front page - search - community 

Council members cautious about DPW nominee

(Published July 12, 1999)


Staff Writer

Vanessa Dale Burns came a step closer July 9 to confirmation as director of the city’s Department of Public Works, but not before members of the D.C. City Council committee that approved her appointment voiced concerns about her professional record.

Burns, who worked for less than one year in each of her previous two jobs, was appointed in May by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to head one of the city’s most troubled departments. Williams and Burns first met when they were both politically active in New Haven, Conn., more than a decade ago.

Sources in New Haven and Cleveland, Ohio, say Burns left jobs in each of those cities after butting heads with the respective mayors.

"We did a lot of background research and it appears that she left Cleveland because they were concerned about her," said Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large, who chairs the public works committee. Burns left her job as assistant public service director in Cleveland after just 10 months.

"We have no understanding of why that job ended so quickly," said Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, who voted to approve Burns’ appointment despite his reservations. He said Burns told him she left Cleveland because of "a bad mix of personalities," he said. "That can happen."

But previously, in New Haven, when the mayor who appointed her was succeeded by that city’s current mayor, Burns’ tenure did not survive.

"It was an ego clash, a personality thing," said a source in New Haven who was familiar with her performance there in the early 1990s as the city’s first black director of public works. "But she did a pretty good job. She was well-respected."

Williams said concerns about Burns’ style should not be the main issue.

"Vanessa will get the job done," he said. "That’s what the citizens want. I have confidence she will be loyal to my objectives."

Burns, who will earn an annual salary of $121,000, still must be confirmed by the council’s committee of the whole, possibly as soon as July 13.

Burns described herself at a May press conference as a hands-on manager who feels comfortable riding in a snow plow or garbage truck and wants to spend time on the front lines.

"I would have preferred the previous director (Art Lawson), who was born and raised here and had years of experience," Schwartz said. "My second choice would have been someone with comparable experience — not a year — in a city of this size."

In Cleveland, Burns helped oversee 500 employees and a budget of $46 million. In D.C. she will be responsible for a staff of about 1,000 and a budget of $140 million.

"She has never faced a challenge like (D.C.) in her career," said Graham.

In the end, Schwarz said, her concerns were not great enough to make her oppose the mayor’s appointment.

"Tony Williams is the captain of the ship and he deserves to pick his crew," she said. "But the citizenry will hold him accountable for the crew he picks."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator