Jeffrey DeWitt had me at “five-year-strategic-plan.” Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s nominee to become the next chief financial officer told the D.C. Council during his recent confirmation hearing he would produce such a document within the first 90 days of his tenure.
That pledge was refreshing. Admittedly, such things rock my wonky world. DeWitt’s soon-to-be-predecessor, Natwar M. Gandhi, never gave D.C. residents that kind of critical management mapping — even after sloppy internal controls allowed a midlevel employee to embezzle $48 million.
“The best way to lead people is to tell them where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” DeWitt told me last week during an interview about a range of fiscal issues.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), head of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which has oversight of the chief financial officer and his operation, said DeWitt probably will be confirmed next week. With strong leadership skills and solid management experience, he appears to be a good fit at this time in the city’s history.
DeWitt would command the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO), an almost 900-employee, $138 million independent agency that is a major power center in the D.C. government. As chief financial officer, he would be responsible for overseeing the city’s $12 billion budget and all investments. He would serve as the protector of its bond rating; control every fiscal officer, in every executive branch agency; sign off on payments — big or small — made by the government; and determine the “fiscal impact” of all public policy proposed by the council, ensuring that the city’s bank account is never overextended by the District’s elected spendthrifts.
“I don’t know what my management structure ultimately will be. My style will [emphasize] employee empowerment, accountability and listening to customers,” DeWitt said, offering an assessment that most issues raised by witnesses in his confirmation hearing boiled down to “customer service. I kept writing that in my notebook.” He said he spent last week meeting key city leaders and promised to conduct extensive community outreach.
“I’m going to run through a few pair of shoes,” he said, laughing.
If confirmed, DeWitt will walk into a minefield, one exacerbated by low staff morale and growing public frustration. For the past several years, the office has been in steady decline. But many of its problems have been masked by Gandhi’s exquisite political skills, which helped to fortify him against media criticism and calls for his resignation. A growing tax base, fueled by the arrival of new residents with large incomes, helped camouflage the waste, fraud and abuse in the office and other areas of the city’s financial structure. But recent high-profile news reports, including this paper’s investigation of the city’s predatory tax lien sale process, cracked the veneer and put a hot, white light on Gandhi and his team.
On the surface, Dewitt may seem too inexperienced. He has been the finance leader in Phoenix only since 2009, and the District’s budget and fiscal management infrastructure are far more extensive than that city’s. But drill down in his resume, and there is clear evidence he could be the cure for the office’s ailments. For example, he knows technology and could implement an integrated tax system, which Gandhi asserted seven years ago the District needed but couldn’t get installed.
In Phoenix, DeWitt has operated without multiple layers of bureaucracy and has proved himself an innovative problem solver. When nearly 50 percent of the city’s property tax base was wiped out during the Great Recession, he persuaded elected officials to alter policy in ways that kept them out of a fiscal abyss. Those experiences could result in a leaner, meaner finance machine in the District.
But first, “I have to get in and do a deep dive in every area of the OCFO,” said Dewitt, whose mild manner and nondescript physical appearance could cast him as a pushover. He assured me, however, that he “would not be shy” about standing up to elected officials if any of their decisions threaten to adversely affect the city’s fiscal health.
Despite that assertion of independence and toughness, DeWitt does seem to share one trait with Gandhi that makes me a tad uneasy: an overwhelming desire to work collaboratively. “I’m obligated to help elected officials get to their intent in a responsible way,” he said.
The execution of that aspiration may have resulted in the misdirection of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer under Gandhi, infusing it with politics, undermining its independence and reducing its effectiveness as guardian of taxpayers’ money. Hopefully DeWitt won’t find himself on that slippery slope.