Posts about Official Vehicles
The Democratic at-large candidates for DC Council, incumbent Vincent Orange, and challengers Sekou Biddle, E. Gail Anderson Holness, and Peter Shapiro, talked about transportation, housing, land use and some social issues at last night's forum at the Black Cat on 14th Street.
Here is the full video from the event:
Small business: As in many forums, most candidates gave few specifics, and in most cases didn't sharply disagree with one another. For example, I asked all candidates to talk about a time they'd helped a local business directly. I asked this first of Vincent Orange, who often touts his work bringing Home Depot to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro area but when talking about small business, speaks much more in generalities.
Orange and the other candidates launched into generic, prepared statements about the value of small business. Sekou Biddle's answer, that he helps them most of all by patronizing them, was the most responsive. Orange was, however, able to name a lot of local businesses once pressed.
Affordable housing: Peter Shapiro had thoughtful recommendations for how to promote housing affordability, drawing on his experience with Arts District Hyattsville when he served in Prince George's County. Perhaps because of his experience as an elected official in the past, Shapiro gave more specifics about actions he has taken or policies he would implement on this and some other issues.
All candidates raised their hands when asked if they would restore the Housing Production Trust Fund; hopefully Orange, in this budget cycle, and whoever wins the race, in the future, follows through on that promise.
Ethics: Shapiro went the furthest on campaign finance reform, criticizing the current council for not taking stronger steps and arguing it should pursue a public financing system for elections. Biddle called for reforms to money order contributions, the source of the latest scandal.
Orange, as he has in the past, emphasized his advocacy for banning outside employment for councilmembers, but hasn't agreed to support limits on corporate contributions. He defended his decision not to cosponsor Mary Cheh's recent campaign finance bill as "self-serving," since Cheh holds other jobs as a law professor at GW and teaching bar review courses. (Tommy Wells, the one co-sponsor, does not have any outside employment).
Transportation: During a section on transportation, it came out that of the candidates, only Sekou Biddle is a member of Capital Bikeshare, and only he and Peter Shapiro subscribe to Zipcar. Biddle even pulled out his CaBi key, on his keychain, and his Zipcar membership card right on the stage.
I asked candidates about how we could help cyclists and drivers better understand each other's needs and concerns. Without being "gotcha" about it, I wanted to give Vincent Orange a chance to speak to what he had learned from the January 1st episode where he parked in the 15th Street bike lane, was called out on Twitter, and apologized. Orange said that he hadn't realized on which side of the white stanchions he should park, and that now he does.
Biddle proposed having driver education include information on how to deal with bicycle infrastructure and people riding bikes. This would only be a small start, since many DC drivers move in from other states, but it was a thoughtful response on the topic.
Biddle was also most able to talk about the role of buses in helping connect communities. I asked candidates to name a bus line that they feel works well in DC, partly to see how many could name a bus line at all. Orange gave an example of a bus line, the X2, but couldn't name it without help from a staffer who shouted it out unprompted.
Holness, marriage, and the Redskins: Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness, generally considered a long-shot candidate, gave some reasons to appreciate her candidacy, but also some reasons for concern. As a resident of Ward 1, she lives in the most urban neighborhood among the candidates, and says she rides a bicycle and takes many forms of transit regularly. She was able to name many bus lines and talk about them in depth.
However, Holness was the only candidate of the four not to encourage Maryland residents to vote to keep the new same-sex marriage law. She also said on last week's WPFW debate that she supports giving land to the Redskins for a practice facility, on the theory that the master plan calls for recreational space.
The plan does ask for recreation space, but intended to serve local residents, not to be a fenced-off facility that only serves a professional team. I pushed on this issue, asking her why she would fulfill a neighborhood request in this way. She didn't have a good answer and seemed confused by the policy details.
The other candidates all reaffirmed their opposition to the practice facility. Orange said he would support bringing the actual team back and potentially using public funds, if it were part of a plan to create a "livable, walkable" community around the stadium as the District is doing at the ballpark.
