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Fenty In Year 2: It's All About The Leadership

The mayor walks into Ben's Chili Bowl at breakfast time and it's the hat--the dashing black wide-brimmed number he sports through the cold months--that first catches diners' eyes.

Adrian Fenty is greeted with smiles, extended hands and a few quick requests for a word. This mayor is no Marion Barry: The room doesn't exactly fall silent. But Fenty is no Tony Williams either: He makes certain to exchange a couple of words with every potential voter in the eatery, and he's poised to act on each request, handing out business cards, passing reports of problems to the staffer at his side.

Fenty's first year was a whirlwind of activity, as anyone should have predicted from the man who ran as the twin-Blackberried dynamo of customer service. You don't hear much about any grand Fenty vision--that was Williams' thing--and you might even hear that this mayor is too caught up in the minutia of constituent service. The mayor would likely plead guilty to that charge.

Fenty rarely reaches for the symbolic. He's not one to preach about hope. Fenty's failed effort to get the U.S. Mint to put the slogan "Taxation without representation" on the District's quarter was just about the only time he has ventured into that sort of politics. (Slammed down fast and hard by the feds, Fenty now has a Plan B, the relatively tame "Justice for all." "In a way, it means the same thing," he offers. He has no regrets about his proposed slogan: "It was worth a try. Who knew what would trigger the end of apartheid?")

But this mayor is more comfortable talking about how to make things work. This, he seems to believe, is the true work of his mayoralty. He is a deeply impatient man. If the bureaucracy doesn't move as quickly as he wants it to, his instinct is to find an end run. So when he got frustrated in his efforts to reduce payroll by creating an early out for city workers, he went ahead on his own, to the consternation of council member Carol Schwartz. Fenty has all kinds of plans for reducing staffing--in some cases in big ways.

That's why he doesn't seem especially perturbed by warnings from chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi that the city faces a significant budget crunch. "If we can make five or six years of work happen in five or six months of time, we will get through this well," he says.

Confident that the District will neither sink nearly as far into the economic mess as most of the country nor take nearly as long to get back in the pink, Fenty looks over the past decade and concludes that "every time something slows here, something else picks up. You just can't compare the District to anywhere else."

Agitating for big reductions in force is not the same as making it happen. Last week, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee made her first big sweep of the broom, firing 98 central office employees. (Why did it take so long? Partly because when the D.C. Council came along with the mayor's plan, they embedded some protections for employees. And partly because the culture of the city as employer has been to give virtually everyone good evaluations, which makes it harder to then turn around and contend that some of those workers are very bad at their jobs.)

"The ability to fire at will is a tremendous boost to performance," Fenty says. "Because there's accountability. The #1 people who want the central administration held accountable are the teachers. You go into a school and the only air-conditioner that works properly is the one in the executive suite. The teachers and the children have not been the priority. That culture has to change."

He says he's not proposing to fire every marginal worker, but rather only the very worst. "There's another group that's never been challenged; that's a huge problem in this government."

At the Child and Family Services Agency, where Fenty fired six workers in the wake of the tragic murders of Banita Jacks's four children in Southeast, some employees say the firings have not inspired a new desire to work hard for the city, but rather resentment that some of their colleagues were essentially sacrificed at the altar of public opinion. Fenty rejects that reading of events, and says the most urgent need in the government is for rank and file workers to embrace their responsibilities.

But he says that change in the workplace culture won't happen without agency leaders who share his view of government as customer service provider. "It really comes down to leadership," he says. "The biggest thing I learned in my tour with the top five mayors was it all comes down to who's running the agencies--the ability to nip things in the bud and keep a small thing from becoming a big one."

But Fenty is sticking up for Gandhi, despite the enormously embarrassing, $50 million tax office scandal that seems to never stop growing. The mayor says the finance chief's decade of accomplishments "overwhelms what is still a very serious negative"--the failure to prevent or discover the wholesale stealing.

Fenty says that by accepting responsibility for the scandal and firing those directly supervising the accused workers, Gandhi has "sent a clear message that this behavior will not be tolerated." But some of the mayor's critics wonder how Gandhi and Child and Family Services director Sharlynn Bobo can continue atop their agencies given Fenty's strong emphasis on accountability.

The mayor says the answer is not to simply sack anyone whose department makes mistakes or suffers a scandal. He wants to see department heads who manage with urgency and passion, and he's willing to suffer errors in the service of creative, risk-taking management.

In addition to Rhee--about whom the mayor says, "What can you say about her? She goes to every school, she returns every phone call"--Fenty is especially proud of his hires to run the police, transportation, fire, DMV, and aging departments. What they have in common is a fierce devotion to reacting to problems at Internet speed--to fend off bad news stories, and to send the message that service is paramount. Agency heads who don't operate that way aren't going to keep their jobs--not because a particular decision was wrong, but because they don't react with the dynamism that Mayor Blackberry demands.

Please join me at noon today (Tuesday) for Raw Fisher Radio, right here on the big web site, where I'll talk about the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court arguments on the D.C. gun ban. My guests include people who have worked on both sides of the court battle. If you miss the live stream at noon, you can listen anytime to an archived podcast of the show at

By Marc Fisher |  March 11, 2008; 7:57 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Fenty...DCPS, DCRA and taxi protest. Handle this please...I voted for you for a me remember what that was.

Posted by: scrappyc20001 | March 11, 2008 8:46 AM

Come on, Fenty ran 32 minutes in the St. Patricks 8K. That is a good time. He can run rings around anybody in the D.C.Government or anybody on the Hill. He is great!

Posted by: Robin Ficker, Broker Robin Realty | March 11, 2008 8:56 AM

The key concerns I have about the Fenty administration are that it lacks cohesive and considered plans with regard to nearly every agency or function and that it's based almost exclusively on tactics based on speed for the sake of speed.

So much of what he and his executive staff do, like you say, is based on the minutia and fixing the minutia quickly. However, this tactic is like pulling a stitch from a hem, does not take into account the long-term implications of those increasingly short-term whims. The Mayor's tactics also show the absence of a clear and achievable vision that is a necessity for nearly all executives.

Eventually, the lack of an articulated, comprehensive vision and the tactic of expeditious action without a plan will erode the trust that he has with the public just as the general good will he enjoyed when first elected has eroded with some District employees and with the Council of the District of Columbia.

Posted by: uno000 | March 11, 2008 9:26 AM

Happy talk and hyping minor achievements will never hide the reality of life and living for many in the District of Columbia. Until the basic benchmarks and evidence of real results have been met, there is no reason to be impressed by anything mayor Adrian Fenty says. The bottom line question for every District citizen is: Are we individually better off, and a truly better city, than we were two years before?

Pretentious posturing, news photo ops and the phony façade of action are not evidence of real results or genuinely effective good governance. There will be real reasons to cheer when mayor Fenty's promises of public educational excellence, consistent fiscal competence, abundant local retail, genuinely affordable mixed-income housing, and a truly family-friendly environment comes to most of D.C.

A rising homeless population, random crime, hidden fiscal instability, crumbling infrastructure, and general socioeconomic disruption are signs of incompetent leadership and governance. The pretense of leadership is no substitute for real results.

Right now, this mayor and his appointees prefer to promote minor ineffective action and dubious accomplishments as proof of their competence or leadership. This is not an example of the "best practices" they allegedly learned from other cities.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia continues to become a bad bet for many mixed-income families that are finding their residency and revenue generating tax dollars are better appreciated in Maryland and Virginia, or elsewhere.

Dennis Moore, Chairperson -
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control Party

Posted by: Dennis Moore | March 14, 2008 10:05 AM

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