District Mayor Anthony A. Williams plans to appoint a Cabinet-level administrator to try to help resolve costly problems in four D.C. agencies that are being run by court-appointed receivers and guide those agencies back to city control.
Williams (D), frustrated by recent reports that foster parents and day-care providers have gone months without being paid by the city's child welfare system and that some mental health services are in shambles, said his new appointee could help the agencies prevent lapses in service.
"This would be a person reporting to me," Williams said during a 90-minute luncheon with Washington Post reporters and editors. "A high-ranking person who would work with our other people to see that our receivers are integrated with us and providing service . . . and managing our transition out of receivership."
Williams's remarks came a day after the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board warned in its annual report to Congress that because the city has limited say in how the agencies in receivership operate and spend their money, the agencies could be a drain on the city's recovery from near-bankruptcy.
The four agencies--corrections, public housing, mental health and Child and Family Services--are under court-ordered receivership because of massive problems while they were under the control of D.C. government. In its annual report, the control board said that only public housing and medical services for jail inmates have improved under receivership.
Williams agreed. "In some cases, frankly . . . the receivers aren't doing much better than the District was," he said.
During yesterday's luncheon, the mayor also reflected on his first 10 months in office. He touted the improvements his administration has made in a range of city services, cast his plan to make middle managers more accountable or fire them as necessary to improving government and expressed frustration with the racial tension fueled by critics who say he isn't doing enough for low-income blacks.
Williams acknowledged that part of his challenge in improving D.C. government is changing the culture created largely by former mayor Marion Barry, who inflated the city's payroll as a way to create jobs for minorities and a political power base for himself. Many of those people remain in D.C. government and privately have lashed out at Williams's efforts to make government more efficient--often casting them as an assault on blacks.
Williams said he is bothered by the emotional images conjured up by critics who said his plan to crack down on middle managers is an attack on single black women who hold such jobs in D.C. government.
"It does hurt, and you wonder how can they say this about me," Williams said. "And then I realize you have to be yourself and trust your own values you grew up with. That's all you can do."
Williams said that although there have been some setbacks in reorganizing agencies that have the most contact with the public, residents' response to the improvements has been rewarding.
"Now I hear from many, many people and get e-mail saying [D.C. workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles] are at least friendly and they have a different attitude, and they notice a change in how we're doing things," he said.
But recent problems with foster care and mental health programs represent a much larger challenge than cutting lines at the DMV.
Last week, advocates for the mentally ill and homeless in the District testified before U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. that the city's Commission on Mental Health--which Robinson put into receivership two years ago under psychiatrist Scott Nelson--was in worse shape than it was while under city control.
The advocates said that more mentally ill and homeless people roam the District's streets than ever before, that many D.C. group homes for the mentally ill are in terrible shape and that treatment is difficult to get.
Last month, nearly 100 foster parents of D.C. children threatened to return the children because the city's child welfare system was several months and millions of dollars behind in payments to them and day-care providers.
"I was about ready to cry," Williams--who as a child in California was in foster care before being adopted--said of his reaction to the complaints. "There are 3,000 [D.C.] kids in foster care, and 1,000 of those kids are under 10. This breaks your heart."
Ernestine F. Jones, the receiver for Child and Family Services, has blamed an antiquated computer for widespread financial troubles at her agency and said the agency has long been underfunded.
But Williams said that doesn't explain the agency's slow response to persistent complaints from foster parents and day-care providers who weren't being paid. He added that he was uncomfortable with the finger-pointing that ensued between Child and Family Services and his administration.
"I was very disappointed with the response of Child and Family Services [to the payment issue] and with our own people's response," Williams said. "Adults ought to be able to get it together and make these families whole."
Jones said she welcomes the help of the mayor's office but still considers herself firmly in charge of the agency.
"If the mayor is talking about appointing a high-level person to work with the receivers and report directly back to the mayor, I don't have any problem with that," she said. "We've been asking for that since I got here.
"But in terms of that person having authority over the receivership, that would not be possible in this case," Jones said. "I report to a U.S. federal judge. I do not report to the mayor.
Jones said she also is concerned that the mayor's announcement makes it appear that the "city is rescuing the receivers."
"From my perspective, the issues now being addressed by the city are issues that should have been addressed by the District of Columbia 10 years ago," she said. "Had they funded this agency like they should have, many of these problems would never have occurred."