American News Women’s Club: a declining crime rate, a decrease in the fire department’s emergency response time, inspection of all fire hydrants, the recent contract with the state of Virginia to relocate Lorton inmates to other facilities, the hiring of a new medical examiner, the boarding up of 800 nuisance properties, a reduction in lines at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the resumption of recycling, the rehabilitation of 24 miles of streets, the installation of new parking meters, and the timely payment of bills.
“We’re doing a lot to make this place work effectively,” says Barnett. “We didn’t get this way overnight, and we are not going to change it overnight.”
“I am encouraged by the hope I see in the community and within the organization,” she says later, during a telephone interview. “The job requires all of us working together, and I’m very glad we are.”
But there is every indication that the “we” Barnett is talking about is growing smaller and smaller. Four out of eight mayoral candidates responded no to the question posed by the Washington Post of whether they would retain Barnett. The control board, other than new chair Alice Rivlin, has gotten out the 10-foot pole every time her name has been mentionedand they’re the ones who hired her. Her fans on the council are few, even among the reform-minded members who would seem to be her natural constituency.
“If I had to point to one thing that was a Camille Barnett initiative, I cannot think of one thing, except hiring her own little army of consultants,” says Ambrose.
And community leaders have abandoned their wait-and-see lines for more damning assessments of the woman who was supposed to do for the District what Lee Iacocca did for Chrysler.
“People keep saying, ‘Give her more time; she needs a chance to fix the organization and then see if people are performing.’ But isn’t nine months long enough? What has she done?” asks Bryce Suderow, a civic activist on Capitol Hill, who also publishes Street Stories, a newsletter about life in the District.
“We don’t see that things are better, and with her salary they should be,” says Sam Bost, president of the Far Northeast/Southeast Council, who notes that just before the CMO came to his neighborhood for a meeting, an old burned-out car that residents had complained about was suddenly removed. “We are concerned about overall movement, whether Ms. Barnett comes or not,” he adds.
“[Barnett] comes out into the community and there’s all this talk, but there is no follow-up,” says Jerry Phillips, whose Columbia Heights civic group was among the first groups to invite the CMO to a meeting.
“From March 21 when she came out here, to nowOct. 11look at what’s she’s done around here. I would have to give her a D, ” he adds.
Philip Pannell, an activist in Ward 8, says community leaders invited Barnett to their side of town this spring to discuss environmental issues. She promised to improve trash collection and street cleaning.
“Absolutely nothing has happened,” he said.
Dorothy Brizill, head of the citizen watchdog group D.C. Watch, argues that Barnett came into the best of all possible worlds. Studies highlighting the city’s problems had been completed. Recommendations for solving those problems also had been presented. Congress had set aside $8 million in new funds to finance management reform and appeared ready to turn on the faucet when requested. District politicians were eager for change. The control board had given Barnett a blank check to move quickly and swiftly to pin the wheels back onto District governance. But Brizill, known as a stern grader, gives no quarter to Barnett.
“I have come to the conclusion that she deserves a big, fat F,” says Brizill.
Rivlin thinks it’s premature to be handing out grades: “While Camille has made some mistakes, she has gotten a lot of things on track that are going to produce results. She’s recruited some very good people to head departments,” says Barnett’s new boss.
“I think it’s a question of very high expectations,” she continues. “This city is deeply troubled, and it’s going to be a very long road to getting things fixed, and people are just piling on Camille.”
The one area where Barnett could have made a lasting impact on improving life in the District may turn out to be her Waterloo. The area of contracting and procurement, twisted into a huge mess of cronyism and inefficiency by 16 years of Mayor Marion Barry, is a complicated matter to remediate, but the rewards in terms of credibility would have been massive. Instead, Barnett is regarded by many as an expensive version of Barry.
Like the four-term mayor, she has hired friends and passed out sole-source contracts with impunity. Take the $105,000 agreement with Boulware & Associates, Inc., a Chicago-based executive search firm.
According to several government sources, Deputy Chief Management Officer Byron Marshall, a friend of Barnett’s from Austin, where they previously served in the city government together, called Christine Boulware, president of Boulware & Associates, in August and entered into a verbal agreement with her to recruit professionals from around the country for positions currently vacant in the District government. Both Marshall and Barnett are friends of Boulware’s, according to control board sources.