"Livable, walkable" actually is a phrase Orange spoke at least 5 times over the course of the debate. It's a testament to the phrase Tommy Wells coined for his campaign slogan, and the policies behind it, that Orange has latched on. Hopefully this means he genuinely supports the principles of "livable, walkable" communities; either way, he clearly believes it's a growing political force.
Kwame's revenge: Speaking of Mr. "Livable, Walkable" Wells, the forum's most dramatic moment came near the end, when Orange suggested that Wells should have at least toned down his criticism of Kwame Brown's Lincoln Navigator scandal, to avoid losing his committee and his opportunity to advance his agenda. Shapiro quickly disagreed, arguing that Wells was right to speak up and that it shows the "dysfunction" in the current council that others did not come to his defense.
Did the forum help you make up your mind? What stuck out as most meaningful to you?
Breaking: Kwame Brown stripping transportation committee from Tommy Wells as retribution for SUV scandal
DC Council chairman Kwame Brown plans to remove Tommy Wells from his chairmanship of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation today. This appears to be naked political payback from February, when Wells published a report on the Lincoln Navigator scandal.
Email the Council or call Brown's office at (202) 724-8032 to express your disappointment that personal grudges are trumping good policy.
Wells supported Brown's campaign for chair, but since February, relations between Wells and Brown have been frosty. Brown blamed Wells for the report, which found that Brown violated the law.
Wells had a duty to investigate. This was a major news story, and it fell squarely in Wells' committee responsibility. Instead, Brown seems to have wanted Wells to simply bury the issue. It shows a serious failing in Brown's ethical compass when he expects this of colleagues, and those who take the honest route get punished so blatantly.
It's pretty blatant, too. Brown isn't rearranging all the committees. He's just singling out Wells for punishment.
Wells will get the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, generally considered
the least desirable post one of the least desirable posts. Mary Cheh, who is still close to Brown and his number two as Chair Pro Tempore, will take over Public Works and Transportation as well as keeping the Department of the Environment. Muriel Bowser, who got Parks and Rec in January because of her support for Mayor Fenty, will get Government Operations.
Committees are rarely shifted mid-term, and only to take responsibilities away from a member facing scandal. This may be the first time in history a committee is taken away midway from a member for being honest.
Brown had the opportunity to alter committees because Harry Thomas, Jr. stepped down from the Committee on Econmic Development amid his own ethical problems. Brown moved economic development into the Committee of the Whole, under his direct control.
Vincent Orange (at-large) wanted Economic Development, but Brown didn't want to give it to him because of their rivalry in the race for chair (and, perhaps, because Orange has a poor track record on economic development).
Instead, Brown is proposing a new, smaller committee with only oversight of the Department of Small & Local Business Development and some other smaller agencies, and is keeping Economic Development in the Committee of the Whole.
Since Orange has no committee today, there's no need for any further reshuffling. But apparently Brown is still sore from the report.
Ironically, however, that report could have been the best thing for Brown. It got the issue fully into the spotlight, reducing the long drip of new scandal news. It put a fair amount of blame on the Department of Public Works as well as on Brown.
Had Brown embraced the report, apologized for his missteps, and pushed to fix policies around official vehicles for the future to stop such failures from recurring, he could have put the issue behind him.
Brown had many opportunities to start rebuilding the Council's reputation. Instead, he has continued to drag it into the gutter. He told colleagues that his own campaign finance scandals didn't go any deeper, and then they did.
The Council started the year with very high esteem among the populace, after a term of steady and effective leadership under Vincent Gray. Now, it's widely derided, and rightly so, with many of its members facing some ethical questions.
Now, he's even transferring the DC Council's voting seat on the WMATA Board. That's quite ironic. Last year, before becoming chair, Kwame Brown participated in a secretive committee to study WMATA governance, dominated by the Board of Trade. One of the better recommendations from that committee was to make board appointments based less on politics. Now, Brown is reassigning the post once again based solely on politics, and dirty personal ones at that.
