Albtret P. Russo, named by Mayor Walter E. Washington Tuesday to head the city's troubled Department of Human Resources, is a survivor - a cautious, meticulous bureaucrat who has labored for years in the shadow of political administrators.
After 14 years of patient and largely unniticed duties involving District of Columbia programs, Russo has risen to one of the most difficult and political jobs in city government.
Russo's permanent appointment came later he had held the position since last December when his predecessor, Joseph P. Yeldell, was suspended under accusations that he abused his authority. Russo now has full authority for 200 programs that serve 1 of every 5 city residents.
DHR also spends almost one-third of the city's $1.2 billion annual budget and hires 10,000 employees to work in 300 different locations.
The same unquestioning loyalty to his superiors and tenacious attention to small tasks that kept Russo afloat amid the departures of his more outspoken and visible predecessors is credietd with winning him the mayor's approval for the top DHR position.
Russo, 57, came to the District in 1961 after 13 years as a public administrator in Rhode Island. He took the deputy's job under Winifred G. Thompson, director of the old Department of Public Welfare. Thompson resigned over disagreements with Yeldell shortly after Yeldell replaced Phillip J. Rutledge, the first DHR director, in 1971.
In his seven months as acting DHR chief, Russo has refused determinedly to compare himself to the earlier directors, and he repeatedly stressed his obedience to the mayor's wishes.
Even some of Russo's strongest supporters for his ascent to the top DHR job have said they think he is taking on an impossible job.
In addition to the enormous administrative undertaking of running DHR, Russo has inherited numerous problems that originated during Yeldell's turbulent five-year directorship.
DHR faces at least seven major lawsuits charging neglect, violation of rights and denial of adequate care to its alcoholic, sick, elderly, mentlly retarded and indigent clients, among other groups.
Dozens of external reports and studies have identified managerial problems in the agency, and many of them ar unresolved.
The department also is under constant scrutiny an often has been penalized by federal agencies that finance and set standards for many of DHR's programs and facilities.
"I still think it (DHR) is probably unmanageable,"?said City Council member Polly Shackleton, who chairs the Councel's committee on human resources and aging. Shackleton lobbled strongly for Russo's permanent appointment but said yesterday that she thinks he has taken on a "ghastly mess."
Russo insists that "the problems we face today are not much different than those faced by Mr. Yeldell or his predecessor, Mr. Rutledge." The mayor's announcement, Russo said, does not " change the direction I or ma colleagues have taken and will take."
If Russo has any long-range goals for DHR or larger views on how it should operate, he refuses to make them known.
Under repeated questioning yesterday from reporters at his regular weekly news conference, an innovation that sharply contrasts with Yeldell's embattled press relations, Russo insisted that his goals are "to address the problems we have now and what ever problems develop in the future."
Although je said yesterday that delegation of authority to DHR program managers is his top priority as director, Russo has been criticized by subordinates for rigidity and attention to minor details of agency operation.
Russo, a bachelor, spends weekends visiting DHR's far-flung foster homes, institutions and clinics. One program person calls that Russo's "bird-dogging habit."
Russo spends long evenings working in his District Building office and often telephines aides with instructions or complaints. Recently Russo has been checking the punctuality of some employees by telephong their offices to see that they arrive for work on time. This tactic has drawn private complaints from some employees.
Russo apparently had little if any competition for the DHR post. "I don't know that I seriously considered anyone else," the mayor said.
The task of running such a giant agency may be short-lived for Russo if some Council members, including Shackleton, have their way. Shackleton said she anticipates removal of some agencies' functions from DHR when the Council acts on recommentations of a task force now studying reorganization of the agency.