Mayor Vincent C. Gray repeatedly promised voters during his campaign that, unlike his chief rival, he would spare no effort to reach out to all corners of the District to unite the city. Over the past 14 months, Gray has delivered so many speeches that the rental of teleprompters began to add up.
So, his administration bought one — for $14,430.
The roving teleprompter is part of nearly $1 million the Gray administration has spent to engage residents through summits, town halls and other gatherings since last year. A Washington Post analysis of city records found that Gray (D) has held 25 major, city-sponsored events, including his two State of the District addresses. For this year’s address, for instance, the administration spent $5,000 on a speechwriter for the prose Gray recited before 1,000 people at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
The Post analysis is based on several invoices provided by the administration, which said it did not have expense documents available for all of the events. It maintains that most of the programs — including nine town halls on the city budget and eight for young people — were of minimal cost to taxpayers. Oftentimes, agency employees paid for refreshments, said mayoral spokeswoman Doxie McCoy.
In some instances, the city received minimal support. Dish Network donated $500 toward a town hall on the African community, while the Children’s Youth Investment Trust Corp. provided $750 for a youth town hall.
But the bulk of expenditures went to no-bid contracts with America Speaks, a nonprofit group that specializes in large-scale meetings. Last month, the group conducted Gray’s One City Summit, which cost $607,600, according to the documents. The group handled a Ward 8 community summit in July that cost $247,857 and a cabinet retreat earlier in the year for $25,000. The administration is tapping the group this summer for a $200,000 Ward 7 summit.
Gray’s director of communications, Pedro Ribeiro, said that the city properly advertised the contracts and that America Speaks is one of a handful of nonprofit groups in the country that can manage such events.
Advisers say the expenses are part of Gray’s efforts to make good on his campaign promise, especially because residents harshly criticized his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), when his public appearances began to dwindle.
Gray doesn’t want to fall into that trap, said the advisers, who acknowledged that the mayor is trying to connect with a public that in part associates his administration with campaign controversies that are under federal investigation.
“Fenty, he was criticized for . . . not attending neighborhood meetings,” Ribeiro said. “They knocked him for that. Now, they’re knocking the mayor for too much.”
Gray agreed, saying there is no price too high to engage residents.
“I love to connect with people, hear from people, hear what their frustrations are,” Gray said. “I don’t think there is any substitute to meeting with people.”
The One City Summit, which was held on a Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, drew 1,700 attendees, 300 volunteers and 500 online participants, Gray said. “It confirms to me that it was money well-spent,” he said.
Gray said that he wants to hold the summit annually and that town halls on the city’s budget — one in each of the eight wards — will rev up again soon.
Tony Bullock, who was press secretary and director of communications for former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said citywide summits are valuable, but he recommended that they be held every two years, as Williams did. A bow-tied former chief financial officer, Williams was known for wonkish speech and awkward social manner — an image softened by events such as the summits.
“The more Mayor Gray gets out and meets people . . . the better it is for Mayor Gray. He gives a great impression,” Bullock said. “There are certain folks in this city who really like this, the ability to get engaged individually.”
But political consultant Tom Lindenfeld, who advised Fenty’s 2010 mayoral campaign, said Gray has a different problem from Fenty’s but one that is equally troubling: “no message.”
The mayor has a four-pronged agenda: fiscal stability, education reform, job creation and crime prevention. He also has two side issues: statehood and environmental sustainability.
“Once you get to four, four equals zero,” Lindenfeld said. “Whatever tactics he uses, using a teleprompter or holding summits, it doesn’t really matter if no one can remember what you’re saying.”
But the Gray administration argues that it is already seeing results from the mayor’s outreach.
The Ward 8 summit led to the cleanup of two neighborhoods and a pending request for proposals to fix up two vacant lots, said Victor L. Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
And the One City Summit pushed the administration to accelerate its plans to create and maintain more affordable housing, Ribeiro said.
During the summit, participants listed affordable housing as the biggest issue facing the city — second only to corruption. “It was a cross-demographic, cross-ward issue,” Ribeiro said. “We’re doubling down on affordable housing.”
At a recent youth town hall at Columbia Heights Community Center, young people said they were mostly satisfied after engaging with Gray. “It gives youth of the city a very big voice,” said Sharee Smith-Taylor, 17, vice chair of the mayor’s Youth Advisory Council.
Benjamin Davis — at 6 one of the youngest participants that Saturday — asked Gray about the closing of a Montessori program at Langdon Education Campus. The mayor told him that he didn’t know enough and would need more information.
The youngster said he liked the access to Gray, adding: “But he doesn’t know the answer. . . . That’s why we came here, to get our answers.”