D.C. schools maintenance chief Charles Williams couldn’t keep his promise to fix leaky roofs in time for the start of the school year last fall. And the retired Army general couldn’t convince D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian that he was leveling with her about plugging scores of fire-code violations throughout District schools. But when it came to catering to a conservative Christian group seeking to restore men as the head of household and family, Williams was a true promise keeper.
In fact, Williams spent so much school moneynearly a half-million dollars by some estimatespandering to the Promise Keepers last year that some city officials began to suspect he was a member of the nationwide organization. He isn’t, according to Williams’ executive secretary. Promise Keepers official Harold Brinkley says the group has no official members but confirmed that Williams attended the annual Promise Keepers gathering at RFK Stadium in June.
According to school administration and control board sources, Williams paid $300,000 to rent a fleet of Dodge Neons last spring to transport Promise Keepers who had come to D.C. from across the country to “serve the city” by spending a day fixing up dilapidated school buildings. LL could not determine how many PK volunteers actually got to ride in the rental cars, but Williams and his staff made good use of them, keeping the nifty Neons for months afterward for their own use. “And he still may have them,” exclaimed one city official aware of the incident.
While public school students were fed cold cheese sandwiches and lunches that made dog food look appetizing, the PK volunteers voiced no complaints about the fare Williams served them. He spent approximately $21 per boxed lunch to feed some 3,000 Promise Keepers who painted and spruced up school buildings last year.
Williams spent additional taxpayer money in preparation for the Promise Keepers’ return to D.C. last October, when the organization held a massive rally on the Mall that attracted nearly 1 million men. However, Christian blocked Williams’ plan to re-enlist the Promise Keepers as his handyman corps for an October fix-up. Such volunteerism, the judge ruled, amounted to construction work that required prior approval from her.
Williams never got Christian’s OK for the project, so the PK volunteers were forced to devote their time and energy to fixing up vacant Taft Junior High School, which had been closed by the appointed school board at the end of the last school year.
D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) spokespersons have declined to comment on the matter, letting Williams explain his own behavior.
Williams has already tried that. During a grilling by control board staffers last year, Williams said his Promise Keepers outlays were recorded as a systemwide transportation cost. Sounds as if Williams learned a thing or two from the old guard at DCPS. “[Williams] is putting the nails in his own coffin,” observes one city official.
Williams reportedly hid his Promise Keepers largess from his boss, D.C. schools chief Gen. Julius Becton, until the control board blew the whistle. Keeping Becton in the dark was not that difficult, since he knows only what his staff tells him and readily accepts their explanationsespecially when Williams is talking, according to Becton staffers.
That may explain why Becton is now considering giving Williams the $30,000 bonus allowed under his contract. With that kind of loot, Williams can buy his own Promise Keepers van.
CONTROL BOARD POTPOURRI
During a speech to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce last month, control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan appeared to rule out serving another three-year stint on the city’s ruling body. In his first public utterance on the issue, Harlan told the gathering he plans to step down when his current term ends this June.
That should please the majority of D.C. councilmembers, who resent Harlan’s actions as head of the management team running the Metropolitan Police Department and his oversight of the Department of Public Works. But Harlan’s departure didn’t sound so imminent when he lectured LL last week for “making stuff up” about his seeking reappointment from the White House to a second control board term.
Harlan said he had told Clinton administration officials he would accept reappointment “only under one condition,” and he refused to reveal what that condition is. Harlan did say, however, that the condition is not that he assume Andrew Brimmer’s post as control board chairman. Many suspect that he would stay on only if he is appointed chairman, which is about as likely as Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry becoming the nation’s next drug czar.
Some control board staffers share the council’s disdain for Harlan. They dubbed the successful real estate businessman “the little cheapskate” last year after he lost his driver’s license for 30 days and refused to hire a driver. Harlan relied on Metro, and his wife, to get around. Too bad Harlan wasn’t as stingy with taxpayer dollars paid to high-priced consultants.
Displacing Brimmer won’t be an easy task, despite his unpopularity in local political circles and among some Republicans in Congress. Brimmer suddenly seems to have found favor with President Bill Clinton, who gets the final word on who stays and who goes when current control board terms expire this spring. Over the past couple of months, Clinton has been phoning Brimmer at least once a week, sources say, and has been adding his name to the guest list for White House functions and meetings.
