Two years ago, Richard Monteilh came to Washington from Atlanta to revive a comatose District program that provides money to city neighborhoods for more housing, job training and other renewal projects. And that he did.
Monteilh took over the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and succeeded in pushing millions of unspent federal grants into District neighborhoods. He also engineered the city's first comprehensive development plan, which could help guide economic expansion for years.
But Monteilh, 55, also burned some bridges with his do-it-now intensity, clashing with Mayor Anthony A. Williams's staff and losing out on a bid for the top economic development position in the mayor's administration. And now he has resigned and is considering development jobs in public and private arenas. Today is Monteilh's last as director of the agency.
Monteilh's tenure offers a case study of an activist outsider who rejuvenated a government agency but couldn't win it over: a transplant that succeeded but triggered a rejection syndrome in some parts of the body.
His critique of the department he inherited is stinging, although he says there have been improvements.
"D.C. is a very good bet right now," Monteilh said in an interview. The city has "fabulous assets around which you can build."
"But the processes of this government are worse than any city I've worked in, and it stymies creative people because things just don't move. You have 50 people who can say 'no' and nobody who can say 'yes' and make it happen."
Lloyd Smith, a chairman of the newly formed City First Bank in the District, which is slated to receive a Department of Housing and Community Development grant, said of Monteilh: "He brought energy and creativity [to the department] that wasn't there before. It's the first time we've seen that kind of enthusiasm down there in years."
But Monteilh also wound up battling his own staff over what he calls inaccurate budget reports that caused the department to promise more money to community organizations last year than it actually had to spend.
Close observers in and out of D.C. government say that Monteilh's stint has important lessons for the District, demonstrating both the city's potential for progress and its government's penchant for self-inflicted wounds.
Monteilh (pronounced "Mon-tay") first worked in Washington in 1971 as an intern in the administration of then-Mayor Walter Washington. Other assignments followed in the District; Newark; Savannah, Ga.; Burbank, Calif.; and Atlanta.
To overcome the entrenched culture at the agency, Monteilh hired outsiders like himself to fill key positions. He lured Marc Weiss, a special assistant to former Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros, to be his senior adviser and brought in a small team from the then-Price Waterhouse accounting firm to dig into the Department of Housing and Community Development's operations.
When he arrived, Monteilh said, "we couldn't figure out who had what pieces of paper and where anything was." A swollen staff contained so many artificial titles that, Monteilh said, individuals' responsibilities were hidden in bureaucratic fog.
He required 70 employees to submit resignations--nearly half of the staff--and rehired just 35.
To carry out his two major initiatives--the awards of federal grants and the strategic plan--he essentially bypassed the agency's staff.
Before Monteilh's arrival, millions of dollars of federal grants were sitting unspent at the department, which was suffering through a revolving door of directors. Critics say that grant decisions were delayed so that funds would be available for politically favored projects.
Monteilh invited developers and community and nonprofit groups to apply for the unspent federal grants.
He then convened a panel of outside experts to review the proposals and, last year, approved $70 million in grants, about half of which hadn't been allocated the year before, officials said.
With Weiss, Monteilh also assembled a task force of several hundred business and community leaders to create the strategic economic development plan, which was issued six months ago. The task force is meeting today to review progress of the plan.
Said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4): "His most important contribution was the effort to get more development dollars into the community. It led to a real engagement of citizens in thinking about what they wanted to see in their own neighborhoods."
But Monteilh was tripped up by what he says were the erroneous budget reports from his own department. In fact, he had about $30 million less to spend on the 1998 community grants than he had been told, he and other officials say. As a result, part of the 1999 budget had to be used to cover grants issued last year. Some grants have not yet been paid.
"No one really knew how much money was available" last year, Monteilh said.
The budget issues contributed to a rough beginning between Monteilh and Williams (D) and his staff after the election, and Williams bypassed Monteilh for a top position.
Williams said that "Richard's done good things for the District." But he added: "In every government, you build a team. You put people in place who do things the way you want things done at the pace you want."
CAPTION: Today is Richard Monteilh's last as director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.