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Barras: Toward a more perfect CFO for D.C.

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,D.C. Council,Vincent Gray

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi apparently took the advice I offered last week. After sources told me his retirement was imminent, I suggested he use that $417 million surplus he helped amass as an opportunity to announce his departure. That's exactly what he did.

City officials have since offered effusive praise: Councilman Jack Evans, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, asserted much of the District's "success in maintaining fiscal discipline can be attributed to [Gandhi's] leadership.

"I would not trade the District's financial position with that of any other city, county or state in the country," Evans added.

It is polite and politically correct to accentuate the positive. But Gandhi's office is certifiably dysfunctional. There are two federal investigations into actions taken by him or his staff. There have been concerns about his penchant for secrecy. His unilateral policy decisions have adversely affected collection of tax revenues. And there are serious questions about the office's internal controls against theft.

Ignoring those and other problems could imperil the city's fiscal stability. It also could make it difficult to snag a solid and respected financial manager as the next CFO.

Fortunately, a consensus appears to be emerging that Mayor Vincent Gray should conduct a national search. If he and the council want a new and improved CFO, they may want to go one step further: establish a transition committee.

The concept is not foreign. In the past, mayors and council chairmen have needed such a committee. Surely there is sufficient cause to establish one for a post that manages an annual $11 billion budget.

Officials choosing Gandhi's replacement must become familiar with the complex and bewildering organization of the city's finance office. A transition committee composed of seasoned managers and finance experts is the best vehicle for the independent gathering of such information. An outside consultant could assist the committee setting the outline for its work, while conducting appropriate surveys and analyses.

The transition committee would review legal issues surrounding the CFO's shop and answer questions like: Should there be changes to the office's mission, structure or range of control? Should the CFO supervise every finance officer in every agency of the government? Should the office continue to have authority for the lottery?

With mayoral and council approval, the transition team could also conduct a forensic audit. Officials need to know exactly how Gandhi has managed his $119 million budget, especially since two of his former audit chiefs have suggested he has interfered with reports that have found control weaknesses that could lead to waste, fraud and abuse. There have been massive thefts under Gandhi's watch.

The work of the transition committee would need to be completed within the next 60 days. Undoubtedly, its report, if thorough and detailed, could provide a road map for potential improvements and reforms in the office. Equally important, it would help any new finance chief determine how to proceed, ensuring District residents get the full bang for their investments.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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