Marshall made the call because he was dissatisfied with the low number of African-American recruits another search firm, the PAR Group, was sending to the CMO, according to government sources. The PAR Group had won the competitively bid contract put out by the control board to handle the city’s recruitment activities. PAR was charging the control board about $13,000 per recruit. Boulware’s company had initially bid for the same contract but had been turned down because the price it quoted was too high.
By the time the control board learned of Marshall’s overture, it had only two options: face a potential lawsuit or issue a legal, written contract with Boulware’s company because a verbal agreement is considered as valid as a written document. Shunning the litigious route, control board Executive Director John Hill on Sept.16, 1998, signed a contract with Boulware. The terms are generous for Barnett’s friend: Boulware is to receive $17,500 per recruit and $3,500 to cover approved expenses. An additional allocation of up to $10,000 will cover expenses associated with interviewing candidates, according to the contract, a copy of which was obtained by Washington City Paper through the Freedom of Information Act.
Nowhere in the contract is there a clause indicating that Boulware was asked to do specific minority recruiting, suggesting that Marshall and Barnett simply used race recruitment as a canard to circumvent the bid process.
Barnett disputes claims that Boulware is a friend, saying that she “knows all of these people. I’ve worked with them.” She says that PAR was initially hired to fill three positions, but the number of vacancies increased to nine and she didn’t think PAR could handle the job. She admits that minority recruiting was an issue, but adds, “PAR Group has done a good job” in that area.
The Boulware contract wasn’t the first time Barnett circumvented the process while awarding a contract. Weeks earlier she had been called on the carpet after the Post published a report that her friend Cheryl Dotson’s company was about to receive an $893,416 sole-source contract. It is important to note that Dotson worked as one of Barnett’s three deputy chief management officers in charge of management reform coordination, with specific attention to technology improvements, procurement, and contracts. In other words, Dotson supervised the writing of her own company’s contract, say government sources who worked with Barnett. Barnett signed off on it without getting prior approval from the control board, as required by law.
Like Boulware’s, Dotson’s company had bid on an earlier contract, but it had been passed over because the control board believed it lacked the requisite experience. Barnett then convinced the board to hire Dotson’s company for a smaller piece of the action. Some members of the control board staff saw the entire Dotson affair as yet another end around on the process by Barnett and her staff. The initial contract the control board signed with Dotson had a ceiling of $150,000. Barnett got around that limit by allowing Dotson to submit purchase orders. When the board caught up with the purchase order gambit, Dotson had raked in a quarter of a million dollars and was on her way to the new contract for nearly $1 million.
Barnett claimed ignorance about the Dotson fiasco. She called it a “procedural error that we corrected.” During an interview, she said the contract with Dotson’s company was the only one of that kind, that it was for “very limited and specialized services.” She also asserted that Dotson did “a very good job for the District.”
The control board didn’t agree. It stopped payment to Dotson’s company, Smart Management Services Inc., and eventually terminated its contract. But, as part of a negotiated agreement, it paid the company slightly more than $140,000 for its work and another $174,000 as a settlement. The latter amount was to prevent the company from taking any legal action against the city, according to the agreement, a copy of which was obtained by City Paper.
The U.S. General Accounting Office, at the request of Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who oversees the House subcommittee on the District, and Rep. Charles Taylor, a North Carolina Republican who heads the subcommittee on District appropriations, is currently reviewing all the contracting done by the control board, with a special emphasis on those agreements entered into either directly or indirectly by Barnett.
But there are signs that the CMO’s hunger for consultants hasn’t yet been satiated. She is requesting that the control board allow her to hire a video production firm, Karl Productions of Elmhurst, Ill., to develop a 24-episode television show called D.C. Working. It would highlight “city services, success stories, and educate the public about specific programs,” Peter Karl wrote in his letter to Barnett, a copy of which was obtained by the City Paper.
It would also nicely shine the apple of the CMO, all at a cost of $712,900 in taxpayer dollars if the control board approved the request.
The problem, Barnett will tell you, is perception. People can’t see things getting better right in front of their faces. One of the real-world improvements she likes to chant about is parking meters, a visible and visceral reminder of District dysfunction when most of the meters were headless and used as trash receptacles.
In fact, the meter fix was in before Barnett ever arrived. Work started in 1995 under Michael Rogers, the former city administrator. In June 1997, the council was set to vote on a contract with Lockheed-Martin. However a competing company, Worldwide Parking, protested, sending the project to the city’s Contracts Appeals Board for review. By fall 1997, the two companies had decided to work together, without substantial changes being made to the original contract. After returning from the New Year’s holiday, the council took up the parking meter legislation, passing it a mere two weeks after Barnett began her job. Installation of the new meters began shortly thereafter.
