WHAT IS IT ABOUT the job of D.C. public health commissioner that keeps generating private abuses of public money for odd perks and excesses? Two successive holders of this office now have been the focus of some fascinating but not altogether impressive findings. First, a short trip down memory lane to this very office a little more than a year ago:
The city had a public health chief then who left the job after receiving an official reprimand from the U.S. Public Health Service. The reprimand came after it was reported that he was being paid by Howard University to teach on Fridays -- at the same time he was supposed to be on the job as commissioner. His peculiar sense of priorities had included requests for his own personalized firefighter's hat, coat, siren, flashing lights and expensive communications equipment for his remodeled office and for the new car that went with the job. Mayor Barry thanked him for his "dynamic leadership" and wished him farewell.
He was succeeded by Dr. Andrew McBride, the current health chief, who has just agreed to repay the city government for personal trips he took in his government car and for more than 200 long- distance calls -- a total of some $5,000 in bills -- he made from his car phone to an old friend in Minnesota. The friend, Charles E. Dickerson, was hired as a full-time consultant to the public health commission at $245 a day. Mr. Dickerson was paid a total of $38,788 for seven months of work -- though he continued to live in Minnesota and maintained a full-time job at Carleton College there.
The work, labeled "final consultative report," along with a supplemental report, was largely a multisyllabic ramble that a sophomore could have written but might have been ashamed to.
Now, after reports of all this appeared in this newspaper, even the responsible city authorities have thought better of the report, as well as of Dr. McBride's automotive telethons. Dr. McBride has agreed to repay the city government for personal trips taken in the government car and for some of those calls. Mr. Dickerson will get to work on another "final" consultant report.
While he is busy on that project, city officials might work on some demonstrable evidence of follow- through on their stated intention to tighten up spending practices and to improve monitoring of consulting contracts. It may be an old-fashioned remedy, but it helps to know who's working for whom -- live, in person, on the job -- and on what days.