D.C. can’t af­ford CFO ‘yes man’

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - DEB­O­RAH SIM­MONS

In 1995, Mar­ion Barry was mayor of the Dis­trict of Columbia, and he ap­pointed An­thony A. Wil­liams chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer as the city wal­lowed in red ink. In 2012, Vin­cent C. Gray is mayor, and on Tues­day, he ap­pointed Mr. Wil­liams to hold the chair­man’s seat on the D.C. Tax Re­vi­sion Com­mis­sion, which will pro­pose tax in­creases.

In the in­ter­ven­ing years, the Dis­trict be­came far bet­ter off with Mr. Wil­liams as chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer (1995-1998) and with Mr. Wil­liams as mayor (19992007). He was pen­ny­wise and, with his CFO suc­ces­sor, kept the city in the black.

Now, in­ter­est­ingly, Mr. Gray has dusted off Mr. Barry’s play­book, “Show Me the Money,” and ze­roed in on its clos­ing chap­ter, “I’m the Man.”

In­deed, Mr. Gray be­gan mak­ing his Barry-like moves as soon as he took of­fice in Jan­uary 2011. But with a March 1 let­ter to Nat­war M. Gandhi, the cur­rent CFO and Mr. Wil­liams’ suc­ces­sor, he made a wrong turn, say­ing he was per­plexed, both­ered and be­wil­dered by the CFO’S math.

Mr. Gray, like Mr. Barry with Mr. Wil­liams, in­sti­gated a public spat, ques­tion­ing whether the CFO uses a cloudy dol­lar-store crys­tal ball to de­vise rev­enue pro­jec­tions that led city hall to lay off work­ers and cut spend­ing last year. The mayor also ques­tioned Mr. Gandhi’s re­cent pro­jec­tions, which say the city is poised to re­ceive an ad­di­tional $35 mil­lion in rev­enue next fis­cal year.

In­stead of pat­ting him­self on the back for do­ing what needed to be done — spend­ing less money — Mr. Gray is treat­ing the CFO like a po­lit­i­cal hack.

Mr. Gandhi’s job is not to serve the mayor or dish pound­fool­ish rec­om­men­da­tions; his job is to take a prag­matic ap­proach to the winds of eco­nom­ics, an apo­lit­i­cal ap­proach that re­sulted in the Dis­trict re­main­ing largely un­scathed dur­ing the na­tional eco­nomic cri­sis de­spite reck­less spend­ing.

Mr. Gandhi is hardly a feath­er­weight and can eas­ily hold his own in the funny-money ring of D.C. pol­i­tics.

Af­ter all, the CFO ef­fec­tively de­manded CFO ver­i­fi­ca­tion of for­mer schools Chan­cel­lor Michelle A. Rhee’s gung-ho ed­u­ca­tion-re­form plan that in­cluded out­side fun­ders who promised to plop phil­an­thropic dol­lars into the city’s kitty.

And just like Mr. Wil­liams, who ties his bow ties tighter than the laces of those preschool­ers Mr. Gray in­sists on ed­u­cat­ing, Mr. Gandhi doesn’t raise his moist­ened point­ing fin­ger to see which way the wind is blow­ing.

In his March 9 re­sponse to Mr. Gray, Mr. Gandhi laid out a fun­da­men­tal rule of thumb of his job as an in­de­pen­dent CFO: His fore­casts are data-driven and not based on “gov­ern­men­tal spend­ing needs and pri­or­i­ties.”

Mr. Barry chided his own CFO be­cause Mr. Wil­liams did not play pol­i­tics. The fed­eral law and the D.C. fi­nan­cial con­trol board, which were writ­ten and cre­ated by Congress and signed into law by Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, had Mr. Wil­liams’ back.

In fact, one of the first things the con­trol board did was ig­nore the fun­ny­money and lib­eral-spend­ing prac­tices that Mr. Barry and the coun­cil were play­ing with and re­place them with cold, hard data of its own mak­ing.

Mr. Gandhi, who was in the tax of­fice at the time, played a key role in rewrit­ing the Barry play­book, too.

Now Mr. Gray wants to tar and feather Mr. Gandhi, whose five-year CFO term will end in June with­out a reap­point­ment.

To be sure, Mr. Gandhi’s ten­ure is tar­nished with $50 mil­lion in thiev­ery con­ducted mostly at the hands of peo­ple un­der his em­ploy. But when Congress needs a re­spectable and hon­est di­ag­no­sis of the city’s fis­cal health, they take Mr. Gandhi at his word, as they did Mr. Wil­liams.

For Mr. Gray to look at Mr. Gandhi’s fore­casts through a lens darkly raises the specter of not new math, but bad math.

Surely, the mayor does not want to go down that road.

The city was res­ur­rected be­cause Mr. Wil­liams and Mr. Gandhi were not “yes” men.

If that’s what Mr. Gray wants in a CFO, a “yes” man, then the city is headed for Barry lite.

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