ISO: A CFO for Michelle Rhee
The Natwar Gandhi-Michelle Rhee showdown before the D.C. Council is a day away, but the District Chief Financial Officer was preparing Wednesday afternoon. Gandhi, at odds with the schools chancellor over financing of the proposed teachers' union contract, told a council committee that the reason he's had four deputies in three years overseeing DCPS finances is the "extremely difficult" work environment at the schools agency.
The assertion came during a rare open discussion of a personnel matter, this one involving former DCPS finance officer Noah Wepman, who left District government last year following his admission to the council that he didn't keep Gandhi in the loop on fiscal pressures in the school system.
Gandhi told council finance committee chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) that he always tries to find CFOs who are agreeable to the heads of the agencies he oversees. In this case, he said he tried to accommodate Rhee, who wanted Wepman. But he also cautions all of his new deputies, he said, not to forget who they answer to.
"I tell the new person, 'Look we both have chosen you. But, one, at the end of the day let's never forget you are part of the independent chief financial officers' office. And two, I get to fire you.
"And in the case of Mr. Wepman, in retrospect that was mistake...That is the reason he's no longer there. But I must say Mr. Chairman and Mr. Barry, it is not easy to find people to go the schools to work as chief financial officer, no matter what money you are willing to give them. And Friday's hearing is not going to make things any easier. Yes, there have been a series of CFOs there because it is an extremely difficult environment to work in. You are constantly at odds. And indeed, you are serving two masters," meaning Rhee and Gandhi.
Rhee's current CFO, George Dines, is serving on an interim basis.
Gandhi did not elaborate on the difficulties, although the implication is that the pressure to say "yes" to Rhee on spending issues is considerable.Wepman did not respond to e-mail requests for comment Thursday morning. Rhee replied to an email but did not respond to Gandhi's statement.
Evans said that the current conflicts not withstanding, the system of independent CFOs handling agency finances still serves the District well.
"I too get a lot of pushback on that," he said. "I only have to remind people what it was like 15 years ago when each agency head had its own CFO and, frankly, the information we got was absolutely ludicrous....I don't care who's in charge, if it's the most important or impressive people in the world in charge of these agencies. I don't trust them to be able to do their books right."
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