By putting politics over progress, Brown is abandoning a commitment to make transportation better in DC. The people of Ward 7, where Brown himself lives, could suffer. Wells was making improving bus service east of the Anacostia a cornerstone of his chairmanship. He hosted listening sessions in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, got WMATA to promise technological upgrades for Metrobuses east of the river, and pushed the east of the river Circulator even though it meant losing some service in Ward 6.
Cheh, on the other hand, complained in the budget that the Circulator is going east of the river but doesn't go to the Palisades. Was that just posturing for her ward, or will she really push for more transportation spending in Ward 3 over other parts of DC?
Cheh is one of the least bad alternatives to head transportation, but it'll break the forward momentum that's been built with Council working closely with DDOT. Wells' staff has a deep understanding of transportation issues, including some carried over from when Jim Graham ran the committee. That institutional memory will likely be lost.
Plus, as Brown's closest confidante on the Council, Cheh could have tried to talk him out of this move which clearly makes him look petty. Does she also think keeping Brown's scandals quiet is the top public policy goal for the Council? Or is she sore with Tommy Wells for stymieing her plan to pretend to support the bond tax in place of an income tax, but then try to get both out of the budget?
DDOT is at a crossroads. New Director Terry Bellamy, formerly Gabe Klein's deputy, could aggressively move to implement the ambitious Action Agenda that Klein put together, including pedestrian safety, bikeshare expansion, cycle tracks, bus priority lanes, real-time bus information, Circulator expansion, performance parking and more.
Or, Bellamy could let inertia win out, not making the tough calls and allowing projects to stagnate when the public isn't unified for or against them, as they usually aren't. Wells and his team were well situated to push DDOT to achieve its potential.
By taking Wells off the committee for transparently political reasons, Brown is showing that forward progress in the District isn't foremost in his mind. Instead, punishing those who don't cover up his own ethical failings is the priority. At least now, we know exactly what kind of man we have as Chairman.
The Council typically goes along with a chairman's committee choices, but they all have to vote on the recommendation this morning. Will this Council really stand by and let Brown do this? If they do, each member will be sending the message that it's appropriate to cover up a colleague's misdeeds.
What, then, should the public assume is behind each future decision the Council makes? Or the difficult decisions they do not make? Email Brown and the Council or call Brown's office at (202) 724-8032 to remind them that this unprecedented, vindictive move will further degrade the reputations of Brown, each member who votes aye, and that of the Council as a whole.
Update: Mary Cheh has sent me the following statement:
Kwame decided to reshuffle and make more coherent committee functions. And yesterday he told me of his plan to emphasize the environmental work in one committee, bringing back environment to public works and transportation (stormwater, recycling and waste management, transportation policy, pollution and vehicles, etc. brought together with environmental policy) and he offered the committee to me. I jumped at it and am very enthusiastic.The argument about making committees more coherent makes little sense when he's also splitting up the traditional Economic Development functions into smaller committees to limit Vincent Orange. We all know why this one area is being singled out. I'm disappointed that Cheh is defending such an ethically suspect move.
Tomorrow, Councilmember Tommy Wells will introduce 3 bills to reform some of the ethical problems DC has recently faced around inappropriate use of official vehicles and campaign finance, his staff announced today.
The bill on official vehicles will:
- Prohibit DC from buying "luxury-class vehicles" and set other restrictions on vehicle types.
- Freeze the size of the fleet at the current size and will push to reduce numbers of vehicles when possible.
- Set more strict MPG requirements for all official vehicles.
- Expand the use of fleet share.
- Clarifies that DPW is in charge of all official vehicles.
The campaign finance bills will:
- Set up reporting requirements for transition and inauguration committees, both a source of unreported contributions in the past for mayors and council chairs.
- Ban bundling of corporate contributions, to avoid having companies use many subsidiary LLCs to get around contributions limits as Bryan Weaver explained. I've asked for more information on how banning bundling will address this specific problem.
