With AOC Selection on Hold, Ayers Steps It Up

Posted February 1, 2008 at 6:41pm

Exactly one year after Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman’s retirement, it still remains unclear who will replace him permanently, leaving the job in the hands of acting Architect Stephen Ayers.

And Members who oversee the AOC say that after a bumpy beginning, Ayers has done well running the agency in the interim.

“He’s done an outstanding job,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who just left his role as ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “And he inherited a lot of problems.”

It’s unclear when a permanent Architect will be named. A special bicameral, bipartisan commission of Members sent a list of three recommendations to the White House in early August, and it is up to President Bush to make a selection.

A curveball was thrown into the process in October when Kemel Dawkins, the vice president for campus services at Duke University, asked that his name be taken off the list.

The relevant statute requires that three names be given to the president. But Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said last week Bush still has the two remaining names.

“We’re still waiting action,” Gantman said.

It is unclear if a third name will eventually be added to the list or if Bush will just pick one of the two — and things aren’t expected to be resolved soon.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said on Friday that it is “probably unlikely” that a pick will be announced before the November opening of the Capitol Visitor Center.

The remaining names have not been released publicly, and Members and others involved in the selection process have repeatedly declined to reveal them. It has been rumored, however, that Ayers is among the candidates.

On Friday, Ayers declined to discuss whether he is on the list.

“But I can tell you, it is a great honor to serve as acting Architect right now,” he said. “It’s a position I am enjoying.”

An Air Force veteran and a licensed architect, Ayers spent much of the early 1990s overseeing construction sites overseas for Voice of America. He came to the AOC in 1997 as an assistant superintendent for Senate office buildings, was promoted to deputy superintendent in 1999 and became superintendent of the Library of Congress buildings and grounds in 2002.

He was named acting deputy architect and chief operating officer in 2005, and Members selected him to be permanent deputy architect in March 2006. When Hantman left, Ayers took over as acting Architect.

Ayers has done a good job in his time at the helm, according to Andrew Goldberg, the senior director of federal affairs for the American Institute of Architects. But as acting Architect, Ayers lacks the power to run the agency to its best ability, Goldberg added.

“It’s important you have someone in that position who has the authority that comes with getting Senate confirmation,” Goldberg said. “Without having that confirmation, without the authority of being the Architect, it does present some limitation.”

The AIA has long lobbied for a candidate who is both a licensed architect and has facilities management experience. It is important the Architect know how to run an agency such as the AOC while also ensuring that the historical nature of the buildings remains intact, Goldberg said.

“It’s both the pieces together,” he added. “This is really a very unique job, and it requires a very special set of skills.”

Not everybody agrees. Wasserman Schultz said it is more important that the new Architect possess strong facilities management skills and is able to manage a number of projects, and the people charged with running them, at the same time.

So what does Ayers think?

The new Architect — whomever that might be — must be a strong leader who knows both facilities management, historic preservation and architecture, he said.

“It has to be someone that has been in that kind of role and has been in that position before,” Ayers said. “Someone who is a great communicator, who can partner and work with the Congress.”

Working with Congress is something Ayers found himself having to do a lot over the past year. Even before Ayers officially became acting Architect, Wasserman Schultz announced that she would hold monthly oversight hearings on the CVC project, which by 2007 was about $300 million and three years over budget.

It was not the only AOC-managed issue that needed to be tackled, either. Asbestos in utility tunnels beneath the Capitol complex remained to be dealt with, for example. Frequent turnover also hurt the agency’s ability to get things done.

“I think he started off on a pretty bumpy ride,” Wasserman Schultz said. “I don’t think he was initially prepared to hit the ground running.”

Increased Congressional oversight helped whip the AOC into shape, Wasserman Schultz said, and Ayers has “significantly improved” since early 2007.

Ayers admitted that the oversight brought added pressure to the AOC, which in turn pressured the CVC’s various contractors to get their jobs done on time, and on budget.

“When I become responsible for this project, there was no [substantial] completion date for this job, and it was our No. 1 priority to establish a completion,” Ayers said.

The Nov. 15 substantial completion date was met, and officials are focused on running tests of the facility’s complex fire and life-safety systems.

Once the CVC opens, it will be up to the Architect to manage it. Ayers and his team hired Terrie Rouse last year to be the CVC’s chief executive officer for visitor services, and AOC officials have already begun to hire additional staff to run the facility, Ayers said.

The AOC accomplished a number of things in 2007, Ayers said, citing a clean financial audit, a collective bargaining agreement with its union and a new focus on improving its business and developing best practices.

But Ayers also found himself at the center of a political controversy after the AOC denied a request that the word “God” be included on a certificate accompanying a flag flown over the Capitol. Ayers eventually changed AOC policy so religious references would be allowed on the certificates.

Overall, Feinstein is pleased with Ayers’ performance, Gantman said.

“In terms of the work of the Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers has been doing a very good job,” he said.

Wamp, now the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, echoed those thoughts. Both Wamp and Wasserman Schultz agreed that Ayers, along with CVC Project Manager Bernie Ungar, should be allowed to continue to oversee the facility until it opens, even if a new Architect is named, Wamp said.

“The lack of continuity is one of the biggest problems we’ve had,” Wamp said. “Turnover will really tear you up in a big project like this. … One of my departing thoughts is the last thing we need is a new cook in this kitchen.”