The D.C. Councils first virtual meeting.s first virtual meeting.
The D.C. Councils first virtual meeting.s first virtual meeting.

If you’re like LL and settled in with a fresh bowl of mid-morning popcorn in anticipation of the D.C. Council’s first ever virtual legislative meeting, then you’re probably disappointed. The two-hour meeting conducted over Zoom went off without much of a hitch.

Originally billed as a likely technological fiasco, almost no one thought the meeting would go so smoothly. Chief among the doubters was Chairman Phil Mendelson, who scheduled a practice run last week and pleaded for the public’s patience during his briefing on Monday. After all, a third of this legislative body’s members are north of 67 years old.

All 12 members, with the exception of Mendelson, who participated from the John A. Wilson Building, Zoomed from their home offices, living rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms. 

To kick off the meeting, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie raised concerns from the business community about a transportation benefits bill Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen offered. The bill requires employers who offer parking benefits to also offer equal benefits to those employees who choose not to drive to work.

McDuffie highlighted emails he’d received from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District that object to the added costs the bill would impose on businesses during a crisis. Cheh noted that the bill would not take effect until October and said this watered down version of the bill was the result of at least two years’ worth of negotiations with business leaders.

“I just have to say, to be perfectly blunt, this is what I was describing as coronavirus opportunism,” Cheh said.

“It’s a way to seize the public health emergency to revisit this matter that we had gone over at length, made many, many compromises to, when we’re at a point where we’re going to adopt it,” she added.

McDuffie ultimately voted in favor of the bill, but said he wanted the Council and the public “to understand there are still deep reservations in the business community about the costs associated with this bill.”

“And while they’re thinking about all the things they have to address now to try and survive after the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to note this may be one more added cost,” he said.

The marquee agenda item, which passed unanimously, was the Council’s second emergency bill responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. It freezes rent increases, requires mortgage payment deferrals, prohibits debt collection lawsuits, establishes a funeral bill of rights, allows a person to sign a will electronically, authorizes the Board of Elections to mail every voter an absentee ballot request form, authorizes $500 million in short term borrowing, and aims to facilitate the release of D.C. offenders incarcerated in the Bureau of Prisons, among other actions.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is in the two provisions deleted from the 150-page bill. 

Early drafts included provisions that would have established a grant program and provided financial assistance like unemployment benefits for undocumented and non-traditional workers.

Mendelson said the programs were too costly—an estimated $75 million—but promised to continue looking for ways to provide cash assistance to the people excluded from the Council’s relief bill for a second time.

Chalk that up as a legislative loss for At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman who championed the provisions and expressed her disappointment ahead of the vote.

“These are workers who have made our restaurant industry Michelin star-rated, who have cared for our children and, cleaned hotel rooms, and have literally built the city with the construction industry in the past 20 years,” Silverman said. “They will hardly get any help in this bill because they are excluded from federally funded programs such as unemployment insurance.”

Silverman also pushed back against Mendelson’s $75 million cost estimate. Using Zoom’s chat feature, she wrote that her office did not attach a price tag to one of the provisions, which would have established a grant fund and given the mayor authority to decide how much money to put in it.

“The second option of community grants IS NOT A PARALLEL UI PROGRAM AND DID NOT SPECIFY HOW MUCH MONEY WOULD BE GIVEN,” Silverman wrote, either shouting from her keyboard or unaware the caps lock was on. “IT ONLY AUTHORIZED THE MAYOR TO GIVE OUT INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNITY GRANTS.” She also noted that Montgomery County set up a similar fund with $5 million.

Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray bounced back from his own defeat in mid-March when the Council passed its first COVID-19 response bill. Last month, Gray tried to slip in an amendment that would have created a grant program for private hospitals. Mendelson strongly suggested Gray withdraw the amendment, which was of interest to lobbyist David Catania, a former at-large councilmember who attended the March meeting. This time around, a grant program similar to what Gray imagined made it into the bill. The money is available to non-profit and for-profit hospitals treating patients with COVID-19.

“We may need to expand and broaden this provision in the future to include independent physician and dentist offices, clinics and behavioral health providers,” Gray said. “We have to fortify our healthcare system and provide our dedicated healthcare workers with the resources they need to be able to beat the COVID-19.”

The Council’s next legislative meeting is scheduled for May 5 in the Council chamber unless the public health emergency is extended.

“Thank you all for participating,” Council secretary Nyasha Smith said to the members and the 251 people who stuck around to watch until the end. “I hope this meeting went smoothly.”

“I think it did,” Mendelson said.

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