Posts about DC Council
Tragically, people are getting killed on District streets, two in one day in February. Experts acknowledge that stopping these deaths is a major challenge. In something of a reversal from decades past, as demographics and living patterns shift, it's also a serious problem in suburban areas such as Montgomery County.
What is the D.C. Council doing about it? Adding police? Investigating thoroughly? No. In fact, in the budget the council passed this month, Chairman Phil Mendelson dedicated considerable future revenue to ease punishment for those whose dangerous actions put others at risk, while simultaneously restraining the police from expanding enforcement.
I'm not talking about murder and similar violence, though violence in our city is no laughing matter. This problem strikes far closer to home for most of us: distracted driving, speeding, unsafe right turns on red or through crosswalks, red-light running and other forms of unsafe driving.
Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
Parents from around DC who throng Dupont Circle's Stead Park can rejoice: Yesterday, after months of community advocacy, a DC Council committee voted to fund upgrades that will expand play space, install a jogging track, and better utilize the large playing field.
Stead Park has an endowment from the Stead Family, which will help maintain the transformational renovations, but the project requires city funds. Mayor Gray originally included $1.6 million in capital funds in his budget, but not until Fiscal Year 2015, which starts in October of 2014.
Residents asked the Council to approve the funding and move it up to FY 2014. Marion Barry (ward 8), the chairman of the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs, was very supportive; yesterday, his committee voted 5-0 to put the funding in FY 2014, which will allow the construction happen over the next year.
The committee report says,
While the Committee applauds the Mayor for funding this initiative, the community and advocates of Stead Park are ready now for the much needed project... In order to not slow down the major progress of advocates, the committee recommends that 1.6 million of funding be moved into the FY14 budget so that the project can begin in the next fiscal year.While playground is packed, field often goes unused
Stead Park, on P Street between 16th and 17th, has some playgrounds for children, a basketball court, and a large playing field. A few wonderful sports teams and after-school programs use the field loyally and lovingly, and know how rare such space is in this part of the city.
However, the field currently doesn't get much use during the rest of the day. It's also in bad shape. Holes and dirt patches mar the surface, and large puddles make it unusable after heavy rain.
Meanwhile, Stead's extremely popular playground draws parents from Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, U Street, Shaw, Logan, and Dupont. Friends of Stead Park, whose board I serve on, has been gathering community input since last year. Because the playing field is so underused, many residents without children that we've spoken to didn't even know the acre of greenspace exists behind the playground.
On Sunday, the field hosted a rare community event: a Jewish Music Festival organized by the nearby JCC. But even though the field was bustling, the playground was still very crowded with visitors from all over. Over 20 strollers and dozens of kids and parents were trying not to bump into each other as they crammed among the jungle gyms.
The playground was renovated 6 years ago and is very popular, while the field has sadly been neglected. Many of the parents we spoke to said that while they want to stay in the city and raise their kids here, they worry that there currently is not enough multi-use space or outdoors options for recreation and community building located nearby.
Project will provide fitness, recreation, and entertainment for all ages
With the city assistance, Friends of Stead Park plans to renovate the field with a smoother surface, better drainage, and artificial turf that will hold up better with use. A jogging track with trees and benches around the edge will give people another way to use the field during the day, while it will remain large enough for the organized sports leagues that use it in the evening.
A small part of the field space will become a kiddie splash park. A performance stage behind the existing building will allow the field to host more concerts, films, and cultural programming.
Parents and community members are excited to let their kids run around the field safely and reduce congestion on the playground. They are happy that more concerts, films, and cultural programming will come to the performance stage. They were relieved that there will finally be trees, shade, and seating, and places for children to splash on hot days. They are excited to be able to go for a jog without having to battle with street traffic.
Friends of Stead Park told the committee that we are glad the city is upgrading playgrounds, including the Harrison playground on V Street. That is necessary since the number of adults and children is growing so rapidly. Stead's playground is already quite nice and doesn't have much room to expand, but this great piece of green space is crying out for better and more use.
Starting the project this year will go a long way toward encouraging families to stay in the city and to be actively engaged, as community members said recently and during public meetings last year.
We would like to thank Councilmember Barry and the other members of the committee for voting to accelerate the funding. We ask that the full Council retain this relatively low-cost, high-value project in the FY2014 budget when it votes on May 22, so we can move forward this year to start improving the field and provide some much-needed space and options for our families and our community.
In 2014, the District will join 43 states when its Attorney General becomes elected by the people, rather than being appointed by the Mayor. This is the result of the people's overwhelming choice in the November 2010 referendum, when 76% of voters ratified a Home Rule Charter amendment changing the selection process for the Attorney General.
Not everyone agreed with this change. In fact, when DC Appleseed suggested that the Council present this issue to the voters, we highlighted several arguments against the change. One of them was the potential for disagreement and tension between an elected attorney general and an elected mayor.
