Ripping Down Barriers

Glenis Gillis, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's executive assistant, checks out a homemade sign that was given to the mayor during a recent appearance.
Glenis Gillis, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's executive assistant, checks out a homemade sign that was given to the mayor during a recent appearance. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You know those scenes of the big-city mayor's office you see on television? A supplicant climbs to the top floor of City Hall, appeals to a stony-eyed secretary for a session with Mayor Important, then gets deposited on a stiff sofa for a long, fidgety wait. Finally the massive wooden door swings open, the supplicant crosses a cavernous stateroom and stands meekly before His Honor, who is sitting as serious and confident as a king 10 feet away in his plush high-back behind an acre of a desk. The nervous supplicant clears his throat and begins: " Excuse me, sir. . . "

Well, not in Washington. Not now. Not under Adrian M. Fenty (D). Here's the new reality:

It's lunchtime. Fenty whizzes into his "executive office" carrying Caribbean takeout in a plastic container. This "executive office" is a cubicle. As in, Dilbert.

The cubicle is surrounded by 32 cubicles with 32 government officials and at least 35 BlackBerrys (of which Fenty has three).

This is the now-famous "bullpen," an architectural idea for fast, efficient government that the young maverick mayor stole from New York's older maverick mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

Fenty, 36, glides into his seat and unpacks the takeout on his desk, which holds . . . almost nothing. There's a phone, a computer (not turned on), a printer and a sign that says "The Buck Stops Here." No in-box, no out-box, no documents, no Robert's Rules of Order, no Rolodex, no bust of his idol John F. Kennedy, not even a pencil sharpener. Because there's no pencil.

Before the lid's off the takeout, a line to the mayor forms like ants to a lollipop.

The scheduler gets there first. She wants to know if Fenty can make an afternoon appointment on Capitol Hill. She presents his calendar, and Fenty flips through. Yes. Scheduler dismissed.

Next, the communications director. Where does Fenty want to film a TV promo for a D.C. tourism group? "Bring them in here," he commands, sticking a plastic fork into his plantains. Dismissed.

The deputy chief of staff wants input on a candidate applying to head an agency. "What's the word on the street?" Fenty asks. "People like him, but they don't think he can do the job," the deputy replies. Keep looking. Dismissed.

One after another, Fenty dispatches people with rapid-fire decisions. Until he gets to legislative chief JoAnne Ginsberg. Someone groans. "JoAnne always has the longest list," gripes one aide.

Today her meeting may run extra long. The D.C. Council is holding a hearing on Fenty's proposal to seize control of the public school system -- 140 schools, 55,000 students and 4,000 teachers. The issue promises to be a titanic controversy that holds not only the fate of Fenty's reputation but also the fate of the city. Fenty and Ginsberg need to put their heads together and brainstorm.

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