Community relations director departure stirs concern in Foggy Bottom

The leader of GW’s neighborhood outreach efforts is leaving her post this week, marking the latest in a string of departures from the government relations office.

Britany Waddell, the director of community relations, will depart Sept. 1 for a government role in Calvert County, Md., according to an email announcement to neighbors last week. Waddell is at least the third person to leave the Office of Government Relations in the last 13 months, stirring concern among some in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood who fear they are losing trusted allies at the University.

Yonah Bromberg Gaber | Graphics Eidtor

Richard Livingstone, the former assistant director for community relations, left his role in August 2016, and Bernard Demczuk, the former assistant vice president for District relations, retired last December. Both positions have not been replaced, community leaders said.

Renee McPhatter, the assistant vice president for government and community relations, said Waddell had strengthened GW’s ties to its surrounding neighborhood, and the office will look to fill the vacant position.

“While we begin the process to find a new head of community relations, our office remains committed to maintaining positive relations and ongoing communications with our neighbors and the GW community,” McPhatter said in an email.

McPhatter declined to say how the University plans to search for a replacement, when the search will begin, how officials’ roles may change in Waddell’s absence and how Waddell’s departure will affect community relations.

There are three staff members, excluding Waddell, currently working in the office, according to the office’s website.

The Hatchet sent questions to both Waddell and McPhatter. Only McPhatter responded through a University spokesman.

As the face of the University in the Foggy Bottom community, Waddell was known for her approachability, reliability and knowledge of neighborhood issues, community leaders said.

She ran the monthly University-organized FRIENDS meetings with neighbors, providing them an outlet to express their concerns. During Waddell’s time at GW, the community relations office created a hotline for neighbors to report incidents involving off-campus students, and officials implemented an on-campus housing mandate for juniors, which reduced the number of students living in the surrounding neighborhood.

Eve Zhurbinskiy, a Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood commissioner, said a delay to fill Waddell’s position could increase tension between Foggy Bottom and GW, which could imperil the University’s efforts to address noise complaints and secure approval for future expansion projects.

“A lot of people are joking that what will happen is after Labor Day there’s probably going to be a lot of neighborhood complaints about student parties, and after that, GW might realize that maybe they should staff that office,” she said.

Zhurbinskiy said she is worried fewer staff in the government relations office will lead to fewer University-sponsored events aimed at bringing Foggy Bottom and GW together. For the first time in 14 years, the office did not host the annual senior prom last spring, designed for District senior residents and students to get to know one another, she said.

Patrick Kennedy, the ANC chairman, said Waddell accumulated lots of knowledge about the local area and its residents during her decade working at GW, which will take time for her replacement to achieve and could hamper outreach efforts.

“A neighborhood is like a long novel,” he said. “There are a lot of characters. There’s a lot of plot development. It’s very rich. It’s very complex, and I think the only way that you can really appreciate that and be able to do well in that kind of environment is really through experience.”

Kennedy said he expects Waddell’s position will be filled.

GW’s relationship with the Foggy Bottom neighborhood has been fraught in the past. The University’s expansion into the surrounding residential area under former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg left some community members feeling that GW invaded their neighborhood. But neighbors have said former University President Steven Knapp began to repair the strained relationship with the neighborhood.

Experts in university-community relations said a university president is ultimately responsible for keeping a good relationship with the community and may have to become more active in the neighborhood during times of turnover. University President Thomas LeBlanc is planning to attend Waddell’s last FRIENDS meeting Sept. 5.

Although neighbors may not be keeping up with the staffing of the office, the turnover might confuse community leaders about whom they should be contacting when they have a conflict, Mark Weaver, the owner of Communications Counsel, a national firm that advises corporations, governments and universities on communications, said.

“Whoever’s left in the office is going to have to work overtime to reassure community leaders that GW is still interested in maintaining those important relationships even though some folks have left,” he said.

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