September 29, 2013

IF CONFIRMED by the D.C. Council, Jeffrey S. DeWitt will be the city’s fourth chief financial officer. He will be the first without Washington, D.C., experience, but the fresh eye he brings to this critical office could be an asset.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced Thursday he was naming Mr. DeWitt, chief financial officer of Phoenix, to replace long-time CFO Natwar M. Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi is retiring after having held the office for 13 years, the longest term of any CFO since the office’s creation in 1995. The District’s current robust financial health is evidence of the contributions made by Mr. Gandhi, particularly when viewed against the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1990s. Nonetheless, a series of management failures in his office — from lapses that allowed ahistoric embezzlement of funds in the tax office to the most recent scandal over the sale of tax liens — underscored the need for change.

Mr. Gray, in choosing Mr. DeWitt — one of four candidates recommended by a search committee — pointed to his work as a manager, his skills with technology and his experience with procurement. Noteworthy was the steady leadership he demonstrated in helping Phoenix weather the fiscal consequences of the collapse of the housing market, experience that could prove valuable in helping D.C. deal with problems caused by sequestration in the federal budget. Also helpful is that he is known and respected on Wall Street.

The District, though, presents its own set of challenges. As CFO, Mr. DeWitt will be responsible for a larger budget and more employees, and he will have to do so with unaccustomed visibility and highly charged local and national politics. Mr. DeWitt impressed the search committee with the thoroughness of his research; there probably are few job candidates who would have spent a weekend (as he did) riding the Metro, alighting at every stop, to gain a better feel for the city’s neighborhoods.

The council’s confirmation hearings, planned for next month, will be the first test of Mr. DeWitt. The most critical question is his commitment to maintaining the independence of the office as a bulwark of fiscal responsibility. Encouragingly, Mr. DeWitt says that is one of the things that attracted him to the position.

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