Five women are seeking the directorship of the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection, a post that will become vacant if the Senate confirms the appointment of the present director, Edith Barksdale-Sloan, to the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission.
Sloan, who has been director of the city agency for two years, was named by President Carter last fall to fill a vacancy on the consumer commission. The appointment is now being considered by the Senate Commerce Committee.
The city director's post is filled by mayoral appointment.
Two of the candidates are aides to Sloan: General Counsel Bettie J. Robinson, who has been with the city agency since October 1976, and before that served for two years as a trial attorney with the federal consumer commission, and Senior Program Analyst Dorothy J. Kennison, a sociologist who has been with the D.C. consumer office since September 1976.
The others are Ruth Bates Harris, who gained national attention when she was fired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after she helped author a report condemning NASA's minority hiring program; Mary Bunting Wyatt, a former Howard University law professor, and Theressa H. Clark, now working in consumer protection for the United Planning Organization and former acting director of the D.C. Office of Consumer Affairs, predecessor of the present agency.
All of the candidates except Clark answered questions during public interviews held recently by the consumer agency's advisory committee. Clark said she did not attend because she did not know about the interview session until the afternoon before it was scheduled and could not break a speaking engagement.
The committee, whose 10 members are appointed by Mayor Walter E. Washington, has recommended one of the candidates to the mayor as their choice for the post, said Ann W. Brown, committee chairman.
In addition, the mayor "will be receptive to suggestions from other sources," said a spokesman in his office.
Robinson told advisory committee members she would try to put more money and staff time into investigating consumer complaints if she is named to the director's job.
"A lot of money is spent (on administration) that could be spent on delivering consumer services. We should be hiring more investigators and more lawyers," she said. "We have 52 people" working for the consumer agency and nine of them are assigned to investigate consumer complaints. "If you have 52 people and only nine of them on investigations, you don't really expect to reduce the backlog."
Robinson, who said, "I'm not just a lawyer, I'm a consumer lawyer," said she would emphasize programs to educate citizens about dangerous products and how to turn to the consumer protection agency for help.
Kennison also discussed the backlog of consumer complaints that are awaiting attention.
"I see a need for sharpening the skills of the investigators so that the legal staff does not have to do. . . additional investigating," she told the committee. "We have a backlog because many of our investigators didn't know what to do about some aspect of a case."
About 20 investigators are CETA workers who required extensive training after they were put on the staff, she said. CETA is the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which provides federal grants to employers who are willing to train workers.
The consumer agency now has a backing of more than 1,700 complaints, most of them in some stage of investigation, Kennison told a reporter later. She said the agency has launched an "accelerated effort" to reduce the backlog to the "low hundreds" within 60 to 90 days.
Another 130 cases have been forwarded by investigators to the agency's legal staff for review. General Counsel Robinson said 90 of these have been assigned to staff members for study.
In response to a question from the small audience, made up chiefly of community activists and representatives of labor groups and the Gray Panthers, a senior citizens' organization, Kennison said she is "sensitive" to the needs of low-income citizens because she comes from a poor background.
"I see a need to analyze gaps in legislation and a need to introduce new legislation (in areas) where consumers get ripped off the most, such as in layaways and carrying charges," she said.
Harris said if she became director she would consider herself an "advocate of the consumer. . . but one must not be so far overboard that you ignore the concerns of business."
She said she believes there is a need to educate consumers about their rights and added that she enjoys "working with low-income groups. I don't talk down to them."
Harris was the highest-ranking woman in NASA when she and two aides presented a report saying that the agency's record in hiring women and minorities was the worst in the federal government. She was rehired nearly a year later after her dismissal was the subject of three congressional hearings and drew protests from more than 50 civil rights, community action and federal employee organizations.
Wyatt, now vice chairwoman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A, said she believes she is qualified for the director's post in part because "I have taught commercial law, and that's where consumer laws come from."
She said she is a veteran of the civil rights protests of the '60s and as a law student in 1968 helped "get people released from jail during the riots" that followed the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to teaching, she has authored papers on legal aspects of several types of medical research. In response to a question, Wyatt said her administrative experience was gained chiefly on several projects where she worked as a volunteer.
The advisory committee is composed of representatives of businessmen and consumer groups.