The implications of Clinton’s sudden attentiveness are unclear. Some speculate that it could mean Brimmer has a lock on a second term as control board chairman. But it could also mean that the president, stung by criticism that he hasn’t done enough to rescue D.C., is trying to become more involved with the rescue effort led by the control board.
If Clinton called councilmembers once a week, he’d hear a monotone on Brimmer’s performance. “I think Andrew Brimmer is dangerous,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “He shows such disdain for local government and local government officials that he is truly undermining the ability of the city to maintain a future for local governance.”
The courts apparently agree with Ambrose. On Tuesday, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the control board had overstepped its authority in creating the appointed DCPS trustee board.
Ambrose and her council colleagues would be happy to see control board member Constance Newman slide onto Brimmer’s throne. They remain optimistic despite Brimmer’s Clinton connections and questions about whether Newman would seek another term.
“Connie will stay, and she’ll be the chairman,” predicts Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
ENTER THE DRAGON LADY
She looks like an imitation of fellow North Carolinian Elizabeth “Liddy” Dole, star of the 1996 Republican National Convention. She calls herself “the Dragon Lady,” a moniker picked up from a character in the old Terry and the Pirates comic strip, to dramatize her reputation as a tough-minded bureaucratic reformer. She is a prized catch for a city badly in need of new talent and capable leaders, say the five D.C. financial control board members. And she may be the best Christmas present Barry got this season.
She is Camille Cates Barnett, the white former Californian, former Texan, and soon-to-be former North Carolinian who was named three days before Christmas as the city’s first chief management officerthe equivalent of city manager. Control board members gushed over her talents and qualifications at the Dec. 22 news conference announcing her appointment.
But only three days earlier, Brimmer had told a congressional hearing that filling the post might not be possible before year’s end. The sudden selection of Barnett means that Brimmer & Co. may not have gotten their first choice.
Barry wasted little time in resisting the appointment of a white woman over him and much of the government he formerly controlled. Less than 48 hours after her appointment, Barry took a swipe at Barnett, who presents an easy target, by attacking her $150,000 annual salary and the five-year contract she negotiated in landing the job.
During his weekly session with reporters Christmas Eve, Barry announced he was “really upset” over the “awful” contract Barnett received, which pays her $65,000 more than the mayor currently makes. Frequent broadcasts on cable Channel 16, the mayor’s channel, have harped on her salary.
Hizzoner, who has complained frequently about the low salaries of his cabinet members, was sending a clear signal to the thousands of government employees who still take their cues from him: undermine the new chief. If the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners Barnett stumblesas many expect she will, and quicklythen she could drag the current control board, Barry’s nemesis, down with her. Her selection represents the board’s biggest gamble to date.
“I think the mayor will just not cooperate,” says Evans, a declared candidate for Barry’s job. “Without even telling his people not to cooperate, they won’t cooperate, either.”
Coming in as an outsider, Barnett doesn’t know where the land mines are placed and won’t have time to learn. “If you’re not already in the trenches, you don’t know where everything is out there,” says Evans.
Barnett also shares the control board’s reputation for political ineptitude. During her five-year stint as city manager in Austin, Texas, she stepped on the toes of local politicians and bureaucrats, and took the fall for a $21-million-plus accounting error and cost overrun at the city-owned hospital, which was under her supervision.
Just before she resigned, Barnett strode into a tense, closed-door meeting with the Austin city council and walked out with a sweet six-figure severance package and a good recommendation for her next job. Her severance package with the control board, still under negotiation, may become the most important part of her current contract. After all, the D.C. bureaucracy makes Austin’s look like a model of municipal efficiency.
Barnett has the potential to piss off everyone, including Brimmer, Barry, the council, and even Congress. Her appointment sent a shock wave through this predominantly black city and was seen in many circles as another slap at the black male, who already suffers from an identity crisis and an increasingly punitive judicial system.
Blacks in Government, an organization for federal black employees, has been digging into Barnett’s past in Texas. They should find plenty of ammo, since she left previous municipal posts in Austin, Dallas, and Houston amid turmoil. Barnett is among a group of top-level municipal managers nationwide who flit from one job to the next with no loyalty to any particular city and leave a host of both critics and admirers in their wake.
Some of her biggest critics can be found in the media.
“She was very stiff-arm with the press here,” notes a former Austin Chronicle writer. “She doesn’t give an inch.”
But the writer thinks Barnett will last longer in D.C. than expected because “she is cunning, and she is a survivor.”
If Barnett can survive here, she deserves her reputation.CP
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