February 13, 2013

“OUR FINANCIAL responsibility has been equal to or superior to virtually every jurisdiction in America.” It is hard to argue with that assertion about the District’s fiscal health by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). But the robust condition of D.C. finances is the very reason why it would be unwise to weaken the independence of the chief financial officer (CFO), which has played such a critical role in restoring the city’s financial health. If anything, the success of the District’s experience should serve as a model of fiscal responsibility for other governments.

Mr. Gray recently raised the idea of returning direct control of city finances, vested since 1995 with the CFO, to elected city officials. “Financial operations should be an inherent part of the government — that is, the executive [branch] with oversight by the legislative,” he told Post reporters and editors in an interview last week. A spokesman for Mr. Gray subsequently stressed the remarks do not reflect any planned course of action.

But the comments — which come at a time of transition for the District with Natwar M. Gandhi stepping down after more than 13 years as CFO — are not the first time that Mr. Gray has seemingly chafed at the outsize role of the office. In an unprecedented move last year, Mr. Gray challenged the CFO’s revenue projections and, according to The Post’s Mike DeBonis, tried to enlist Mr. Gandhi in an effort to have Congress reassess the office’s role. No surprise that Mr. Gandhi, an ardent supporter of his office’s independence, rebuffed that. The CFO, while appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, can be removed from office only for cause.

The importance of the CFO’s ability to make binding estimates of revenue and expenditures — judgments independent from the hopes and wishes of politicians — cannot be overstated. Does anyone really think the city would be sitting on a $1.5 billion fund balance or enjoying the confidence of Wall Street and Congress if not for a chief financial officer who wouldn’t be nudged or harangued into magical thinking about what the city could afford? Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the finance committee, remembers the days of budget gimmickry and wasteful spending that led to imposition of the federal control board; he says it’s “foolhardy” to even talk about changing an office that has evolved into such a vital part of D.C. government.

The CFO, while independent, is not apart from local government. Both Mr. Gandhi and Anthony A. Williams, who first held the job and later became mayor, showed the ability to work with elected officials who, it should be stressed, still have the power to set policy and determine spending. At a time when he is seeking a replacement for Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Gray should be stressing the importance of this office and not talking about the need to rethink it.