Mayor Marion Barry, blaming what aides described as negative press coverage for his sagging public image and concerned about alleged news leaks, closed the office of his press secretary yesterday.
The shutdown of the press office was prompted by the mayor's anger over news reports in recent days focusing on his use of a chauffeured automobile at a time when he was cutting back chauffeur services for other city employes as a means of reducing city spending.
In one of those articles, acting mayoral press spokesman Kwame Holman was quoted as saying Barry needed a chauffeured car because "having a driver allows the mayor to do paperwork, make telephone calls or gather his thoughts while in the car." Barry himself had been quoted as saying almost the same thing three days earlier.
Nevertheless, the sources said, Barry stormed into Holman's office Monday morning and ordered the press office closed. Holman responded by offering a letter of resignation yesterday, sources said.
By yesterday evening, following hours of meetings between the mayor and his top aides, it was unclear who was speaking for the city's chief executive.
Alan F. Grip, director of the city's Communications Office and officially the public relations chief for city department heads, insisted that the press secretary's office was not closed. "The [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
However, Holman -- his files packed in boxes, his secretary transferred to Barry's personal staff -- said he could not say if he was still press spokesman for Barry. "The answer to that question is part of the discussion that is still going on," Holman said. "I can't comment on it."
Yesterday's controversy was the latest in a series of public and semi-public feuds within the 18-month-old administration over what some mayoral advisers consider a major factor in Barry's slumping political posture -- his sensitivity to a news media he views as repeatedly negative in its reports.
In January, Florence Tate, who had served as press secretary for Barry since he took office, resigned, in large part, sources said, because she lost out in a battle to encourage a more cooperative policy toward the press. Holman served as Tate's assistant and has acted as press spokesman since her departure.
In the months since, which often have been marked by what aides have considered public relationsd snafus, the administration has become more paranoid about the news media, one source said. This spring, for example, is an elaborate effort to prevent reports of budget-cutting proposals before the officials announcement, Barry sent details of the plans to the homes of City Council members at 2 a.m.
The practical effect of yesterday's closing of the press office will be to prohibit reporters from freely visiting offices along the corridor leading to the former press office, which is three doors from the entrance to the mayor's own office. Many of Barry's special assistants occupy those offices, and in the past, Barry often has been perturbed by reporters' easy access to these aides.
Even though no official announcement was made of the apparent change in press spokemen yesterday, the effect of the change was evident. Early in the day, reporters were referred to Grip instead of Holman for general comments from the mayor. A receptionist at the door leading to the corridor told reporters they were no longer allowed there.
Barry himself, when he encountered a reporter from the Associated Press in the corridor, said angrily, "Get out of the hallway, you're not supposed to be in here."
Numerous sources said yesterday that Barry is now leaning toward making Grip the sole spokesman for the administration, a move that some top advisers to the mayor consider an effort to establish tighter control on the flow of information -- perhaps to the detriment of Barry, who campaigned for mayor on the promise of an open administration.
"Insofar as Alan Grip represents the lock-the-door, pull-down-the-shade approach," one senior administration official said privately yesterday."We're going to catch hell."
Grip, a former radio reporter and city council aide, has more journalistic for the job." Grip's office in the District Building also is three floors below the mayor's office and the offices of the mayor's chief aides.
A reorganization of public relations activities and the strengthening of Grip's role actually was considered before yesterday, but mostly as a cost cutting move. The consolidation of the press office with the communications office was recommended to Barry last week by his public relations advisers as a way to avoid filling the $37,000-a-year press secretary position. a
Those advisers include advertising executive David Abramson, C & P Telephone Co. executive Delano E. Lewis and public relations specialist Ofield Dukes.They repeated their recommendation at a meeting with the mayor on Monday.
But by that time according to several sources. Barry was already enraged by the latest press report on chauffeurs and determined to remove the press secretary's office from his suite.