Honoring D.C. employees — no, really

Courtland Milloy
Columnist May 24, 2011

They work long hours, even on weekends, without complaint or extra pay. Relentless, dedicated, results-oriented, they are creative problem solvers whose selfless labors are making the District a better place to live and work.

They are the unsung heroes of the D.C. government — which may strike some as an oxymoron, given the battering the city’s bureaucracy has taken through the years.

But consider the six who will be honored Wednesday night with the 2011 Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Awards for Distinguished D.C. Government Employees. I was on the selection panel this year and came away with a newfound appreciation for the commitment to excellence demonstrated by a wide range of public servants.

The winners, selected from 120 nominees, are:

Gordon McDonald, deputy chief financial officer for budget and planning — a 26-year veteran whose team has produced 13 consecutive balanced budgets, averting a possible return to a congressionally appointed financial control board.

“His work ethic is legendary,” Angelique Hayes, a colleague of McDonald, wrote to the awards committee. “He routinely worked late nights and weekends. . . . I recall several instances where Mr. McDonald worked through the night for periods exceeding twenty-four consecutive hours to ensure that deadlines were met.”

One candidate commanded my vote even though I wasn’t always pleased with the results of his work. Soumya Dey, a civil engineer at the D.C. Department of Transportation, is credited with transforming the city’s parking meter system. His solar powered- and credit-card- accepting meters, along with other innovations, increased revenue in 2010 from $20 million to $26 million — a hefty portion of which came from a supercharged, if not simply tyrannical, parking enforcement corps.

Sakina Khan won for doing work that I never thought of as the mandate of a bureaucrat: being a visionary. As senior economic planner in the D.C. Office of Planning, she recognized that the District had a vibrant “creative economy,” made up of more than 75,000 jobs in the arts, green technology, architecture and development. She is now bringing diverse groups of the creative class together for projects that are helping to revitalize neighborhoods throughout the city.

Johnetta Brower Bond might well be called a miracle worker. As administrator for the D.C. Office of Pay and Retirement Services, she took three archaic payroll systems and converted them into one state-of-the-art system. Not only has she saved the city millions of dollars in contracting fees and mailing costs, she’s getting those hard-earned paychecks out on time.

My two favorites were Tracie Martin, a senior fatality review program specialist for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and Marc Williams, a recreation assistant at the Bald Eagle Recreation Center in Southeast Washington.

Martin has the emotionally wrenching task of gathering information about the lives of the city’s young homicide victims, including in the hours leading up to their deaths. On her own initiative, she used the findings to come up with recommendations for improving services to at-risk youth — even as staff cuts dramatically increased her workload.

Eric Rosenthal, a member of the Child Fatality Review Committee, wrote of her: “Ms. Martin has one of the most difficult and most important jobs in government, and she performs it with expertise, diplomacy and tenacity.”

As for Williams, the job title hardly describes what he actually does. In 2007, he founded the Eagles Nest Youth Association and used his own money to purchase sports equipment and uniforms and to help pay for the groups’ out-of-town travel to competitive events.

He also makes frequent visits to schools to check on the members’ progress and arranges for them to receive tutoring if they start falling behind.

The awards are named for a distinguished couple of D.C. philanthropists, Gwen and Morris Cafritz, who wanted to correct a negative public image of city employees by highlighting the extraordinary “behind-the-scenes” work they do.

The program, which was started 10 years ago, is administered by the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at George Washington University. Each winner will receive $7,500.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more outstanding group of employees in any government — or private enterprise, for that matter. In them and countless others whose extraordinary work may never be fully acknowledged, D.C. taxpayers get their money’s worth — and then some.

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