“She has been sticking a flag in the ground, saying, ‘I claim these parking meters for me,’” says one high-level government official.
“In those areas where reform was already well under way prior to January 1998, there has been, in fact, real and tangible reform. Unfortunately, where there was no clear reform agenda prior to January 1998, there has been little or no progress during this calendar year,” Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson said during her oversight hearing on Sept. 24. “The lack of progress reflects poorly on the control board, its leadership, and the efforts of its staff.”
The “lack of progress,” says Patterson, shows up in routine screw-ups reminiscent of the pre-control board days.
On Sept. 8, 1998, a contract through which District provided managed health care to injured city workers lapsed. On Sept. 9, the contractor, a firm named Cor-Vel, received a cease-and-desist order from the Department of Employment Services’ chief financial officer. Ignoring the letter, Cor-Vel continued to provide services. Patterson brought the matter to Barnett’s attention and was promised that things would be handled: Cor-Vel would receive its money, a new contract would be issued, and workers could count on receiving the services. But on Sept. 24, when Patterson held her hearing, the city owed Cor-Vel more than a half-million dollars, threatening its relationship with a reliable contractor.
“There is no management reform when this government threatens the provision of health care to injured workers for nonpayment of bills,” says
During an interview, Barnett said she knew nothing about the problem with Cor-Vel, although her deputy, Byron Marshall, was directly responsible for reform at that agency. She says as soon as she received the call from Patterson the matter was “resolved within hours, and the company got paid.”
However, by Oct. 1, 1998, Cor-Vel had discontinued its “injury reporting” hot line because it had no funds. It was not until Oct. 5 that a contract was signed and partial funds made available, according to documents provided by Patterson’s office.
Agency directors and managers have been frustrated by the snail’s pace of the Barnett reform movement and incensed by her layered management approach. For the past 10 months, they were forced to go through assistant and deputy management officers, most of them consultants who couldn’t tell you the difference between Congress Heights and Columbia Heights.
“I am frustrated and puzzled at how long it’s taken to get the approvals necessary to launch the management reform projects,” DPW Director Cell Bernardino told the Post recently.
Barnett says her consultants were creating implementation plans: “We didn’t have a work plan, schedule, or budget,” for the reform recommendations. She argues that the work done by her consultants was “substantially different” from that done by control-board-hired consultants in November 1997.
Implementation delays meant dedicated funds weren’t being spent. Patterson complains that only a fraction of more than $200 million allocated for management reform in fiscal year 1998 had been spent. As of Sept. 24, only 9 percent of the $65 million for information technology had been spent. The Office of Procurement had spent $4.3 million of its $8.4 million for two unapproved reform projects, according to council records.
During the last quarter of fiscal 1998, faced with the question of what to do with unspent funds, the control board approved the CMO’s requests to expend funds on some nonreform projects. For example, $1.1 million from the deplorable Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) went to purchase 94 cars for inspectors; but, according to council staffers, there are fewer than 50 inspectors specifically assigned to the agency. About $360,000 of the Department of Health’s reform money was spent on equipment, supplies, and consultants.
Instead of using $1.4 million of the Office of Contracting and Procurement money for management reform, the CMO decided to use it to renovate the eighth floor at One Judiciary Square. She used $30,000 to renovate two bathrooms in the Department of Employment Services building, although the city is expected to move its workers out of that site during this fiscal year, according to finance documents obtained by City Paper.
Barnett defends the reprogramming, saying that inspectors were having to take the bus to inspection sites. Overall, the reallocations were “done in support of management reform projects for ’98. I think they were appropriate,” she says.
Finance officials repeatedly raised concerns with then-control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer about the way in which funds earmarked for reforms were being used. In a letter to Brimmer dated July 30, 1998, interim Chief Financial Officer Earl Cabbell said there hadn’t been an analysis of how many cars were actually needed by DCRA. He challenged the use of reform money for bathroom renovations instead of compensation classifications. Brimmer ignored him, and Rivlin hasn’t shown any sign of increasing oversight on the CMO’s outlays.
Barnett’s apparent disregard for District contracting laws is even more troubling. During the past nine months she has permitted consultants to sign documentsfrom requests to reallocate funds to orders to agency heads for program implementation. By law, consultants may advise various agencies, but they have no operational authority.
“This kind of stuff is illegal,” says Ambrose. “You can’t have consultants running around acting like supervisors; and you can’t have a consultant signing off in essence on her own contract.”
