D.C. can’t afford CFO ‘yes man’
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.