By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
If there is one message that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has sought to deliver to District residents in his first 100 days, it is that he is accessible to everyone. He has put in 162 public appearances to prove it.
Fenty (D) built his reputation on community service in his Northwest neighborhood. But as mayor, he has gone to the city's most neglected neighborhoods to deliver major addresses, chatted with small groups of residents to hear their grievances and confronted protesters in front of his house to show that he was willing to listen to their complaints.
"He's been here twice already, and he's provided good answers to our questions," said Dorothea Ferrell, 76, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who helped organize Fenty's appearance last week at a community center in Southeast. "He's keeping the promises he made when he was running for office."
Fenty, 36, the youngest chief executive in the District's history, has set out to create a more engaged and responsive government. He was elected in a landslide on a pledge to replace the detached, professorial approach of former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who was often criticized for his out-of-town travels.
The new mayor's style has helped win political support for his biggest initiatives. But despite Fenty's energy, some D.C. Council members and community leaders who have worked closely with him say they think he appears comfortable to remain in campaign mode, constantly courting the public. They wonder whether he will be willing -- and able -- to focus on the harder parts: spelling out the details for improving the 34,000-employee bureaucracy, improving the schools, reducing crime and narrowing the economic divide.
Fenty has registered key victories in the opening days of his four-year term. He successfully pushed a proposal to win direct control over the troubled public school system, which city leaders have failed to improve for decades. He has brought a team of young advisers to power, including new police and fire chiefs. He introduced a legal challenge after a federal court overturned the city's ban against keeping guns at home. He launched a strategy to create affordable housing and implemented the CapStat program, an analysis of city agencies designed to improve government efficiency.
And Monday, he led several thousand people on a march to the Capitol in support of D.C. voting rights, the first such event in a decade.
It is too soon to gauge his success, but the mayor has already faced criticism and unexpected challenges.
Residents said his administration's efforts to remove snow during the city's first snow and ice storm of the year in February were mediocre. Council members criticized the city budget proposal, which lacked bold programs but contained an accounting change that they said could cause a $30 million shortfall. And activists complained about Fenty's school takeover proposal, saying it included initiatives lifted largely from the school system's master plan.
"The challenge he has before him is to connect his appearances in the community with tangible progress on the things he talks about," said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
During a break at a coffee shop in Anacostia last week, Fenty professed to be ready for the hard work ahead and dismissed the idea that he is selling style over substance.
"If you're not visible and engaged and energetic, you're not doing the job of a big-city mayor," he said. "The mayor's job is to be public, to be visible, to know what's going on, to hold people accountable, to set high standards."
For the rest, he added, he will depend on his deputies.Building a Close-Knit Cabinet
Fenty, who took office Jan. 2, did not wait long to assemble a team of advisers who share his work ethic, many of whom he has known for years and trusts to carry out his vision.
City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Neil O. Albert, legislative chief JoAnne Ginsberg and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier worked for the city government for years and forged relationships with Fenty when he was a council member. Fenty and Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, have been close since Fenty endorsed him for a Board of Education seat in 2004. Chief of Staff Tene Dolphin managed Fenty's campaign.
Some have known him even longer. General counsel Peter Nickles is a longtime running buddy of the mayor's father. Communications director Carrie Brooks worked with Fenty at an ice cream shop while they were in high school.
Not everyone has been enamored of Fenty's selections. Members of the business community raised eyebrows at the appointment of Albert. He had served under Williams as head of the parks and recreation department and later as deputy mayor of the child and family services division. Some criticized Fenty's decision to give the job of attorney general to Linda Singer, who had not practiced law in a decade while running Appleseed, a nonprofit social justice organization.
But, Tangherlini said, that was the point: The mayor sought people whose backgrounds would help achieve his goal of shifting the government's priorities toward serving neglected communities. For example, Albert has made the rounds with developers, telling them that they will have to build more affordable housing if they want government support for their projects.