Barnett claims she did nothing illegal by permitting consultants to sign official documents and to supervise staff. She says reallocation documents were signed only by “temporary employees” such as Dotson and Marshall. But materials received by City Paper contradict Barnett’s assertion. In one transaction, a request to shift funds at the Department of Public Works was signed by two consultantsDoug Peck and Clayton White, both assistant management officers. On the same date, July 16, 1998, Dotson submitted the request to finance officials. DPW Director Bernadino, who is charged with running the department, is on the document only as one of the persons slated to receive a copy.
Signs that the District wasn’t getting what it paid for in Barnett were there from Day One. There was also the matter of what it was paying to begin with. Critics suggest that the last time the CMO drove a hard bargain in pursuit of an objective was when she negotiated her own contract with the control board.
The five-member board agreed on a base annual salary of $155,000 but did not fully define the CMO’s job. Brimmer and Barnett promised the media and residents that a performance contract was on the way. They said it would spell out specific tasks on which Barnett would be evaluated, and that it would be used to determine whether she was eligible for any bonus. When the employment agreement was finally put on paper, however, there was no performance evaluation rider attached to it. Nowhere in the entire seven-page agreement are any of the management reforms specifically spelled out, although Brimmer and the control board had a list of some 269 recommendations.
What is nicely presented in the CMO’s employment agreement is the money she is expected to rack up over the next five years. In addition to her base salary, the CMO receives $25,000 retirement compensation for benefits lost because she left her former employer. She also gets $12,000 in moving expenses, another $25,000 or 10 percent of her total compensation (whichever is less) for a retirement plan with the International City/County Management Association, and 20 days paid vacation (she took 15 just after being hired).
The clout accorded her by the control boardher salary and loosely defined boundarieshas helped the CMO craft an image, at least in her mind, not of a reform guru but of a city administrator or city manager. Barnett’s own historical propensity, in previous postings in Houston and Austin, to behave like a politician has only exacerbated matters since her arrival in the District.
Shortly after Barnett started her job, the city began work on its fiscal 1999 budget. Everyonemayor, finance officials, D.C. Council, and the control boardhad agreed to hold a summit. The previous year, the council and the control board had submitted two separate budgets to Congress. They weren’t very different documents, but the double submission proved that there were still major divisions between the elected and congressionally appointed officials after more than two years.
District leaders wanted to cast themselves as one big, happy family for fiscal year 1999. Barnett stepped up, appointing herself facilitator. She was a disaster, by most accounts. She sat center stage and pushed elected officials to follow her agenda. She ignored the entreaties of finance officials who seemed to have a more sophisticated grasp of the financial affairs of the District. Sometimes she interrupted the comments of councilmembers. Hearing of her performance, Brimmer arrived at one of the meetings, announced that as chairman of the control board, he was taking over. Barnett was relegated to the sidelines.
As a white woman sent in to reform a black-majority government, Barnett should have taken pains to demonstrate that she was willing to share power and credit with those around her, many observers argued. But her imperiousness is mentioned a lot more frequently than any ability to play well with others.
Bruce Todd, the Austin mayor who pushed Barnett out in the late 1980s, says her approach was fundamentally miscalculated in that city as well. “Management from above is perilous. You have got to dive down below the cloudsto make sure things are operating the way you prescribe them.”
One of the first things Barnett did after being hired as CMO was to begin to build the layers between herself and agency directors. As in Austin, the first person hired was Byron Marshall, whom she had also worked with in Houston. In Austin, he was her chief deputy; in the District, he was one of three deputy chief management officers, until his contract was not renewed by the control board. In Austin, her penchant for managing from behind many layers may have cost Barnett her job when a $21 million deficit was discovered at the city-owned hospital.
Given the number of pitfalls she has managed to tumble into, Barnett might be headed for a similar fate here, although the control board is tremendously invested in her at this point. It took them many months to push out former Police Chief Larry Soulsby. His demise came only after news leaked that Soulsby and one of his top lieutenants had rented a luxury apartment at a reduced rate under false pretenses in the swank Lansburgh building in downtown D.C. Similarly, it was the discovery of a $62 million deficit at the D.C. Public Schools that spelled the end for Becton.
But those experiences may have chastened the control board, leaving them predisposed to cut their losses when another one of their saviors turns out to be profoundly mortal. Given those circumstances, the next big government reform in the District may begin and end with the CMO herself.CP