This potential has led the current Attorney General, Irv Nathan, to propose transferring a significant amount of his office's authority to the Mayor before the new Attorney General becomes elected. However, Mr. Nathan's proposals also have significant dangers.
The Attorney General's proposal and its potential benefits
The District's legal services would undergo three significant changes under Mr. Nathan's proposal. First, the bill would transfer control over the lawyers who advise agencies from the Attorney General to agency directors. Second, it would establish the Mayor's Office of Legal Counsel to coordinate those agency counsel. Finally, it would move the Child Support Services Division from the Attorney General to the Department of Human Services.
Mr. Nathan testified to Councilmember Tommy Wells' Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on March 26 that these changes are needed "to minimize the potential for conflict . . . within the divided executive." He argued that his proposal is consistent with the voters' intent, because it leaves the Attorney General responsible for litigation and binding, formal legal opinions, and the Mayor responsible for programmatic, budget, and policy choices.
According to Mr. Nathan, it's reasonable to expect harmful conflict to arise because the Attorney General will aspire to be Mayor and therefore will find it to his or her political advantage to oppose the Mayor. This could undermine the Mayor's ability and responsibility to establish and implement policy for the District. The bill seeks to prevent this by making agency counsel, through their agency directors, accountable to the Mayor, rather than to the Attorney General.
Mr. Nathan is right that the elected Attorney General may well want to run for mayor, and that there could potentially be disagreements and tension between the two officers. Mr. Nathan is also right that an attorney general who believed the Mayor was attempting to implement policy not in accordance with law could effectively thwart that policy by directing agency counsel to oppose it. On the other hand, removing the Attorney General's authority over agency counsel also presents at least three potential downsides.
Potential problems with to the AG's proposal
First, the whole point of electing the Attorney General was to ensure that legal advice given by that officer and the agency counsel he or she supervises would be independent of the Mayor and accountable to the public. When the DC Council passed the referendum bill, it explained in its report that making the Attorney General elected would ensure the public that the officer "conducts their legal business without fear or favor, respecting the law and not pursuing the political agenda of anyone in either the legislative or executive branches of the government." Taking authority over agency counsel away from the Attorney General and transferring it to the Mayor appears to be at odds with this purpose.
Second, the proposal appears to be a step backwards from the efficient consolidation of legal services under the Attorney General that the Council spent 15 years establishing. Until 1998, the District's legal services were organized similarly to how Mr. Nathan now proposes, with agency counsel being independently controlled by their respective agency directors. The professionalism, coordination, and unity of the District's legal operations suffered under this bifurcated structure.
The Council remedied these problems by consolidating agency counsel under the Attorney General, first giving the then-Corporation Counsel supervisory authority in 1998, then giving the Attorney General complete control in 2005. This consolidation brought the District into line with the best practices in states that elect their attorneys general.
Among other things, the consolidation ensured that the Attorney General would be better prepared to defend agencies against litigation, because the Attorney General would have been supervising and coordinating actions by agency counsel action before any lawsuits could arise.
Finally, Mr. Nathan's proposal appears to undercut the referendum passed by voters. At the time of the referendum, no suggestion was made that its passage could require or permit a substantial downsizing of the office. Instead, the referendum was presented to voters as a way to make the office independent of the Mayor and the Council and accountable to them. Yet the current proposal undermines the authority of the office and transfers that authority to the Mayor.
At the same time, the downsizing of the Attorney General's office seems likely to reduce the willingness of the ablest candidates to run for the office, another result that appears inconsistent with the voters' intent.
Respect the voters and leave the Attorney General alone
The risk of tension and conflict between an elected Attorney General and an elected Mayor is real. But it is not at all clear that this risk is a problem that needs to be "fixed." In fact, it was expected that there would be constructive tension between the Mayor and the Attorney General that, on balance, would benefit the public. It was also expected that having legal advice that was independent of the Mayor would be of benefit to the public.
At the same time, it is clear that transferring authority over legal advice to the Mayor would bring very real costs. It would return the District to a dysfunctional system of legal advice that existed before 1998. It would potentially contradict voters' expectations when they passed the Charter Act referendum. And it would discourage able candidates who might run for the new office of elected Attorney General.
The best course, therefore, seems to be to allow the people to elect an Attorney Genial who would administer the office as it is now constituted. If the hoped-for benefits from this do not materialize, and the downsides that Mr. Nathan fears occur, there will be time later to make changes. For now, the Council should conclude that if it isn't broken, don't fix it.
Were Republican voters under-sampled? Would exclusion of cell phones skew results away from a candidate favored by younger voters? Do we actually expect 69% of registered voters to show up?
These are interesting questions and valid criticisms. But in the end, the poll turned out to be very accurate, almost eerily so.
