July 2

Since becoming the city’s chief financial officer in January, Jeff DeWitt hasn’t been shy about making his presence known — and felt. He’s made some friends — meeting with key individuals and civic groups. But he has also started racking up critics.

There were folks unhappy that he jumped into the controversy over the citizen-approved Budget Autonomy Act. Like the mayor, he asserted that it was not legally valid. “I have to follow the law,” DeWitt told me last week during an interview about his first six months on the job. The D.C. Council subsequently filed a lawsuit; a federal judge affirmed the position of the mayor and the CFO.

DeWitt drew heat from some small-business owners and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce after he announced his intent to combine the city’s lottery contracts. Ultimately, he decided on a compromise, extending the primary agreement with Intralot while dividing the smaller instant-tickets contract. Three outside companies would provide the tickets. Certified D.C. businesses would be responsible for storing or warehousing them. “It would give [the businesses] what they can do and do well,” he said.

That seems like passing around crumbs. But the lottery has been so controversial everyone wants to be done with it. So I’d be surprised if DeWitt’s proposal doesn’t win council approval.

Seemingly content to stir a hornet’s nest, last month he threatened not to certify the city’s 2015 budget. That kind of warning hasn’t been issued publicly since the control board era. While the mayor objected to changes made by the council to his original proposal, including passage of broad tax cuts, DeWitt said, “I’m calling balls and strikes. Our job, as the CFO office, is to say, ‘Can we implement policy in a fiscally responsible manner?’”

If he means to stay out of politics, that could be a good thing. Too often his predecessor made decisions based on the players — not necessarily whether a policy was fiscally prudent or in the best interest of taxpayers.

In the District, the CFO is a near god. He has ultimate control over every aspect of the city’s financial management structure. He can advance or put the kibosh on any public policy or economic development project based on his interpretation of how the city’s revenue and assets might be affected. The much-discussed soccer stadium project, for example, could live or die based on his fiscal report.

Most people don’t focus on the CFO’s operation — until he challenges a favored program or policy; or someone walks away with the public’s money; or an elderly veteran loses his home because he forgot to pay a $134 tax bill; or well-heeled business owners get their commercial property assessments adjusted, cutting their tax bills to the tune of more than $40 million. The reputation of the previous CFO suffered from his handling of such issues.

Thankfully, DeWitt seems to be working on fixes. He has been floating the draft of a five-year strategic plan that he said would, among other things, prevent fraud and theft, improve customer service, establish a more humane and fair tax collection program and enhance transparency. Under his predecessor, the office was impenetrable: Audits were kept in “draft” form to prevent their public release. DeWitt said those days are over. He called his plan a “dynamic document” that will allow for “continuous improvement.”

Most of it undoubtedly will inspire celebration. Who wouldn’t like the idea of getting rid of what DeWitt calls the “horrible” telephone system at the Office of Tax and Revenue, ensuring more timely payments to vendors, creating a comprehensive community outreach program or creating a “a long-range capital plan” designed to determine what it takes to maintain D.C. assets over the next 20 years?

But expect some dissent, particularly since finance employees would be required to be more efficient. Instead of just complaining, workers would be expected to offer solutions — a sort of “see it, own it, solve it” philosophy that DeWitt said is part of the “Oz principle” of employee empowerment. Equally important, they would have to contend with installation of a computerized system, which could result in job loss.

Business processes likely will “change to fit the new system,” said DeWitt, noting that during the first “three to six months when the system goes on line, you need to staff up.” Eventually, however, the improved technology would lead to fewer workers — although he said it could mean “redeployment of resources” to other areas that need improvement. (Is he spinning me — or them?)

The last time a new system was installed at the OTR, Harriette Walters, a mid-level manager, exploited its weaknesses, stealing nearly $50 million. “We will change the culture so that people are more likely to speak up,” DeWitt insisted. Besides, he noted there already are some protections in place, including an anonymous tip line to report suspicious activity, and he’s recruiting for a permanent director for the Office of Investigations and Oversight.

Front-line staff certainly will feel the pressure, but the executive team appears to be in the catbird seat. Some may have poorly served DeWitt’s predecessor but they won’t be shown the door. “Leadership is not defined by how many people you fire,” DeWitt said. “It is about how many follow you.”

I can’t wait to see how that works for him.