District Mayor Anthony A. Williams's decision to replace the officers of a board that controls $5 million in city tourism money and sponsors the annual Taste of D.C. festival has angered the D.C. Council and strained relations between the mayor and some business leaders.
D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said she was perplexed by the mayor's move seven weeks ago to replace the officers of the D.C. Committee to Promote Washington. Although the 15 of the 30 committee members--and all six of its officers--serve at the pleasure of the mayor, Williams (D) had given little indication in previous meetings with the group that changes were imminent.
Jarvis and business community sources said part of the uproar stems from the way longtime officers of the group were notified of the changes--by fax, on a Sunday night. The changes, sources said, could hinder planning for the taste festival this fall, a $400,000 winter advertising campaign and next summer's print media campaign.
"The decision to appoint new executive committee members without contact with the existing members . . . defies explanation," said Jarvis, who serves on the committee and has council oversight of it.
A former executive committee member, who asked not to be identified, said: "You take all the people--heads of hotels, restaurant, banks and universities--and instead of having a ceremony where you thank them for their service, you fire them by fax without a thank you. I'm so appalled at what happened here."
Williams's spokeswoman, Peggy Armstrong, said the mayor left the process of replacing the committee officers to Douglas J. Patton, deputy mayor for economic development. She referred questions to him.
"I can take the blame," Patton said, adding that all the terms of the board members had expired except two of the six officers. "That doesn't mean people shouldn't have been thanked. . . . We probably should apologize about how it was done, but otherwise they were acting outside the legal spectrum."
Patton said the move also was an effort to make the board more diverse and make living in the District a requirement.
Jarvis, meanwhile, questioned the Williams administration's replacement of the committee's treasurer, banking executive Robert P. Pincus--a co-chairman of Williams's transition committee--with Miriam Townsend, a human resources administrator and auditor who has filed for bankruptcy twice.
"Clearly, proper homework was not done in the Office of the Deputy Mayor, in the Office of Planning and Economic Development, before the nominations were put before the mayor," Jarvis said.
Patton said he had looked over the resumes but was unaware of Townsend's background.
Townsend, 32, said she wasn't required to reveal her bankruptcy when she was asked to accept the treasurer's position. She said leaking that information was part of an effort to discredit the mayor. "It's totally malicious," Townsend said. "That was a personal decision, and it shouldn't take away from my competency to serve on the committee. It's not about me, there's a bigger picture here to make Mayor Williams's people look incompetent."
The committee's other new officers include Chairman Thornell K. Page, an acting deputy director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Vice Chairman William Mattes, an account executive with the Aaron Group. Valerie Pinson, a public affairs specialist, is first vice chairman, and Paula Spaulding, a human resources manager and the wife of mayoral appointee Vincent Spaulding, is the panel's new secretary.
Besides Pincus, the fired officers included lawyers Natalie O. Ludaway and Dana B. Stebbins; hotelier H.A. "Skip" Hartman, one of the first members named to the board in the mid-1980s; marketing and advertising executive David Abramson; and restaurant developer Paul J. Cohn, who raised funds for Williams after his mayoral candidate, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (Ward 2), was defeated in the Democratic primary.
Eric Peterson, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and a member of the committee, said in a letter to Williams that the new appointees "appear to lack an understanding of the [tourism] industry," adding that the removal of officers with high-profile positions in the hospitality industry and business community could complicate the District's effort to promote itself.
"I don't think there's anything malicious about it," Peterson said in an interview. "It's just one of the hazards of a new administration. . . . Our concern is when things like this happen, it raises questions in people's minds: Why did he do that? What's the real message? Is there a hidden agenda?"
Several members of the former executive board said privately they were told Williams wanted to replace appointees of former mayor Marion Barry with his own supporters. But they pointed out that while Page, the new chairman, was a member of Williams's transition team, he also is a self-described, longtime Barry supporter.
Page, who managed Barry's first campaign for the District's school board in the early 1970s, said that as a partner in the ownership of the Renaissance Hotel, he is well-qualified for his seat on the panel.
"One of the things people need to understand is, it's a new administration, you serve at the pleasure, and the new mayor wants his people," Page said.
The committee came under scrutiny in 1997 after reports that it had used $50,000 a year to fund an account that essentially was used by then-Mayor Barry to pay for special events and pet projects. The committee's officers closed the account after its existence was publicized.
Emily Vetter, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., said that she was "stunned" the Williams administration had not notified the committee's officers before removing them. But Vetter, who serves on the committee, said she is optimistic the committee can get down to its business of promoting the city.
"What happened, happened," she said. "I'm much more interested in moving forward."
CAPTION: Charlene Drew Jarvis said appointing new members without contacting existing ones "defies explanation."