Let's first compare the election night results with the poll results:
First off, note that the poll gets Perry Redd's and Paul Zuckerberg's election results exactly right, and Michael Brown's small showing justifies his exclusion from the poll. Essentially none of the undecided voters went for Redd, Zuckerberg, or Brown.
Another common criticism of the poll results was that 43% were undecided: with that many undecided, any candidate would seem to have a chance. But a more likely result is that the undecided voters will, in the end, follow the pattern of the already-decided voters. For the four major candidates, we look at this by comparing the election night results to the percent of the decided voters each candidate got in the poll:
Here we see that the results for both Patrick Mara and Anita Bonds nearly exactly match. This tells us that the undecided voters, in the end, broke for Mara and Bonds in exactly the same proportion as the decided voters in the poll had.
On the other hand, when compared with their shares of the decided voters, Matthew Frumin under-performed on election night and Elissa Silverman over-performed. They were, of course, the two most closely-matched candidates, so we can add their totals together to see how the polling predicted their combined performance:
|Frumin + Silverman||38.97%||37%
Their combined share of the decided voters in the polling was within two percentage points of their combined election night totals. The close matches for Mara, Bonds, and Frumin-Silverman show that it's reasonable to presume that the undecideds, even at 43%, will not deviate too strongly from the decideds.
Silverman did get more of the undecided voters than Frumin did, which is evidence of some degree of coalescence. Many would have been happy with either Frumin or Silverman, and perhaps were wavering between the two. When the poll (and other indicators) showed that Silverman was finishing stronger, they gave her their support. From the perspective of the Silverman campaign, though, this was too little and too late.
The first take-away from the numbers is that polling, even in a low-turnout special election in DC, can be very accurate. The second take-away is that polling data which shows one candidate to be stronger than another can lead to support consolidating behind the stronger candidate.
As Patrick Mara reminded us, Tuesday's election was the third one in recent memory in which multiple reform-minded self-styled progressive candidates have split the vote, giving a win to the establishment candidate. (Though others dispute whether Mara can claim the label of "progressive.") Many have wished for a progressive coalition which would rally around a single candidate.
One other thing that this poll has shown is that polling itself does not need to be the exclusive province of the traditional media and the campaigns. If Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps can support a poll, anyone can. We should all thank Adam Eidinger There's no reason a group of like-minded activists couldn't commission it's own timely and transparent polls, and to use their results to consolidate support for the strongest favored candidate.
There's no reason a group of like-minded activists couldn't commission it's own timely and transparent polls, and to use their results to consolidate support for the strongest favored candidate.
After open data advocates pointed out how ridiculous it is that private companies have a copyright on the only publicly-available versions of DC's laws, DC Council General Counsel David Zvenyach helped make a public domain version and posted it online.
Tom MacWright explained the problem last month. DC, like many governments, contracts with a company (in this case LexisNexis) to compile all of the laws and keep them updated as they change. They post the laws online, but with licenses that restrict your rights to reuse the information, even though it's the public law.
Rather than ignoring the problem or issuing silly legal threats against people who were digitizing the code without permission, Zvenyach worked with the advocates to create a version of the code free of these restrictions.
Mike Masnick writes at TechDirt:
Part of the issue was that the only digital copy of the code that they had was the one given to them by West, and it contained a variety of extraneous information that was West's IP, including West logos on each section of the law (representing many thousands of copies). Zvenyach had Joshua Tauberer come by and spend a day removing every bit of West IP from the document and quickly releasing a downloadable copy of the DC Code with a CC0 public domain license.Tom MacWright notes that this is just one step:
There are a few things that this isn't: it isn't the official copy of the code, and lawyers would be ill-advised to cite it alone. It isn't up-to-dateWhat can people do with an open source set of DC laws? We can think of a lot of things, but the best part is when people do things we don't think of. Some commenters on MacWright's post wondered why this matters; can't you just find the code on the existing website? Yes, you can't link directly to a part of the code, and can only download pieces in Microsoft Word, but so what?
— the council is fast-moving and this is just a snapshot. In time we'll fix these problems too.
So what is all the ways someone could build better tools to make it easier to find the laws. Someone already made a tool that's for some purposes better than the official site. Or people could write automated programs to compare the laws on some topics, like yielding to pedestrians, to those in other states. (Hey, that would be a great idea! Has someone done that yet?)
Do you have ideas or want to implement some? MacWright is organizing a hackathon on Sunday. If you build something neat with the code, let us know and we'll show it off here.
DC voters will choose an at-large member of the DC Council in a special election on April 23. While there has been fairly little coverage of the race or candidates' positions, the choice voters make in this likely low-turnout election will have a major impact on many important issues to District residents. We believe that Elissa Silverman is the best choice.
We believe that our leaders should devote much of our city's monetary prosperity to two goals: economic growth that furthers that prosperity, and efforts to truly help those most in financial need to ensure they are not left behind. Ms. Silverman has a very strong track record in this area.
