At one point a few weeks back, D.C. Department of Human Resources Director Albert P. Russo wanted to highlight the surplus of unrequested free food on hand in city warehouses. So Russo served reporters some novel dishes made from the foods - including biscuits with cheese and chili sauce - and answered questions during his weekly press conference while peering out from behind a stack of Farina, purple plums, evaporated milk, peanut butter and Similac packages.
Then there was the time that Russo wanted to show off the improved facilities for the city's medical examiner. On that occassion he conducted his regular news briefing at the new D.C. morgue.
Russo has really tried.
There were days before the took over when top executives of DHR, including then-Director Joseph P. Yeldell, were carefully shielded from the news media, when well-paid DHR media liaison Susan Truitt screened reporters' queries and decided which would be answered and which would not. In those days, a virtual siege mentality existed between the press and the city's largest and frequently most troubled agency.
Now, ask Russo anything and, in his often overly formal and ornate language, he is likely to preface his response by saying something like, "I would be glad to answer that question fully, completely and without hesitation and to expand upon the merits of that decision as promulgated by DHR to your complete satisfaction."
And unlike Mayor Walter E. Washington and City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, who each announced plans for regular biweekly press conferences and then quickly abandoned them after one of two false starts, Russo has seldom failed to hold the once-a-week briefings with the media that he promised shortly after taking over DHR 15 months ago.
Still, largely as the result of mutually unmet - and perhaps unrealistic - expectations on both sides, Russo's weekly press conferences have become a frequently newsless chore for many members of the regular city hall press corps and even a drain on some of the top DHR executives who are usually trotted before the media to make some rather pedestrian announcements and are prepared to give detailed responses to questions that are seldom asked.
"You think it's bad on you, you should see what it does to us," one weary looking DHR administrator complained privately last week. "We spend the whole day in there with Russo. It's gotten so bad now that every Wednesday morning I wake up evil."
Russo disagrees, somewhat. "Man," he told a reporter, "it gets increasingly difficult from week to week to keep these news conferences going. But I am perservering, because I think there is value and there is merit to them.
"Based on my very, very careful review of this one year's experience and what the input and output has been, in my view what we are doing in these weekly press conferences should be replicated certainly by other major departments because I view these as the most vital operation we are undertaking to let the people in the city know what's happening in DHR. This is part of accountability."
The major problem appears to be that Russo, a lifelong government bureaucrat who envisions headlines in the ordinary workaday chores, believes it is news when DHR workers simply do their jobs and to a large extent the reporters disagree. This problem is compounded by the fact that many of Russo's announcements are ill-timed - like a year or so late - and much too routine, internal or complicated in nature to generate news stories.
For example, at one press conference last month, Russo released the results of a DHR study on re-entry patterns in the city's female detoxification program. The study had been completed in 1976 and first published during that same year. Why had it taken so long fof the study to be released to the press, Russo was asked?
"It's simply a question of trying to prioritize," he said. "We started these press conferences 15 months ago.As you well know, there are so many things happening in DHR it is just impossible sometimes to try to determine what individual significant developments ought to be taken up at a given news conference."
Russo then went on to give out copies of a 1974 comprehensive day care study prepared by DHR. "I want to say today at this news conference that DHR's commitment to the implementation of the recommendations of this comprehensive child care plan are just as intense today as they were when the plan was promulgated in 1974," Russo announced.
So what, a reporter seemed to suggest in a question that sought the news value of announcing that some of the 250 recommendations has been implemented. It is an "astonishing thing," Russo said. Despite the "constraints in terms of fiscal limitations, it is just amazing how many of the significant and crucial recomendations have been implemented to date," he said.
At still another point that day, Russo was asked what would be done to a DHR employee who had blown the whistle - in apparent error - on possible stockpiling irregularities at one of the agency's facilities.
"Send him to the hole, baby," chirped Bernard Phifer, DHR's third in command, in a barely audible suggestion from the back of the room.
Russo was more compassionate. The employee would be welcomed back to his job.
"If there are any other DHR employees who want to sing," Russo advised, "let them sing. We'll be glad to listen to their tunes."
Surely, a reporter suggested to Russo afterward, there must be some unseen value to these briefings. Russo agreed. None of his top aides was required to come unless announcements were being made about his or her agency, he said. And yet each week, more than two dozen DHR managers were coming to the about their agencies.
"It's not a waste of time. It's part of the DHR coalscence process," Russo said, "this bringing us together thing."