It was the early 1980s, and Camille Cates Barnett - then a tough, young city manager in a business where women were still few and far between - had just been called "the Dragon Lady" in a headline in the Dallas Morning News.

She was mortified.

Then she got to thinking: Was it really such a bad reputation to have?

"It lets people know they should pay attention when you come to town," said Barnett, 58.

Time to pay attention.

Barnett is coming to town as Philadelphia's next managing director. Her job will be nothing less than to run the city government day to day. And if her history is any indication, Barnett seems certain to shake up City Hall in the process.

Interviews with Barnett's current and former colleagues suggest she will be a demanding and creative boss, likely to be a high-profile figure in Mayor-elect Michael Nutter's administration.

In Austin, Dallas and Washington, she has been the sort of public servant who inspires love and loathing. Critics have cast her as a think-tank genius who sputters in the hurly-burly of a real, live City Hall. Admirers view her as the consummate professional city manager, and credit her with reviving Austin and setting the stage for true self-rule in Washington.

"She is an acquired taste," said Oscar Rodriguez, who worked for Barnett as a city manager in Austin. "She has a very quick wit and a razor-sharp ability to analyze situations.

"Some people find that intimidating, but if I was her boss, I'd be relieved she was working for me."

Barnett figured out early that she wanted to run cities for a living.

She had considered a career in international relations until spending a turbulent semester in Chicago after the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"I said to myself, 'I don't know why I'm studying international relations. My own country looks like it could use some help,' " Barnett said.

Politics wasn't an option. Barnett did not want to serve a term or two as a mayor. She wanted to work on improving municipal government for a lifetime.

And she has. She has spent more than 20 years in a variety of city management positions, and most of the rest of her career at firms that advise local governments.

It was Barnett's five-year tenure in Austin, which began in 1989 and coincided with a boom in the Texas city's economy and cultural scene, that gave her a reputation as one of the nation's leading government managers.

Many in Austin credit Barnett for instilling a customer-service mentality in City Hall, awakening the city to the long-term dangers of its sprawling growth, and effectively mediating between government and the minority communities.

The mayor in Austin is relatively weak, and as city manager Barnett routinely made decisions that would be left to the mayor in Philadelphia.

She stumbled, critics said, in picking a police chief.

"Dr. Barnett and her appointments demonstrated a philosophic commitment to mediocrity," said Mike Levy, editor of Texas Monthly magazine and a tenacious critic of Barnett throughout her career.

Levy, who considers Barnett a tireless self-promoter, refers to her only as "Camille Cates Barnett, Ph.D."

Arnold Garcia, editor of the Austin American-Statesman's editorial page, offered more measured criticism.

"She appointed the first female police chief ever in Austin. The result was pretty rocky, though," Garcia wrote in an e-mail. "I respected her, though, and still do. Like I said, she's courageous. Tough. Takes chances and sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don't, but she's not afraid to make a decision."

Ultimately, a city-operated hospital's unexpected $21 million deficit due to accounting errors ended Barnett's run in Austin. She had little to do with the facility's day-to-day operations, but the deficit happened on her watch, and Austin's council held her accountable.

Barnett spent the next four years teaching and working for a municipal research institution in North Carolina. Then a call came from Washington.

The city, which Congress had stripped of its right to self-rule, needed a manager to clean house before self-rule was restored.

It was a nearly impossible job. Marion Barry was still mayor, but city departments would report to her. She, in turn, would report to a federally appointed panel.

"The truth of the matter is nobody wanted to risk their career to do it," Barnett said of the nation's small community of city managers. "I didn't feel it was right to just write off the capital of the country that way. Just because it was risky and inconvenient for me didn't mean I shouldn't try to help."

Barnett expected trouble, and she got it.

"She was a white lady from Texas coming to run Washington, D.C., when the city had just been deprived of its elected government. She was bound to attract a lot of detractors and opposition, and she did," said Alice Rivlin, who served as chair of the federally appointed control board when Barnett was Washington's chief management officer.

Barnett kept the post for a little more than a year. She said her team had accomplished a lot: new parking meters, shorter lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the resumption of a stalled recycling program, a start to an overhaul of the city's outdated computer systems, and more.

Still, that list seemed thin to some in the press. In a scathing assessment of her service, the Washington City Paper concluded that she had failed on virtually every front.

"She has substituted her judgment for those of elected officials and the control board, claimed credit for work that began before she started the job, and responded to criticisms with public-relations campaigns," the weekly reported.

There were questions over a handful of contracts doled out to Barnett's friends. The city's inspector general investigated, and nothing ever came of the probe.

"She was trying to get a fast start, and I think hired people she knew socially, and knew to be competent, and that may have circumvented some of the procedures," Rivlin said. "Arguably, it was a mistake, but an understandable mistake."

In Washington, Barnett was given another chance to pick a police chief, and she selected Charles Ramsey, who will serve as Philadelphia's police commissioner in the Nutter administration.

"I had the opportunity to work under Camille for about a year, and it was a great experience," Ramsey said.

Ramsey stayed on as Washington's police chief for more than seven years. Barnett, however, was forced out by the election of a new mayor and the return of home rule.

"I think she was perhaps a little too academic in her approach, but the city was in real disarray, and she moved it forward as much as anybody could have," Rivlin said. "She wasn't perfect, but she was very good."

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

For the latest from City Hall, visit www.HeardInTheHall.com.