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Only two years after he moved from his home state to the District to take a prominent workforce job in Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration, Odie Donald II is boomeranging back to Georgia to help direct a small city near Atlanta.
The people of that city knew he was coming before the people of D.C. knew he was going. The departure leaves Bowser, who is seeking re-election this year, temporarily without a permanent top employment official, and comes less than two weeks after her former D.C. Public Schools chancellor stepped down following a scandal.
On Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the South Fulton city council had on Tuesday approved hiring Donald, the current director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, as city manager. In an unusual tack, the South Fulton council interviewed Donald live via Skype during a public meeting.
“I’m the best in the business, there’s no doubt about it,” he told the council, according to the Atlanta newspaper. The audience clapped when Donald, who was speaking from a projector, said he served residents, not politicians.
But in D.C., the report blindsided some local officials. As head of DOES, which administers programs that connect residents with jobs, training, and unemployment benefits, Donald was scheduled in the next several days to speak before the D.C. Council’s committee on labor about the agency’s performance.
DOES, though, hadn’t filed answers to the committee’s questions by the time they were due last week, leading the committee to push back the hearing.
“Perhaps this is why I haven’t gotten them,” At-Large Councilmember and Labor Committee Chair Elissa Silverman said Thursday evening, after she’d seen the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article and learned about Donald’s seeking the South Fulton position.
In a statement on Friday, she said the news was “disappointing … because Donald’s likely departure comes at a time when leadership at [DOES] is critical” and D.C. “unemployment and underemployment … remain stubbornly high.”
According to Silverman, the District spends $150 million annually on workforce development, and Donald had been working with her on “strategic enforcement” of labor laws.
Donald was also the “point man on implementation of the District’s landmark paid leave program,” which is expected to launch in July 2020 after D.C. starts collecting payroll taxes from employers in July 2019 to fund it. Silverman said she hoped his likely departure wouldn’t hamper the law.
“I hope to work with the Bowser administration in any way possible to make sure we have a strong leader at the head of DOES if Director Donald does indeed leave,” the labor committee chair said on Friday afternoon, in her statement.
Indeed, he is leaving. And despite not providing answers to the committee’s questions, Donald had time to write an op-ed published in the Washington Business Journal on Thursday touting D.C.’s economy and workforce programs.
A spokeswoman for Bowser confirmed on Friday evening that Donald had officially submitted his resignation to the mayor. Donald has not responded to requests for comment about his reasons for stepping down from the agency.
March 16 will be his last day with the District government, and he will receive any unused leave. The mayor’s office confirms that it was aware Donald was actively seeking other employment before the newspaper story on Thursday, but it hasn’t announced his replacement.
Before becoming the director of DOES, he served as the head of D.C.’s Workforce Investment Council, a board with private-sector representation that consults the District on job programs. In 2016, when he relocated to D.C., Donald told City Paper that he’d “held basically every position there is in [Georgia’s] workforce system.”
He also said he was drawn to the WIC job because of Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden. “The most exciting thing [for me] is that there are so many people in the District who are concerned about workforce development,” Donald said in an interview. “They understand its importance in relation to economic wellbeing.”
Donald became acting DOES director early last year, after former agency leader Deborah Carroll—a longtime D.C. official—left the role and later became a local administrative law judge. Following his nomination by Bowser, the D.C. Council unanimously approved Donald as the permanent head of the department in May 2017.
As of last December, Donald made nearly $175,000 in annual salary—a sizable income for a District official—according to public records.
He was poised to oversee the launch of the D.C. Infrastructure Academy, located in Ward 8 and described as “a key initiative” of the Bowser administration. Per the DOES website, the academy has been scheduled to open this month.
“Through the D.C. Infrastructure Academy, we will spread prosperity by getting more D.C. residents trained for good-paying, long-term careers,” Bowser said in a statement announcing the initiative last September. A release explained that the academy is financed by more than $20 million from D.C. government appropriations and private contributions by Pepco (as part of the company’s controversial merger with Exelon) as well as Washington Gas.
On Friday evening, the mayor in a statement thanked Donald for his two years of service to the District and for “his commitment to the residents of Washington, D.C.” She noted that the District’s unemployment rate has decreased over that time (in December, it was about 6 percent, averaged across all eight wards, according to preliminary data) and that the federal government had removed D.C.’s designation as a high-risk grantee under Donald’s leadership.
“I thank Odie for his dedication[,] which helped us achieve these great milestones and wish him continued success as he returns to Georgia,” Bowser said. South Fulton, where Donald is headed, was incorporated as a city last year.
This post has been updated with additional comment from the mayor’s office.