But, in an interview, Gray (D) said returning direct control of city finances to its elected leaders should be considered.
“I think the financial operations should be an inherent part of the government — that is, the executive [branch] with oversight by the legislative,” he told Washington Post reporters and editors Thursday.
Gray, who recently entered his third year as mayor, discussed his thoughts on the CFO’s role as part of a discussion on the search to replace Natwar M. Gandhi, who announced this month that he would retire in June after more than 13 years as chief financial officer.
The mayor said he has been in talks with a person whom he’d like to lead a “wide search” for Gandhi’s replacement. He declined to identify the person.
“One of the questions that should be asked is, how do the candidates feel about this essentially being outside of the government?” he said. “There are some days — lots of days — when I look at it and say, it just shouldn’t be this way. And then there are other days where we go, I’m glad that’s over there with him.”
Gray is publicly broaching a discussion of CFO independence at a fiscally opportune time. The city booked a $417 million surplus in fiscal 2012, pushing its budget reserves to $1.5 billion. Some city bond issues carry top ratings, and officials are expecting a flood of revenue to continue for some time.
“Our financial responsibility has been equal to or superior to virtually every jurisdiction in America,” Gray said.
He also placed the CFO discussion in the context of his administration’s recent success in winning back control of various government functions that have operated under court oversight. Last year, for instance, the city concluded a 37-year federal lawsuit concerning the District’s treatment of the mentally ill. Another long-running suit, over the child welfare system, has seen significant progress in recent months.
But mayoral control of financial operations was seized not by the courts but by Congress, which established the independent financial office in 1995. Under Mayors Sharon Pratt and Marion Barry, the city ran up budget deficits that eventually swelled to $722 million and tanked the city’s bond ratings.
The chief financial officer was given extraordinary powers in tandem with a temporary financial control board to get the city on track. “There is more responsibility given to the chief financial officer than I have now,” Barry said at the time.
Any attempt to soften the CFO’s independence is certain to be met by Capitol Hill and Wall Street with skepticism bordering on disbelief, observers said.