Mayor, Council Praise City Manager
By David A. Vise
Mayor Marion Barry and D.C. Council members met yesterday with the city's new chief management officer and came away convinced that Camille C. Barnett is serious about working closely with them to improve services.
Barnett told city officials that she will maintain offices both at One Judiciary Square, where the city's elected officials work, and at One Thomas Circle, where the D.C. financial control board is located. Although Barnett reports to the presidentially appointed control board, council members said she emphasized her respect for the democratic process and her intention to communicate regularly with elected officials.
"I was extremely pleased with our meeting, and I'm very optimistic about her ability to perhaps even serve as a bridge between elected officials and the control board," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). "She has a standard city manager approach. She does not see herself as an overseer. She said, `I cannot improve customer service if I don't understand who the customer is, and elected officials are the people who best understand that.' "
Barry, who met with Barnett in his office, said that they had a "very good meeting" and that he pledged to work with her to improve the troubled District's management and operations in the months ahead. The mayor said, however, that the complex structure imposed by Congress will make it extremely difficult for city officials to improve services rapidly.
Last summer, Congress transferred control over nine major city agencies -- including those charged with fixing streets, picking up trash, providing health care for the poor and incarcerating felons -- from the mayor to the control board. The board, in turn, hired Barnett to serve as the top day-to-day manager, giving her the power to hire and fire agency heads and implement far-reaching management reforms this year.
Barry said that having the control board and Congress second-guessing spending and other decisions by locally elected officials is undemocratic and undermines the process of reform.
"I'm going to do all I can to make it work, notwithstanding the fact that I despise this structure taking democracy away from us," the mayor said. "It is going to be very challenging for all of us. It is the worst government structure in America."
D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large), who introduced Barnett to the entire council during an administrative meeting yesterday morning, said she and Barnett have discussed the city's mind-boggling budget process and the need to improve the morale of the work force. Cropp said she found Barnett to be confident, but not cocky, and eager to learn more about her new home town.
Cropp and others said they were impressed that Barnett is holding one-on-one meetings with council members to form relationships and learn more about the inner workings of the city government. Cropp also said she was pleased to see Barnett in attendance at numerous citywide events Monday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
Some activists and ministers have criticized the control board's decision to hire Barnett, who is white, to run the majority-black city's government. Cropp, who spoke at the citywide King celebration, said she saw Barnett and her husband in attendance and was thinking of the city's newest executive as she recalled King's message.
"I thought his words were just so appropriate," Cropp said. "We can't judge someone by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I was thinking about her."
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said Barnett has conducted herself in a savvy fashion during her first days on the job and has given off some "positive signals."
"The fact she is going to have an office in this building is a good sign," Patterson said. "She has a political sense to meet early with council members. . . .
"She understands she has taken on a pretty difficult job, and I think she seems up to the task. If she is going to carry out the duties she accepted, it is incumbent on her to work with council members. We have information she needs, and she will have information that we need."
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that Barnett has a lot to learn and that she asked many good questions during their meeting.
Evans said they discussed problems in the police and fire departments and in corrections, areas he oversees.
Evans also said they discussed the need to get away from platitudes about the District and focus on the effective and efficient delivery of basic city services, including trash pickup, public safety and schools.
"I was very impressed with her," Evans said. "She strikes me as a no-nonsense, caring individual who is enthused about her job."
But there are those who oppose Barnett and see her as an extension of the congressionally created control board. Along the way, she will have to learn more about who will cooperate with her, who will oppose her and how to overcome the resistance to change, Evans said.
"Being new in this city is difficult," he said. "I think she understands that."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company