Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Jim Graham


Councilmembers who rarely walk block shoveling bill

8 DC councilmembers tabled a bill this afternoon to enforce DC's law requiring shoveling sidewalks. This means that, for the umpteenth time, DC is doing nothing about the serious safety problem of unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm.

Photo by randomduck on Flickr.

Only bill authors Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Tommy Wells (ward 6), joined by David Catania (at-large) and Chairman Kwame Brown, voted against tabling the bill. Phil Mendelson (at-large) sounded like he favored the bill during the debate, but supported the tabling.

Listening to the debate, it was clear that many councilmembers just don't think there is a problem. Marion Barry (ward 8) said he has gotten few or no complaints about unshoveled sidewalks. Muriel Bowser (ward 4) spoke passionately multiple times about the burden on anyone for getting a ticket but said nothing about her residents' ability to walk to stores and the Metro.

Jim Graham also argued against enforcing this law, even though, as Mike DeBonis noted, he represents the (residentially) densest ward in DC. He introduced an amendment that would have restricted fines to only apply on streets which have already been plowed. One of the bill's supporters called the amendment a "poison pill." That sends the ironic message that if drivers can't get through a street, it's not important that pedestrians be able to either.

Kwame Brown, who did support the bill but also supported Graham's amendment, made the amusing comment that Mayor Gray has done a good job with snow clearance this year. We've had only 1.7" of snow this year, compared to an annual average average through January of 8.4" and the lowest in 124 years.

Graham insisted that he wants to do something about shoveling; he just wants to use incentives rather than fines. But he's never given a practical incentive-based proposal.

Many councilmembers opining on this issue would have more credibility if they actually walked to transit to get to work in a snow, or for that matter any other time.

During the years he chaired the council's transportation committee and sat on the WMATA Board, Graham came under periodic criticism for very rarely riding transit. He stuck up for low bus fares, but never addressed the problem of unsafe sidewalks after storm. Graham even bragged during today's debate about not moving bills like this one during his tenure as chairman.

Large numbers of DC residents have to get to work or school on foot and on transit after snowstorms, and unshoveled areas create serious safety hazards. Sidewalks are often completely impassable for people with disabilities or even just temporary injuries.

DC already has a law that residents and businesses have to clear their sidewalks, but it's not enforceable. The government has clear the sidewalk and then sue individual violators to collect up to $25. This bill simply makes the penalty for violating this law a straightforward ticket and fine, just like in most cities including Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County.

Cheh made many changes to the bill during the last few months to cut the fines even further from the original proposal, put in exemptions for poor and elderly residents, and more. Property owners get a warning before having to pay any fine until the end of 2013.

It's not clear if this law does enough to push the egregious violators, like the large parking lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, to actually take any action, but a majority of councilmembers have made clear that they don't really care to do anything about those problems.

The bill wouldn't have even taken effect until next winter. Now, we're likely to have to wait until yet another winter. If we get a real snow this year, will the councilmembers who voted to table this bill today try walking their neighborhoods and getting to work on foot or by transit? If they did, they'd very likely look at this issue very differently.


Brown criticizes GGW but still has no believable explanation

Kwame Brown criticized Greater Greater Washington to TBD, claiming we're wrong about his motivations for reshuffling committees. But his explanations continue to simply not hold water.

Image from TBD.

Brown claimed that the changes better unify subject areas in the same committee, like putting the environment with transportation and public works. There is indeed a lot of linkage, and those all were part of the same committee, under Jim Graham, before 2008.

But that's almost the only case where Brown's claim fits. He's keeping the Office of Zoning in the Committee of the Whole, while moving planning to Wells' committee. Planning and zoning go together like peas and carrots. In Montgomery County, they put planning and zoning together with the environment; that would have made even more sense and a great committee for Mary Cheh.

And what about alcohol licensing? Kwame Brown gave that to Jim Graham in January. It's widely agreed that this was compensation for taking away transportation. But it has little to do with human services. If rationalizing committees is so important, why isn't it in the same committee as other licensing bodies like DCRA?

I can think of no explanation other than that Brown didn't want to hurt Graham but did want to hurt Wells. Can you? And that's the problem. Brown keeps asserting that payback was not the motive, but almost all local reporters have pointed out that his explanation doesn't hold up.

Sadly, Mary Cheh has started parroting the same line:

CM Brown had to reshuffle things because newly elected Vincent Orange had to be assigned a committee and arrangements had to be made to account for Mr Thomas losing his committee. CM Brown reconfigured committees along better functional lines including placing transportation and public works under the comm on the environment.
No reshuffling had to happen with transportation, because the Thomas/Orange changes don't overlap at all with the Wells/Cheh/Bowser changes. And a transportation committee that has the environment but doesn't have WMATA is definitely not "better functional lines."

