- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

Folks have been dancing at 1 Judiciary Square since Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced that his trusted friend and hatchet man, Norman Dong, was stepping down. As city administrator and deputy mayor for operations, Mr. Dong was at the center of every promise Mr. Williams made from controlling utility street cuts, to improving trash collection and the treatment of mentally retarded and disabled residents in government-funded group homes. Who knew? Mr. Dong kept his head down and his signal below radar.

Still, his abrasiveness was legendary. There was the infamous clipboard story where he accidentally hit the director of the city's property management division; the guy, charged with developing a building directory, believed everything with the phrase "office of" belonged under "O." There was the telephone call to former Department of Public Works Director Vanessa Dale Burns; at the height of the controversy over delayed trash collection, Mr. Dong reportedly told Ms. Burns to "get off your fat a and get those welfare to work people to pull trash."

Edgy and intense, Mr. Dong also found himself on the wrong side of D.C. Council members, control board staff and one too many influential civic leaders. They complained that Mr. Dong, who had never managed a city government operation as large and as complex as the District, was too inexperienced to effect necessary reforms. While he effectively handled short-term changes, the seemingly intractable issues eluded him: Managed competition never left the drawing board; procurement improvements were not realized; and, even after pushing out Ms. Burns and creating a new Department of Transportation, he was stalled by utility cuts.

"Norman was an extraordinary planner, but he couldn't get two people to work together," said one high level government source.

The hellion tag wasn't new for him. When Mr. Williams was the chief financial officer, Mr. Dong was his chief of staff the gatekeeper, who swung the gate against more than a few backs as he pushed them out of the government, ordering them to pack their things with only a moment's notice and not to let sundown find them inside Judiciary Square. (Mr. Dong had also worked for Mr. Williams when the two were in Connecticut). With his demonstrated loyalty, why was he pushed out?

Mr. Williams claims that in June Mr. Dong announced he needed a break. He denies assertions that he was pressured by any external force. He says he is trying to build on his team. But, if the resignation was in the works, why were media called in the dead of night for an early morning press conference? Mr. Williams says he didn't want the story to leak out in newspapers without his imprint.

But the real story, gleaned from interviews with local and federal government sources, suggests the mayor was in a hard place. Reportedly a message was sent by certain members of Congress that they were not happy with the pace of management reform. There was concern that the issue might surface during the budget vote and instigate the attachment of more onerous riders to the appropriations bill. The worries were further fueled by complaints from the Federal City Council (FCC), a private group of business leaders and local and federal officials that acts as a sort of "supergovernment." (See the history of the Southwest Urban Renewal project, the Union Station Renovation, school reform movement, and the MCI Arena.)

Usually when the FCC complains, it already has the solution. It had been shopping John Koskinen for months; he was credited with ushering the country through Y2K. When he left that White House post, the FCC paid Mr. Koskinen to conduct a study of problems in the D.C. Public Schools. It was actually a setup for him to be named the school system's chief operating officer (COO). Superintendent Arlene Ackerman rebuffed the idea of a COO. When she left, Koskinen fans thought he would step in, except folks bristled at the image of a white man leading a predominantly black and Hispanic school system.

Kenneth Sparks, the FCC's executive vice president, confirms that Mr. Koskinen had been paid for a time by his organization. But he said the request for his services came from Mrs. Ackerman. He also says he "knows nothing about" the FCC having a conversation with any congressional representative about the need for a more experienced city administrator. He suggests that Mr. Koskinen is the mayor's boy because the two knew each other when Mr. Koskinen served as deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget.

"The mayor would not have gotten rid of Norman if it were not for Alice Rivlin and folks of the FCC ilk," counters one council member.

A 30-year District resident and former president of the Palmieri Company, Mr. Koskinen has a reputation for turning around troubled companies. At the press conference last week, he made all the politically correct overtures: He embraced frontline workers, asserted that his focus will be on communities that need government most and pledged to keep an open-door policy. Still, he comes with the FCC imprimatur real or imagined which in some circles is a major handicap. He will have to demonstrate that he isn't a water boy for big business and the downtown special interests. Further, he will have to prove that an administration expert at making promises, finally, is ready and capable of delivering.

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