RESIDENTS OF DALLAS, Houston, and Austin may remember Camille Barnett as a city official who spent more time tending to her public image than to their public services. For example, despite her good press clips, she resigned as Austin city manager in 1994 after a $31 million accounting error was discovered at a city-owned hospital. Now the citizens of Washington, D.C., are making Barnett’s acquaintance—and it hasn’t been a very pleasant experience.
Last December Barnett was hired as D.C.’s first chief management officer, a $155,000-a-year position created after Congress shifted most of the mayor’s powers to the city’s unelected financial control board. Barnett, who reports to the control board, was charged with overseeing about 80 percent of D.C. government’s day-to-day operations. The idea was that the self-described “dragon lady,” who holds a Ph.D. in public administration from the University of Southern California, would bring a tough attitude and a raft of managerial skills to a famously dysfunctional bureaucracy. But so far, she doesn’t have much to show for her efforts. Democratic mayoral candidate Tony Williams says he’s disappointed in Barnett; GOP candidate Carol Schwartz calls her missteps “apalling” and “frightening.”
Part of the problem is that city services like garbage collection, which were a wreck when Barnett took over, are still in shambles. Her critics attack her for talking a good game while failing to deliver, though she mounts a spirited if jargony defense. “Our track record in terms of producing visible results for citizens is quite good,” she says. More troubling than charges of underperformance, however, are recent episodes that suggest Barnett’s office may be guilty of the kind of mismanagement that drove the feds to take over the city in the first place. In early August the control board canceled an $893,000 no-bid consulting contract that Barnett had arranged for one of her old Texas chums, Cheryl Dotson, who had been working as her interim deputy. According to the chairman of the control board, the $893,000 contract would have exceeded the total revenue of Dotson’s Houston-based firm last year. Moreover, Barnett had not sought the control board’s approval for the contract—a requirement for any noncompetitive contract worth more than $500,000. “It was a mistake,” Barnett concedes, “but I don’t think that the control board thinks it was anything more than a procedural problem.”
Just weeks after that controversy erupted, Michael Hernon, the city’s former chief technology officer, ignited another one. He accused Barnett of firing him for refusing to endorse a $50 million no-bid contract with Plano’s Electronic Data Systems—a company with which Dotson had a relationship. Barnett and Dotson insist that Hernon is a disgruntled ex-employee, but D.C.’s inspector general is looking into the allegations. The FBI and the General Accounting Office are also investigating Barnett’s office on other procurement-related matters.
All of the scrutiny appears to be taking a toll on those around Barnett. Several of the high-priced consultants she hired, including Dotson, have departed, and some observers wonder if Barnett might soon do the same. “If you had to give her a grade, she’d get a big, fat F,” says community activist Dorothy Brizill. “I’m taking bets as to whether she lasts until January.”