"One of the biggest criticisms is that the economic development of this city is geared toward one segment of society," Tangherlini said, referring to developers of large downtown projects. Albert "embodies the ability to make the connection to things like affordable housing."
Still, residents east of the Anacostia River have complained that despite his rhetoric about empowering the city's underclass, Fenty, like Williams, has selected a Cabinet that is not diverse enough. Many of his most visible advisers -- Tangherlini, Lanier, Singer and Fire Chief Dennis Rubin, who was recruited from Atlanta -- are white. None of his Cabinet members live in wards 7 and 8.
"If you're putting together a governing body to govern the city, you should appoint people who have some sensitivity to all of us," said Gregg Rhett, a Ward 7 activist. "I'm not really seeing that at this junction."
Fenty and his aides say they think they will quiet the criticism if they perform well.
As Fenty spends time in the community, Tangherlini is expected to make sure the government is delivering on the mayor's promises. Tangherlini, former head of the District's transportation department under Williams and, more recently, the interim Metro chief, installed a half-dozen of his loyal lieutenants in top jobs at D.C. agencies, including transportation, personnel and property management.
Several days a week, Tangherlini and aide Kevin Donahue, who has worked for him for years, summon agency directors and assess their performance by examining, for example, how many potholes were filled that month. Then they develop ideas to improve performance.
Not all of Tangherlini's ideas have gone over well. To end rampant waste in the Office of Contracting and Procurement, for example, he decided to empower the city's other agencies to do their own contracting. Only if necessary would they tap the services of the central office. But when the plan was revealed in Fenty's city budget proposal last month, council members said that it could produce a $30 million shortfall.
"There should have been prior discussion that this is the direction we're going," Gray said. "They needed to explain how they will make this work."Pursuing 'Higher-Hanging Fruit'
The Westminster Neighborhood Association represents a single block near Ninth and S streets in Northwest. That was large enough for Fenty to drop by one evening last month during a trip to three community meetings.
"This administration is going after the higher-hanging fruit," he told two dozen residents sitting on benches on a small playground. "But we're also keeping our eye on nuts-and-bolts issues -- community policing, tree trimming, alley paving."
Then he explained why he was there: "If you don't come out to community meetings, you won't know if you're getting it right."
During a question-and-answer session, residents urged him to protect their historic neighborhood's zoning codes, relocate a city building that housed fire vehicles nearby, fund their local library and eliminate graffiti. Fenty promised that his Ward 1 service coordinator, who was sitting nearby, was taking notes and would follow up promptly. After an hour, the mayor left for a community gathering a mile away.
James Rawlings, a member of the Westminster group, said that it was too soon to judge Fenty but that he was pleased to see him.
"It's important that he comes and sees people face to face," Rawlings said. "Even if he can't give responses to specific questions, it's good to be visible and available. Otherwise, people will think the mayor is aloof."
That's a lesson Fenty learned when he was a council member renowned for quick responses when constituents called with service complaints. But late last month, Merrit Drucker, the man Fenty appointed to oversee the city's constituent service program, resigned.
Drucker, who had worked well with Fenty while serving as Williams's Ward 4 service coordinator, cited a disagreement with the new mayor over code enforcement. In an interview, Drucker said he has doubts about Fenty's ability to set a vision for how to improve fundamental problems such as rat control and the removal of lead-based paint in homes.
"There are a lot of deep, systemic problems in the District that are not solved by attending meetings," Drucker said.
Fenty declined to discuss Drucker, but he scoffed at the suggestion that he does not carve out time to deliberate with aides.
"The last few days, I've been in the office having all kinds of meetings with people -- CapStat meetings, internal meetings," he said. But he has no plans to curtail his public schedule. "Show me a big-city mayor who doesn't try and make sure they're out in the community and visible and engaged."
With that, the mayor left the Southeast coffee shop to attend the 10th anniversary of the Excel Institute, which helps children with learning disabilities. It is in Northeast, and the mayor was scheduled to give remarks. He needed to move quickly to get there.