Mayor Anthony A. Williams has asked the District's chief contracting officer to resign, upsetting some city, community and business leaders who say the job is supposed to be independent and free of political interference.
Richard P. Fite, who has told some associates that he intends to leave the contracting post, did not respond to a phone call for comment yesterday.
Acting City Administrator Norman Dong said the mayor "appreciates and recognizes the contribution that [Fite] has made, especially during difficult times." But, Dong said: "If we are not delivering, the mayor will make changes. It all comes back to performance and accountability."
Dong added that a "top-flight" replacement will be chosen soon.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who has worked closely with Fite in trying to repair the District's troubled contracting system, said the mayor ought to reconsider. She said Fite was appointed to the independent post for a five-year term that expires in 2002, and noted that the mayor lacks the authority to fire him except for cause.
"It would be an unfortunate move on the mayor's part," Patterson said. "I think [Fite] is doing an extraordinary job. I think folks in the private sector share that view."
The District has continued to have problems with procurement, including difficulty in purchasing trash trucks. Some agency heads have complained that it takes too long to get contracts approved.
Curtis Etherly, spokesman for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said several firms have contacted the business group to express concern about the mayor's move, since it seemed that Fite was making progress in professionalizing city contracting. "By all indications, Mr. Fite was moving in that direction," he said.
Although the District has a long way to go in improving its contracting system, Patterson said, Fite has maintained his independence despite pressure from the Williams administration.
When Williams (D) was the District's chief financial officer, Fite clashed with Dong--who then, as now, was an aide to Williams--over how to categorize a job-training program, Patterson said. Fite won the dispute, she said, and had the legally correct view. She also said Fite clashed with other Williams aides over a disability compensation program.
"If you ask me what is going on here, I would only say that people close to the mayor are well aware of the chief procurement officer's professionalism and playing by the rules," said Patterson, who sent the mayor a letter she said highlighted Fite's accomplishments, including saving an estimated $14 million through improved purchasing practices and reduced contract approval times.
Phyllis Campbell-Newsome--director of community relations for the Greater Washington Council of Agencies, a group of hundreds of nonprofit and social service organizations--expressed reservations over the mayor's actions.
"We are concerned that politics is once again involved in procurement, and that is disturbing," Campbell-Newsome said. "I'm afraid now that the people I represent will become cynical and less willing to work in partnership. . . . I feel like we are taking a step back."
Fite, a longtime Ford Motor Co. employee, was nominated to the procurement post in 1997 by then-Mayor Marion Barry, with the support of the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board. That October, the D.C. Council confirmed Fite as the city's first independent chief procurement officer.
Fite's appointment followed widely documented studies of the city's dysfunctional contracting system.