- Require any nonprofits that receive constituent service funds to have been around for 1 year, to avoid officials suddenly creating new ones that they control to either pay themselves or use the money as political favors.
- Recalibrate reporting deadlines to account for the new, earlier primary date.
Are there other measures that ought to be in ethics legislation? What about Mitch Wander's 3 "quick fixes" proposals?
DC can kill two political birds with one stone: Save money, and respond to public frustration about official vehicles, by aggressively replacing most government vehicles with fleet sharing.
At the Council hearing on SUVgate on March 7, DPW Director Bill Howland said that if he had a "magic wand," he would take away almost all dedicated agency vehicles and replace them with fleet share.
How does DPW's fleet share work? Basically, it's Zipcar for DC employees. Actually, that's exactly what it is, since it's run by Zipcar. DC pays $115-125 per vehicle, per month, and Zipcar manages each vehicle's use. Government employees have a special reservation system, and special cards to unlock the vehicles.
In 2008 and 2009, DC replaced 360 individual vehicles with just 58 shared vehicles. DC saved about $1 million a year by doing this.
Let's give Howland his magic wand. Ask DPW to review its inventory of official vehicles and identify each one that has to remain dedicated to one person or agency. DPW should release a report to the Council and the public about each one, with an explanation of why it needs to be a dedicated vehicle.
Then, for all the others, switch them out for fleet share. Even if just 2 dedicated vehicles turn into 1 fleet share vehicle, it saves money. Plus, since Zipcar has a certain amount of fixed cost to run its systems, it ought to be able to give DC a bit better of a rate per car for the next few hundred fleet share vehicles.
Some DC government agencies, where one facility is far from others, might not lend themselves to fleet share. But DC has been consolidating many agencies into a number of buildings around the District, most of which are also right by Metro stations.
By reducing the numbers of vehicles the District owns, it would also cut down on parking needs. At buildings where part of the garage is commercial, like at the Reeves Center, each space not being used by DC means another space that can be rented out to others daily or monthly, saving even more money.
Plus, why not let the general public rent out fleet share vehicles on weekends? DC has a bunch of fleet share vehicles in the garage at the Reeves Center, for instance, of which very few are probably used on weekends. Meanwhile, there's plenty of weekend demand at 14th and U, perhaps more than on weekdays.
The Reeves Center garage is already open to the public as well. Let most but not all DC fleet share vehicles turn into regular Zipcars just for the weekend. DC could run this as a pilot at the Reeves Center, the most obvious spot, to figure out how well this works and whether it's worth expanding to other facilities.
This year is the ideal time to do this. There's tremendous voter outrage over the existing official vehicles. Howland, Mayor Gray, and the DC Council would find plenty of public support for any effort to reduce the size of the District's fleet and save money.
The ongoing scandal over inappropriate government SUVs has widened with a stunning revelation that DC Councilmember Tommy Wells also has a "fully-loaded" government vehicle of his own.
Council Chairman Kwame Brown has come under fire for leasing two black Lincoln Navigators at a cost of nearly $2,000 per month to taxpayers.
Now, through a Freedom of Information Act request, GGW has obtained new emails showing that just after Wells assumed chairmanship of the Transportation Committee, committee staff director Jonathon Kass exchanged a series of emails with DPW Director Bill Howland.
In the emails, Wells requested a bicycle lease including luxurious features such as high-intensity LED front and rear lighting, a "cushy seat with those springy things," and handlebar streamers. It was very important to Wells for the vehicle to use a black-on-black color scheme.
"The chairman requires a fully-loaded bike," Kass wrote to Howland. When DPW staff was not able to locate a bicycle meeting the Council member's exact specifications, Kass replied via email to Howland. "No streamers?" he asked.
Soon after, a prospective supplier came forward with a chrome-on-black rather than black-on-black bicycle. After some back-and-forth, the bicycle was deemed adequate for the committee chairman's needs.