John Hendel wrote,

When questioning the Greater Greater Washington report, Brown also emphasized that he hadn't been able to weigh in properly, and that a proper news story needed to include all the different sides of a decision such as this. He told me that he likes the news site but that it has a lot of emotion, and that journalism needs to include multiple perspectives. Again, this sounds fair enough on paper but doesn't seem to harmonize with the increasingly loud sense of outrage over Wells' shift as well as what seems to be a growing consensus that yes, the SUV investigation may have played a role.
I'm sorry that Kwame Brown, citywide elected chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, feels he isn't able to properly communicate with reporters who spend much of their time in his building. This underscores Alan Suderman's point yesterday that one of the clearest lessons from this saga is that Kwame Brown is bad at media relations. Or, maybe, the local press corps is just smarter and more penetrating than Brown would like.

If Brown is genuinely trying to improve the Council's function, Suderman makes another good suggestion: make committee staff more real professional staff rather than political hires of each councilmember.

When members switch committees, the expected convention in the council is that each member of the committee's staff just keeps working for the former chair in their new capacity. For example, in January Tommy Wells and Jim Graham swapped committees. But all the staff of Human Services kept working for Wells even though he didn't have human services oversight, and the staff of Public Works and Transportation kept working for Graham.

John DeTaeye, for example, had been handling DPW issues, and had become an expert on recycling and trash. He had some good ideas which he'd discussed with me for improving recycling rates. Suddenly, he couldn't implement those, and had to learn human services issues (though he also got promoted to committee director).

One uncommon exception was Jonathon Kass, the excellent transportation committee staffer who has a background in transportation. Graham let Wells hire Kass to be the new committee director. But will Mary Cheh do the same? Then what would happen to Jeremy Faust, the current Government Operations and the Environment committee director?

It's all crazy. This makes it less likely for councilmembers to hire people with deeper subject knowledge. As long as all staff are generalists, with backgrounds in law or public policy or something, they can generally shift, but still have to learn new policy areas from scratch, at great cost of productivity and institutional memory.

Kwame Brown shouldn't swap around committees lightly, with unbelievable explanations. Barring that, he should take steps to reduce the severe impacts that result when committees change hands.


DC officials tweet, but with varying enthusiasm

Twitter can be a powerful tool for politicians and government agencies to connect with constituents. Many of DC's elected leaders are on Twitter, but they use their accounts to widely varying degrees.

Photo by William Hook on Flickr.

Their tweets also vary in frequency and quality, and some officials tweet personally while staff send out tweets for others. Which are the best and the worst?

Tommy Wells (@TommyWells) is the most active councilmember on Twitter and sends all his tweets himself. He often tweets about riding the bus, council hearing proceedings, and constituent issues in Ward 6. Washington City Paper recently named him "Best Tweeting DC Politician."

Councilmembers Muriel Bowser (@MurielBowser) and Yvette Alexander (@CMYMA) are active on Twitter and tweet fairly regularly. They use their accounts to respond to questions, retweet others and often take conversational approaches with their tweets. Wells, Bowser and Alexander are good about replying to questions, too.

Michael Brown (@CMMichaelABrown) and Jack Evans (@Jack Evans_Ward2) send moderate numbers of tweets, though it appears their staff do the work for them. They retweet fairly regularly and promote their schedules and news. You can often get an reply from them too, or at least links to find out more about an issue.

Mary Cheh (@MaryCheh) is less active than Evans or Brown and primarily promotes her news and updates, though occasionally she will send replies. Her account will be fairly active for a couple days, and then be silent for a stretch. It seems that staff tweet for her.

David Catania has two accounts, though neither is him personally. One is @CataniaPress, which promotes news and information about him. The other is @Catania_COS, his chief of staff, who engages more directly with followers and constituents.

Chairman Kwame Brown has an account, @KwameBrownDC which primarily mentions where the chairman has been and what visits he makes to groups and organizations in the city. It seems that staff tweet for him as well Brown does manage his own account. He often sends replies but rarely retweets. The account was also silent from February 17th to April 2nd, when the SUV scandal was in top gear.

Jim Graham, Harry Thomas and Vincent Orange all have accounts, though they rarely use them. Graham's account, @JimGraham_Ward1 last tweeted June 14 and is only following 27 people. When the account is active, it primarily promotes news and updates from his office.

Harry Thomas's account, @HLTJrWard5, hasn't been active since March 14th. Vincent Orange used Twitter during the April 26th special election campaign, but his account, @VincentOrangeDC last tweeted on May 12th and is only following 55 people.