DC has unfortunately had a recent string of elected officials who have instead funneled money to people with connections to those in power in the city government. Their influence ultimately enriches those in power. Ms. Silverman has a clear commitment to reforming government ethics from her work advancing DC's Initiative 70, the recent proposed ballot initiative.
Ms. Silverman embraces transit, mixed-use zoning, and the need especially to safeguard pedestrians now that the city is more walkable every year. She emphasizes the need to encourage more housing units for families as many of the young people who have moved to the District begin families and want to remain in the District's walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented neighborhoods.
Thanks to her journalism background, Ms. Silverman has demonstrated that she can ask very penetrating questions on policy details. When talking with editors about issues such as the zoning update, for instance, she probed much more deeply into the effects and tradeoffs than other candidates or even many advocates.
She has said that she wants to turn this skill toward oversight of District agencies such as DCRA; this would be an invaluable asset to residents who find agencies often papering over inefficiency. She has advocated reforming DCRA to make it easier for District residents to open businesses as well.
Matthew Frumin scored very well on Let's Choose DC, most often slightly ahead of Ms. Silverman and sometimes slightly behind. Mr. Frumin has made very valuable contributions to the District through his civic efforts, such as building coalitions on the Tenleytown ANC. However, we feel he still faces significant challenges to connecting with voters outside of upper Northwest. This will not only be a prerequisite to win but a necessary component to being an at-large councilmember.
Mr. Frumin also has less detailed knowledge of the District government's operations and major policies outside of a few areas of strength such as education. While being an expert is not mandatory for a new council candidate, with Ms. Silverman in the race, her greater expertise is a strong asset. The winner of this race will have to instantly start participating in budget negotiations and then continue to operate on the council while almost immediately running for re-election in the April 2014 primary.
We hope Mr. Frumin will continue participating on the citywide stage in other ways following the campaign, and has strong potential to be a top-tier candidate in a future at-large race once he has built more connections and experience working with neighborhood leaders citywide.
Patrick Mara has garnered some significant support in DC based on his recent races and repeated endorsements from the Washington Post. David Alpert also endorsed Mr. Mara in his previous race (against Michael Brown, who is running again this year). However, he has not shown the depth that one would expect from a repeated candidate, and did not answer several Let's Choose DC questions.
The Washington Post's endorsement last week largely centered around his views on cutting taxes and school reform. We don't disagree with charter schools or school reform by any means, but feel that education in the District needs more analysis into what actually works instead of blind ideology. Mr. Mara has made education a centerpiece of his campaign, but when pressed, hasn't been able to actually put forth compelling insights on the matter.
Michael Brown has a strong commitment to helping the less fortunate, such as his stalwart defense of affordable housing which was very welcome on the council. However, Mr. Brown has repeatedly made clear that he is skeptical of a growing city and is very quick to side with the residents most afraid of change, such as with his response on the DC zoning update at Let's Choose DC or his letter of "concern" almost a year ago.
Mr. Brown was the only candidate to oppose several avenues of ethics reform on that question on Let's Choose. Financial mismanagement problems such as unpaid rent continue to dog Mr. Brown, as did malfeasance by his previous campaign treasurer, even though there has not been any evidence that he himself violated campaign finance laws.
Anita Bonds has not chosen to engage with our community by only responding to one Let's Choose DC question. While we didn't want to prejudge her longtime ties to much of DC's machine power structure, she has not availed herself of opportunities to demonstrate her independence from that machine or policy reasons to support her. She also initially promised to serve as a full-time councilmember, but has since backed off that commitment.
Perry Redd and Paul Zukerberg have valuable perspectives to contribute, and we also agree with Mr. Zukerberg's core message that excessive prosecution of minor drug offenses creates a dangerous environment with too many young people having criminal records at huge expense to taxpayers. We hope both will continue to participate in civic discourse and that the DC Council will take up marijuana decriminalization soon.
Voters considering themselves "urbanists," "progressives," or just "reformers" have seen their votes split in several recent elections, including the last two for at-large council. A number of civic and business leaders have lined up behind Ms. Silverman, including respected top Fenty administration officials like Neil Albert and Victor Reinoso, and we hope that all residents will do the same and elect her to the DC Council on April 23.
This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active regular contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the candidate.
Disclosures: Elissa Silverman also submitted 4 guest articles to Greater Greater Washington in 2011 and 2012. We had also specifically invited Patrick Mara (after previous campaigns) and Matthew Frumin (before the current campaign) to submit guest posts, in keeping with our general policy of encouraging guest posts from many people active in local affairs. Also, Ken Archer, who serves as Silverman's treasurer, is a Greater Greater Washington editor. He did not vote in the internal poll or write any of this endorsement.
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