Jaffe: Chores for Nat Gandhi's next five years

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

The D.C. Council's finance committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday to begin the legislative process that is almost certain to approve Dr. Natwar Gandhi to serve his third five-year term as the city's chief financial officer.

It's more likely to be a coronation than a confirmation. Titans of the business community such as the Board of Trade's Jim Dinegar, Barbara Lang of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and John Hill with the Federal City Council are scheduled to testify in laudatory terms. Committee Chair Jack Evans is one of Gandhi's staunchest supporters.

Thus, a coronation.

Should it be that easy? Will the city council exercise a scintilla of oversight? Even a Gandhi fan like myself believes Dr. Gandhi has some explaining to do.

Mayor Vince Gray was too weak to take out Gandhi, even if he had wanted to. Federal prosecutors have bagged two city council members and are drawing a bead on the mayor. Keen observer Marion Barry went so far as to declare, "The city is in serious trouble, credibility trouble."

Which leaves Nat Gandhi as a pillar of stability. The 71-year-old accountant was born in a village in India, got his doctoral accounting degree at Louisiana State University, rose through the ranks of the General Accounting Office and agreed to run D.C.'s tax office in 1998. The federal Financial Control Board created an independent CFO; Gandhi has held the post since 2000.

In many ways, Gandhi can wield more power than any other city official. He's the financial face of D.C. to Wall Street and Capitol Hill. He collects taxes and approves revenues. Want to build a ballpark? Need Gandhi's green light. Want to use funds from foundations to finance the teachers' contract? Need Gandhi's approval. Asking for a tax break to build a hotel? Ask Gandhi.

Mind you, Gandhi has delivered balanced budgets and high bond ratings for the past decade. Is that enough to give him another five years?

Short answer is yes. After a decade at the helm of an office that handles billions of dollars, Gandhi might get blamed for a few failures. Former Councilman Bill Lightfoot and activist Marie Drissel pointed out eight reasons why Gray should have conducted a nationwide search for his next CFO. They blamed Gandhi for many shortcomings but failed to make a direct hit.

My rap on Gandhi has to do with his focus. Since 2000 he has been managing up. He impresses Wall Street and Congress with his balanced budgets and surpluses. He has built a strong, professional staff. Now it's time for Nat Gandhi to turn his bean counters loose within the D.C. agencies. Enforce greater financial discipline. Investigate public schools, health care and public housing. D.C. spends more than half its $10 billion in local funds on education and human services. In round numbers, that's about $25 billion in Gandhi's last term. Has it educated kids, helped the poor, healed the sick?

Time for Gandhi to track down the money. We know it's spent. But, Dr. Gandhi, is it spent well?

Tall order but a great legacy.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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