'Doctor' is eager for healing in D.C. Control: Washington's first chief management officer, Camille C. Barnett, is eager to restore the district to financial health.

January 14, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Camille C. Barnett's office is bare. The phone isn't ringing. The computer is turned off. The books are stacked neatly. She sits behind a clean desk, next to an empty trash can, in a quiet room. Waiting.

She is, at the moment, a bit like an emergency-room surgeon before the doors bust open with the first bleeding body of the night. What comes next is the patient: In this case, the District of Columbia's battered government, a trauma patient if ever there was one.

Tomorrow, she will start practicing triage, taking charge as the district's first-ever chief management officer. As she settles in her office, she betrays nothing so much as unflinching self-confidence.

"I'll always have a close working relationship with the people who are making policy," says Barnett, 48, her voice harboring a lot of Southern twang and very little doubt. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could make things better."

It is a post, some say, that turns Barnett into this city's unofficial mayor. She assumes control of at least 80 percent of the day-to-day city operations -- duties that the federal government stripped from Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. last year.

But as a manager of city affairs, Barnett is anything but a Barry clone. An outsider from Texas, where she drew her share of critics, she goes by "Doctor" for her Ph.D. and has written warm-and-fuzzy guides to good government. Her arrival is greeted with optimism by some city dwellers, but not by all.

Already, her critics are out. Some focus on Barnett's race, calling the selection of a white woman insulting to a town whose residents are mostly African-American. Others question the constitutionality of bestowing so much power in a non-elected official. Still more wonder whether this woman with few Washington connections could possibly navigate a bureaucracy that has undone so many others.

Barnett, meanwhile, remains unflappable. She is used to being what people don't anticipate, a role she says has worked in her favor in more than 23 years in city management.

"I've always been something different than what people expected -- there's always been some reaction to me, whether it's my gender, my race, my age, my approach," says Barnett, a tall woman with a handshake as strong as a wrestler's. "But it's an asset. When you're not a traditional hire, you can do things that aren't possible otherwise."

In some ways, Barnett's style is a bit contradictory. She calls herself "the dragon lady" but seldom loses her temper in public. She has condemned city officials at news conferences, but then called for Zen meditative music at good-government seminars.

Not long ago, a friend gave Barnett a gift -- a box of nails with a card labeled, "For breakfast." But in the eat-you-up-alive world of municipal government, Barnett's steely ways are checked with a measure of charm and poise. If Barnett eats nails every morning, then she probably wipes her mouth daintily with a cloth napkin when she's done.

That combination of toughness (as a city manager in Austin, she once ended a combative radio interview by announcing on the air, "I have a city to run, so goodbye") and regular-gal good nature (she used to tool around with personalized license plates sporting her nonsensical childhood nickname, "Pie Baby") could disarm her critics and win her admirers in the district job.

"She has the ability to make compassionate -- but tough -- decisions," says Joyce Ladner, a member of the Washington control board, a federally appointed panel charged with saving the city from financial ruin. "Even when she's working the trenches, she has that human touch."

For at least the next five years, Barnett is supposed to supervise nine major departments, a $4.5 billion budget and a 27,000-person district work force -- all duties that the federal government took from Barry in a leadership shake-up in August. Answering to the control board, Barnett will play a key role in shaping agency leadership and budgets.

Since her appointment by the control board last month, critics have grumbled. Barry wasted no time denouncing her $155,000-a-year salary, which is $65,000 higher than his. If, as expected, Barry runs for re-election this year, the non-elected Barnett could serve as a useful foil for his campaign, symbolizing just how much self-governance the city has lost.

Barry's allies have criticized Barnett's appointment in racially charged terms.

"It's a smack in the face," Florence Pendleton, the city's non-voting senator, said of the selection of a white woman for the job in a city where two-thirds of the voters are black. "It may be in six months I'll say this was the greatest appointment, but at this juncture I thought it was insensitive. It just seems like more colonialism."

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