The lease ended up costing the District $190 per month. DCist compared this cost to more necessary expenses, noting that this exceeds the cost many DC residents spend on their iPhone voice and data plans each month.
Howland defended the purchase, saying that the bicycle could be necessary for the committee chairman to reach the scene of an emergency. In a crisis, he noted, the roads could be gridlocked, and the bicycle would be the only way for Wells to reach the affected area quickly. ""In my judgment, I used it as an emergency vehicle," Howland said.
Councilmember Wells has vowed to return the bicycle, and to move past this shiny distraction.
Update: A sympathetic source inside Wells' office has provided us with this photograph of the committee chairman and his chief of staff trying out additional bicycles:
DPW improperly purchased and leased a number of SUVs, including the ones for Council Chairman Kwame Brown, in violation of laws restricting their use, according to a preliminary report from Councilmember Tommy Wells and his staff.
Wells requested information from the Department of Public Works last week. His staff must have been working late nights to analyze the data, since he already released a report (PDF) on the findings based on what DPW provided.
In 2004, when a law went into effect prohibiting SUVs or other vehicles getting less than 22 miles per gallon except for ones used in security, emergency response, or rescue, or for armored vehicles. Since then, the report shows, at least 32 vehicles were purchased or leased that violate this provision.
The report is clear when it comes to Chairman Kwame Brown's SUV:
The Chairman of the Council inappropriately requested the city provide a Lincoln Navigator SUV, and the Executive appears to have violated DC law by providing it. It is contrary to DC law to lease or purchase a sport utility vehicle (SUV) or a vehicle that achieves less than 22 miles per gallon (MPG), and the requested vehicle does not meet any of the statutory exceptions.The law also prohibits DC workers from chauffering others around, except for the Mayor. However, the report says officials may have been routinely violating this provision, including in past administrations.
While it was inappropriate to request this type of vehicle, the Chairman of the Council is permitted under DC Code §50-204(a) to have an official vehicle to travel between his residence and workplace, and for use in the course of his daily work.
Also, DPW does not have a centralized list of vehicles and to whom each is assigned. A DC Auditor report from April 2010 recommended DPW create a "comprehensive fleet management program" to track this, but that has not yet happened.
Most Councilmembers were silent at first when revelations about these SUVs first broke. Many feared that they would put comity over accountability in this case. Wells, for his part, has moved extremely quickly to get the facts out and stand up clearly to root out this problem throughout the government.
Mayor Fenty travels everywhere in a Smart Car. It's not as eco-sensitive as Tommy Wells' bike, but really, for a mayor who probably does have to drive everywhere it's quite a good choice.
In a cheesy comment, he noted that he had driven from the Wilson Building in a V8-powered SUV, while Mayor Fenty had driven over in his Smart Car. Councilman Thomas told Mayor Fenty that he should abandon the Smart Car and get back in something with "more horsepower" so he could make it to these events more quickly. All things said, I'd much rather that those driving would all follow the Mayor's example instead of barreling around in gas guzzlers like the Councilman.Would Thomas really rather everyone took up more space, guzzled more gas, emitted more pollution, and created more danger to pedestrians, other motorists, and (through rollovers) themselves by driving big muscle SUVs? More likely Thomas doesn't really want those things, but is instead still stuck in the testosterone-laden "big car equals power" mindset.
Councilmember Thomas recently launched a major initiative to providee asthma screenings and education for Ward 5 residents. Ward 5 has the second-highest asthma rate in DC, surpassed only by Ward 7. Thomas should have praised Mayor Fenty for arriving at the event in a Smart Car, avoiding dumping more pollution into Ward 5's air. Thomas should set an example toward improving the health of his constituents by dumping the SUV for a Smart Car, Prius, taking the bus, or bicycling the short distance from his house to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro to get to work when he doesn't have to attend groundbreaking ceremonies.
Over a third of the residents of Thomas' ward do not own cars; it'd be great to see Thomas thinking about their needs instead of reinforcing the antiquated notion that owning a big SUV is the American Dream.
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