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Gray reopens D.C.'s traditional suite of mayoral offices

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 9:58 PM

Two hours after being sworn in as the District's chief executive, Vincent C. Gray reopened the doors to the city's traditional suite of mayoral offices, which had been gathering dust for four years under his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty. The space was so underused that when Gray walked in for the first time three weeks ago, he encountered dead plants and, in the coat closet, a jacket inscribed with the name of another former mayor, Anthony A. Williams (D).

When Fenty (D) took office in 2007, he tore down walls on the third floor of the John A. Wilson Building to create a large, open space modeled on the "bullpen" concept used by one of his political mentors, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I). The floor plan, Fenty said then, was designed to encourage efficiency and accountability and to partly break from the relics of past administrations.

In returning to the sixth-floor suite Sunday during a public reception, Gray (D) signaled an immediate stylistic departure from Fenty, suggesting he will be a more traditional, formal mayor. But by inviting residents to tour the office on his first day as mayor, Gray said he was trying to foster a sense of openness and warmth in what one of his aides called "the people's office."

Gray's decision to forgo the bullpen, he said, was a matter of comfort, and one that seems to match the deliberative, consultative approach he employed as a mayoral candidate and chairman of the D.C. Council.

"You need to be able to have space that is somewhat private to meet with people. Just doing everything out in the open isn't conducive to getting the kind of decision making that you want or the kind of conversation you want to have," Gray said in an interview.

"It has nothing to do with transparency. It just has everything to do with giving people the comfort level to be able to speak freely and openly and, frankly, just being able to concentrate," he said.

By the time Gray took the oath of office Sunday, the wilted plants had been hauled away and the space readied with photos and memorabilia for its new occupant.

"Mr. Mayor, welcome to your office," said Gray's chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, who greeted him in the waiting area as dozens of visitors toured the space, posed for photos and asked for the mayor's autograph.

The suite Gray occupies is part of a modern addition to the more-than-100-year-old Wilson building. The hallway leading to his office is lined with nostalgic photos and awards that track the mayor's career - including his work with the developmentally disabled, the Department of Human Services, helping at-risk children and the D.C. Council. From his desk, Gray has a view of the Washington Monument and the planes taking off at Reagan National Airport.

The cream chenille furniture in the seating area is arranged like a living room, surrounded by a light-silk-covered wall and light wood paneling. There is a Nationals jersey on the wall, a Redskins pillow on the mayor's chair, and photos behind his desk of his two children and grandchildren.

"When I came up here, there was nothing but furniture, waiting for some life," said Trystin Francis, a designer who volunteered to help prepare the space.

The only area off limits to the public Sunday was the mayor's private kitchen and bathroom.

Donna Wright, a social worker for the D.C. government, said she appreciated the invitation to peek inside the mayor's office - a gesture that she said spoke to Gray's inclusive approach.

"He's going to include the people in making decisions. Nothing is going to be hidden; he's not leaving anyone out," Wright said.

More important than the physical office space, Gray said, are the people he has appointed to work for him. The traditional setup, he said, would not be an impediment to efficiency.

"If you've got the right people in place, they will get it done," he said. "I'm trying to bring people on board who share my desire to work directly with people, recognizing we work for people and recognizing that communication is at the heart of being able to get anything done."

Fenty's bullpen was designed as a symbol of openness and speed. The mayor's senior staff could easily collaborate without appointments, and with glass-partitioned conference rooms, the public - and reporters - would know who was meeting with the mayor. But Fenty was often criticized during his reelection bid for quick decision making that ignored input from concerned residents.

Gray said that his more isolated office setting would not hold him back from interacting with residents and that he would continue his practice of visiting individual council members in their offices.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has watched Bloomberg's bullpen in action, said it has allowed New York's mayor to communicate quickly with his aides. But he said the design of an office is largely symbolic - in Gray's case, sending a message that the city is heading back to a more formal way of doing business.

"The more important thing is to signal to the organization through your policies and your own leadership that you value innovation," Light said. "It doesn't matter whether it's a bullpen or a corner office, it's what's coming out of that office."

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