Mr. Gray, manager

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"YOU WANT to talk about my record? Let's get it on!" D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray told Mayor Adrian M. Fenty at a recent candidates forum. Mr. Fenty's focus on the early 1990s, when Mr. Gray served as chief of human services for the District, has been criticized by some as going negative. But Mr. Gray says that he is proud of his record -- and clearly, his management of a vital city department, with its annual budget of $1 billion and 8,000 employees, is relevant to his bid to become mayor. So what can be learned from the history?

Mr. Gray was a respected advocate for the intellectually disabled when Mayor-elect Sharon Pratt Dixon asked him to join her administration in 1991. He first said no; the challenges facing the city's largest department were too daunting. Then he decided it would be a cop-out not to at least try to improve services so vitally needed in a city he loved. Mayor Dixon was assuming control after Marion Barry's disastrous 12-year reign. As the 11th director in 12 years, Mr. Gray inherited a Department of Human Services notorious for bad management, contracting scandals, overspending and cronyism. So incompetent was the agency that judges had taken control of a dozen or so areas, including juvenile justice and treatment of those with intellectual disabilities. People worked in jobs without descriptions, and millions of dollars of city money were paid out in unwritten handshake agreements. "Beyond belief" is how Mr. Gray recalls conditions. Adding to the difficulties was a fiscal crisis caused by a recession and the District's history of reckless spending.

Mr. Gray moved to bring order and stability to the sprawling department, imposing a new organization, ordering reforms and recruiting a new management team. He is credited for an open and accessible style, and he worked extraordinarily hard. But a year into his tenure, there was criticism that too much time was spent on process and not enough on results; it's a charge that persisted throughout his tenure.

Mr. Gray's campaign provided us with an eight-page document detailing his accomplishments at the department. He expanded early childhood programs, developing a plan to immunize children and reduce infant deaths. Outreach and education efforts initiated by Mr. Gray helped to lower infant mortality from a rate of 20 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 16.1 in 1995. (The rate was 13.1 in 2007, the most recent year with confirmed data.) He helped engineer a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a new approach to helping the homeless. He was unafraid of advocating for needed but controversial programs to combat AIDS such as condom distribution in schools and clean needle exchanges. Likewise, he refused to let racial politics derail the appointment of able Health Commissioner Mohammad N. Akhter, opposed by some because he wasn't black or from the District.

Nonetheless, the campaign document provides an incomplete, if not distorted, picture. It boasts about his closing the Cedar Knoll youth facility without mentioning that Congress forced the shutdown. It claims credit for a decision to place nurses in D.C. public schools, which came only after the city was held in contempt for failing to do so. Mr. Gray closed the city's notorious Forest Haven mental asylum, but that accomplishment would be tarnished by subsequent abuses that occurred in the community settings that replaced it.

Overall, the early '90s proved to be a period in which the city was either unable or unwilling to administer its own social programs. From juvenile justice to foster care to treatment of the mentally ill, the city was in a free fall that the Dixon (and, after her marriage, Kelly) administration proved inept at stopping or even slowing. A November 1993 report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless declared the situation to be "a complete breakdown in the District's provision of social services" and attributed it to "gross maladministration."

Consider for, example, the department's handling of child welfare. The seeds for U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan's landmark 1991 ruling that the city had violated nearly every local and federal law concerning abused and neglected children were sown long before Mr. Gray's tenure. Mr. Gray helped convince the judge that the new administration was capable of fixing the problems and formulated a plan of action. There were some modest improvements. But Mr. Gray's handpicked social services commissioner was forced out after nine months on the job, and the judge became increasingly frustrated by sluggish progress and noncompliance. At one point, the city even sought, as the judge observed, to "eviscerate" the court order. Five months after the Kelly administration left office, the system was placed in receivership. A similar situation occurred with mental health services and the 1993 appointment of a special master.

The question for voters will be how to interpret this record. Did Mr. Gray, as supporters say, perform as competently as possible in an impossible situation and advance ideas that were adopted in later reforms? Or should he be judged as part of an administration that failed to arrest the slide of a government on its way to congressional takeover? That's a fair debate. But it's hard to take issue with an assessment of his record as one of heartfelt labor, minimal progress and major setbacks.

This is one in a series of editorials on the issues and records of candidates in the Sept. 14 mayoral primary.

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