Eight months after the District’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, announced his intentions to retire, Mayor Vince Gray said today that he has found an ideal replacement. Gray is nominating Jeffrey DeWitt, the CFO of Phoenix, to fill the role as the District’s independent financial manager, one of the most powerful positions in the entire city government.
DeWitt, 52, became Phoenix’s CFO in 2009, at the peak of a nationwide recession that hammered the Southwestern city particularly hard. Property values sank by 41 percent at the recession’s low point, DeWitt said at a press conference announcing his nomination. But Phoenix also maintains AAA bond ratings, giving the city plenty of credit with lenders. Gray pointed to that fact multiple times in introducing his nominee.
“He is a skilled manager and leader,” Gray said. But running the finances of a city like Phoenix, which had a budget of $3.5 billion last year, and the District, where the budget is $12.1 billion, are far different tasks. The District’s budget and financial outlook are subject to federal scrutiny, and Gray said DC’s ideal CFO must be able to handle both Wall Street and Congress.
Phoenix and the District of Columbia are also very different jurisdictions. While Phoenix is far more populous—nearly 1.5 million to DC’s 633,000—Washington has far more governing bodies. “We are a state, county, municipality, and school district rolled into one,” Gray said.
While the District’s CFO is nominated by the mayor and approved by the DC Council, the office operates independently of the mayor’s office or legislature. Some city officials have compared it to a “fourth branch of government.” But Gray said last week he is looking for someone collaborative to succeed the outgoing Gandhi, whose tenure has not always been a smooth one. Most recently, his office has come under fire for low-income residents being forced out of their homes over minuscule property tax liens.
At the press conference, DeWitt says he has a reputation for playing nice with other officials. “One of the things I’m known for is working with elected officials,” he said. “Sometimes you have to say no. But collaboration is important.”
DeWitt was selected by a search committee headed up by former Mayor Anthony Williams and former White House budget director Alice Rivlin. If confirmed by the DC Council, which will begin hearings on his nomination next month, DeWitt could be on the job by the end of the year. Council member Jack Evans, who chairs the committee that will review DeWitt’s nomination (and is also running for mayor), suggested DeWitt should not face much of a confirmation fight.
Gandhi, meanwhile, is preparing to step down from a job he has held since 2000, “in the bad old days of the control board,” as Rivlin put it. The outgoing CFO said little at the press conference, though Gray praised his success in raising the city’s bond rating from near-junk to AA and AAA status.
DeWitt, who originally hails from Illinois, joined Phoenix’s finance department in 1994. This will be his first job in DC. “My first reaction was that I didn’t want to move,” he said. But after being interviewed for the CFO job and walking around the city he said he “fell in love” with the place. And that’s for good measure, too. The District’s CFO is required by law to live within city limits, and DeWitt is already finding out the difference between home prices in Phoenix and DC. “I can get about one-quarter as much housing,” he said about Washington.