City residents tired of watching all those damn recyclables pile up in their kitchens have always known whom to blame for their woes. Since the city passed its recycling law in 1989, incompetent careerists at the Department of Public Works (DPW) have done everything in their power to botch the programfrom steering contracts to unqualified firms to frittering away the department’s recycling fund.
These days, however, there’s a new spoiler of municipal recycling in the District: Chief Management Officer (CMO) Camille Cates Barnett.
When Barnett began her duties in mid-January, DPW was gearing up to put the recycling trucks back on the streets after a 16-month absence. Department officials were negotiating a reasonable $2.2 million contract; service was to begin in April.
Barnett decided that wasn’t good enough.
Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) potentate Marilyn Groves and others persuaded Barnett that DPW’s contract was deficient in one key respect: Trucks would pick up recyclables on front stoops, as they always had, instead of in alleys, the point of collection for regular garbage.
Last week, the D.C. Council took a look at what Barnett’s decision would have wrought: A new, $4 million contract and a June start-up for the program. The council rejected Barnett’s plan, mandating that she find a cheaper way. That means the masses may have to wait until the fall to bundle their newspapers, bottles, and rubbish.
“I don’t know why Camille Barnett allowed this to happen,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “It’s really too bad to keep jerking people around on recycling.”
The council’s action marked a big victory for home rule activists, who can finally argue with a straight face that democracy produces better management than autocracy.
And don’t expect much movement on recycling from Barnett in the next couple of weeks. Exhausted from her four-month campaign to bring management to this untamable city, she just winged her way to Italy for a two-week respite to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary.
If pressed, Barnett could argue that her trip is all business. After all, she might learn even more about leadership crises in the land of Julius Caesar than in the Kingdom of Barry.
Barnett’s exit shows she hasn’t yet learned the ways of Washington, or she would have postponed her retreat until August, when practically the entire city heads out of town on vacation.
“She could probably conduct more business on the beach at Bethany or Rehoboth or Ocean City in August than she usually does here in a day, because all of official Washington will be there,” observes a 30-year veteran of city politics. “If she really knew Washington, she’d know you don’t take your vacation in May.”
While Barnett samples gnocchi and chianti against some of the world’s most romantic backdrops, folks back in D.C. will ask themselves, “Just what has she done?”
“She was hired to do management reform,” sums up one city official, “and so far, not a lot of folks are seeing it.”
On her first day in office, Barnett got up before dawn to plow city streets with DPW employees. Had she been more familiar with the easily panicked weathermen on local TV, the CMO might have stayed in bed that wintry day. The predicted snowstorm amounted to only a few flakes, and the snow plows remained in their sheds.
Barnett worked alongside private repairmen in February to install the first of 15,000 new parking meters and got credit for restoring the city’s coveted but depleted parking revenue streameven though the contract to repair beheaded meters had been awarded prior to her arrival.
“You don’t show up one day and then the next day say, ‘I fixed the parking meters,’” notes a D.C. official. “That was the silliest thing I ever heard of.”
She jumped into the midst of a community tug-of-war over a new Fresh Fields store downtown by pushing a city-owned tract in the U Street corridor, angering Logan Circle residents who were touting a privately owned site near 15th and P Streets NW. Despite pressure from Barnett and other city officials, Fresh Fields abandoned its plans for the U Street site and began lease negotiations so it can build its downtown store in the 14th Street corridor.
Aside from bruising feelings around Logan Circle, Barnett’s nonstop community appearances have drawn enthusiastic standing-room-only crowds that dwarf the meager turnouts greeting Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and the city’s other elected pols. Some, like Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, have invited Barnett to monthly meetings to build their crowds.
D.C. residents relish the CMO’s openness and accessibility, especially in comparison with the secretive, dictatorial rule of D.C. financial control board chairman Andrew Brimmer, who has never appeared alone before a community group during his three-year term.
Barnett steered this spring’s successful consensus budget negotiations, offending D.C. councilmembers who chafed at having a strong-willed professional bureaucrat lord over the city’s much-maligned elected body. Even though they despise the autocratic Brimmer, councilmembers seemed relieved when the control board chairman reclaimed control of the budget negotiations for the final three sessions.
“For her, these sessions were a learning experience and an opportunity to try to get caught up on things,” says a council staffer who observed Barnett’s performance.
However, another city official involved in the budget negotiations points out, “You should not be the loudest voice in the whole place when you really know very little about what you’re talking about.”
Barnett irritated city department heads by putting them through rehearsals on how to testify before the council on the budget needs of their agencies. Many longtime agency officials resented being tutored by a pushy Southerner who had just arrived on the scene.
“I don’t think it set well with a lot of people that she just came into the city and took over,” says an agency staffer.
Councilmembers, on the other hand, say this year’s budget hearings were much more focused as a result of Barnett’s tutoring.
Barnett ignored warnings from current and former D.C. officials and hired former D.C. Department of Human Services official Byron Marshall to be her top aide soon after settling into the CMO job. Marshall had impressed few during his prior tenure with the District government, during which he was regarded as “part of the David Rivers group,” according to a former top D.C. official. Rivers, a close confidant of Barry and a former Human Services director, was tried for and acquitted of bribery charges during the federal government’s corruption probes of top D.C. officials in the late 1980s.
After leaving D.C., Marshall ran into problems in Atlanta, where the discovery that he had a lucrative outside consulting contract cost him his full-time job as chief operating officer, according to the City Hall reporter for the Atlanta Constitution.
But Barnett forged a close working relationship with Marshall while working as the city manager in Austin, Texas, earlier this decade, when he served as her deputy. She recently told a Ward 4 crowd, “He knows me so well, he finishes my sentences.”
That’s pretty scary.
The CMO’s allies dismiss her missteps as the pitfalls of a very difficult job. “I think she’s doing a good job against long odds,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. Ambrose adds, “We will have a better sense of how take-charge she is by the end of summer.”
That’s when most of Washington will be returning from their August vacations. If Barnett is going to spend August in town cramming for her end-of-the-summer grading, she may not get much help from other city officials, who will be sunning themselves on the beach.
Arlene Ackerman, the school system’s new school chief, appears to be as sensitive to criticism as her predecessor, Gen. Julius Becton.
Ackerman is incensed over a suggestion last week by Ambrose that she could use some management help in grappling with the unruly school system. The former Seattle schools administrator was thrust into the lead role after the surrender
of Becton and his top deputy, former Gen. Charles Williams. Williams sounded the retreat earlier this year after being criticized for his handling of the repairs and the replacement of some 50 school roofs.
“My feeling is it was unfair to ask someone who had been hired to be the academic point person to be responsible for this colossal mess that was exacerbated by the generals,” says Ambrose. “It’s a management nightmare, and I don’t see someone with a lot of management experience.”
To put it mildly, Ackerman didn’t view Ambrose’s offer as the deed of a good Samaritan.
Ackerman, though, should show a little more gratitudeno one on the council, after all, has pointed out that she was out of town on personal business last month when city officials discovered that the school system had overspent this year’s budget by $62 million.
Ambrose and Patterson last week led a charge to overturn Ackerman’s plan to erase the deficit by cutting money for librarians and counselors, not to mention wiping out pre-kindergarten altogether and cutting kindergarten back to a half-day.
“That’s what distressed methat she went straight to the classroom to find programs to cut,” says Ambrose. “I don’t see an educational innovator here.”
On a vote that split largely along racial lines, Patterson and Ambrose failed by one vote to block these cuts. But Ackerman got the message and withdrew her plan.
• D.C. police will have to check carefully the next time they haul off home rule protesters to a cellblock. That demonstrator they’re handcuffing may be their diversity instructor.
Activist Mark Thompson, one of the most vocal demonstrators against the control board and other congressional usurpations of local government, is being paid to provide diversity training for veteran police officers at the police academy. “Since I’m in custody of the police department a great deal, I have firsthand knowledge of their demeanor,” says Thompson, chair of the NAACP police task force.
Last week, Thompson and Union Temple Baptist Church Minister Willie Wilson were arrested while trying to disrupt an event by congressional Republicans at the Frederick Douglass Home in Southeast to promote private-school vouchers for D.C. students.
Thompson, founder of the Umoja Party and an announced candidate for an at-large council seat, has become a close ally of D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who led the unsuccessful fight in the House against the GOP voucher plan.
Some political observers saw Norton’s hidden hand in Thompson’s protest at the GOP event, orchestrated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). If Norton encouraged Thompson and Wilson to demonstrate, she’s not about to admit it.
• Lawyer Jim Hudson appears to have found a kindred spirit in mayoral candidate Kevin Chavous, who has racked up one of the poorest attendance records on the council. Hudson, serving as finance chairman for Chavous’ mayoral bid, had a similarly dismal attendance record as a member of the 20-member D.C. Tax Revision Commission, which concluded its work last week.
According to one commission member, Hudson missed every session in which the panel voted on its recommendations for reforming the city’s tax structure, and he also failed to attend the May 4 news conference at which the recommendations were unveiled.
Perhaps Hudson didn’t want his candidate to get tainted by the tax commission’s recommendations to wipe out the city’s popular homestead exemption. The proposal has rankled longtime residents, who grouse that the city is taking them for granted. Meanwhile, new homeowners get a $5,000 federal income tax break for moving into the District.
The commission’s recommendations now go before the council’s Finance and Revenue Committee, chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, who is facing a tough re-election and not eager to handle such a hot political potato. CP
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