In the hearing and in written responses to the council’s questions, the 52-year-old father of three college-age children sought to portray himself as an honest broker who would deliver straight numbers to elected officials and someone with the management acumen to tackle long-standing problems with tax collections and computer systems.
“ ‘Technocrat’ is a term that will be thrown around over time,” he said. “I know how to deal with technology. I know how to deal with numbers.”
He added that his role is to “support the policies of the elected officials,” not to take sides in political disputes: “It’s not my place to say where the money should be spent. It’s my place to say whether the money is sufficient.”
DeWitt, who has worked in government for the city of Phoenix since 1989 and been the chief financial officer there since 2009, won praise from the half-dozen council members who attended parts of the hearing. A good deal of the praise was rooted less in his particular expertise than in his ability to bring a fresh perspective to a finance department that has been run by Gandhi for nearly 14 years.
“You need fresh eyes, a fresh approach,” said Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who pressed DeWitt, in particular, on the city’s practice of auctioning relatively small tax debts.
In some cases, a recent Washington Post investigation found, the system cost people who owned small amounts in back taxes their homes and tens of thousands of dollars in equity. DeWitt called tax-lien sales a “very difficult, very complicated issue” but added that “you don’t want to get into a situation like you saw on the front page of The Washington Post.”
“You find a way to work it out” without foreclosure, he said.
DeWitt also promised to devote quick attention to tax-office issues more generally, pledging to attend community meetings and solicit residents’ input as he does a “fairly deep drill” into finance-department operations. He also pledged to improve transparency, addressing a frequent criticism of Gandhi, who was criticized for not circulating internal audits to the D.C. Council or the public.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, said after the hearing that he will move DeWitt’s nomination to the full council in time for a final vote on Nov. 5.
It’s unclear when DeWitt could start, should he be confirmed. The confirmation is subject to a 30-calendar-day review by Congress, but city lawyers are exploring whether he could start sooner.