Councilmembers Marion Barry and Phil Mendelson do not have accounts.

Mayor Vincent Gray has a Twitter account, @MayorVinceGray, run by his communications staff. At first, the account primarily promoted the mayor's schedule, but recently has started engaging more with followers and residents.

For those councilmembers who don't use Twitter regularly, does it matter? Barry doesn't have an account, but that doesn't mean he is less popular in Ward 8. It also doesn't necessarily mean he is not engaging with his constituents.

Twitter certainly isn't the only way to engage with constituents. Not everyone is savvy with the technology or has regular internet access. Others may find it overwhelming to use. But Twitter can be an effective way for councilmembers to address constituent concerns and provide a sense of connection with residents.

Some of the more active councilmembers, like Wells, Bowser, and Alexander, can help make government somewhat more responsive and approachable. Other accounts, like Cheh and Kwame Brown, occasionally engage with residents and at least provide a medium for getting information.

Should councilmembers be managing their own accounts or is it better to have a staff member do it? Wells, Bowser and Alexander seem tweet themselves and are able to engage more than others. During the protest over Congressional budget riders, Wells' account stopped sending tweets the moment his staff (@CharlesAllenDC and @AnnePhelps) tweeted pictures of his arrest. Michael Brown's account, on the other hand, tweeted pictures of Brown himself wearing handcuffs.

Many District agencies, like DCRA and DDOT, have used Twitter with great success to answer questions and address complaints. Now the Office of Planning has joined the flock, too.

Which officials' tweets do you find most useful? How would you like to see others improve?


WMATA Board ponders cutting late-night service

WMATA Board members, including federal representatives and new members from DC and Arlington, expressed a willingness to explore cutting back late-night weekend transit service at their meeting today. The tenor of the debate differed greatly from that of previous years, when Board members pushed hard against even the suggestion of such cuts.

Photo by camera_obscura on Flickr.

This move would save substantial money, but also would impair people's ability to go out in DC, Arlington, and other walkable communities without a car with confidence they can get home affordably.

Such a move risks shifting the DC region away from the "transit culture" that has been developed. On the other hand, if jurisdictions can't contribute more money and WMATA can't find other savings, other cuts could similarly cripple transit and take away vital access for riders.

Maryland's Peter Benjamin asked about providing bus, taxi, or other service as an alternative to rail service, to avoid completely cutting off riders from having transit options. Such a program could blunt the pain of such a cut.

Rail operations head Dave Kubicek said the late-night Friday and Saturday service forces WMATA to pay the equivalent "adding an eighth day of work" each week. Cutting back the hours to midnight from 3 am would effectively give them 45 more days per year to perform track work.

The Board also discussed plans to hold hearings and give the public a chance to weigh in on these issues.

New Board member Mary Hynes from Arlington suggested presenting the idea of earlier closings juxtaposed with whatever can be accomplished in the extra time. "Our goal is Metro 2.0," said Hynes. She argued that if riders knew what could be fixed and how much faster, it could help them decide whether to support late-night cuts.

Unfortunately, this also risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don't live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool. Federal member Mort Downey already started down that road by talking about how Metro is a "demand-driven" service, organized primarily around the times of peak usage, which also happens to be what matters most to the federal government.

Tom Downs, DC's voting member from the Gray administration, also expressed an interest in exploring this, though he also made very clear that rider input is vital. As Kytja Weir noted on Twitter, cutting late-night service is something Jim Graham constantly fought, often tenaciously and to the irritation of some of his colleagues or the Board of Trade.

We're seeing the effect in this meeting of the new Board. Gone are two of the more vociferous defenders of transit service, and the new members either won't be fighting as hard or haven't yet found their footing to do so. While the Board hasn't necessarily decided to make these cuts and members haven't committed to supporting or opposing them, in the old Board, we'd have heard members making impassioned speeches against this idea the moment it came up.

Or, perhaps members will just be more subtle about it. Another item on the list of potential cuts is Yellow Line service to Fort Totten off-peak, which keeps riders between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten from facing very long midday and evening headways. Tommy Wells asked staff to also add Red Line turnbacks at Grosvenor to the list, which represent a potential Montgomery County-only cut to parallel this DC-only cut.

About half of Red Line trains stop at Grosvenor rush hours instead of continuing to Shady Grove. Years past, this happened off-peak as well, but Maryland secured service sending all off-peak trains to Shady Grove and only turning any back during the peak.

If one is on the table, it's fair to put the other on as well, and perhaps a comparable service pattern in Virginia. All would be terrible, however, and the Board needs to look hard at alternatives before jumping to this option.

Update: Tommy Wells criticized this option when talking to reporters after the meeting.

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