Hill Communication: To Graham?s chagrin, Congress is all up in WASA?s business.
Hill Communication: To Graham?s chagrin, Congress is all up in WASA?s business. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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What do sports stadiums, a commuter tax, and sewage have in common?

All three, catalogers of jurisdictional slights will recognize, are ready points of friction between the District of Columbia and its suburban neighbors. Right now, for instance, the stadium issue is hot—what with potential new homes for D.C. United and the Redskins being bandied about by politicos. But the real pissing match these days concerns the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

Allow LL to indulge in a history lesson: Until 1996, the city water and sewer utilities were part and parcel of the District government itself. Various suburban jurisdictions pumped their sewage down to the Blue Plains wastewater plant on D.C.’s southern tip and paid the District handsomely to do so. But during the administrations of Mayors Marion S. Barry Jr. and Sharon Pratt Kelly, those suburban sewage dollars went to make District ends meet during years of financial crisis.

In 1996, under the threat of a potential congressional intervention, the D.C. Council created WASA, which is governed by an 11-member board—five members of which are drawn from the suburban jurisdictions. As for the financial oversight of the utility, that’s where things get contentious. Anthony A. Williams, then the city’s chief financial officer, entered into an agreement with WASA allowing it to handle its own finances. Depending on who you ask, either WASA was meant to control its own finances from the beginning or it’s always been under the District’s financial oversight and D.C. was gracious enough to let WASA handle things itself for a while.

Whatever your point of view, just about everyone agrees on this: For about 10 years, things worked just fine. Williams and his successor as CFO, Natwar M. Gandhi, were able to rebuild the District’s finances without having to worry about the utility’s $200 million-plus operating budget, while WASA managed to get its own house in order.

Then, in 2004, WASA was hit with its biggest public-relations disaster to date, with scores of District homes testing for excessive levels of lead in their tap water. The next year, with all eyes on WASA’s singularly unimpressive response to the crisis, the District decided not to renew the financial-oversight agreement. Then, last year, the issue was ratcheted up another rhetorical notch, when an otherwise routine budget bill included a provision, pushed by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, that once and for all pulls WASA underneath the District CFO’s umbrella.

Needless to say, the ’burbanites weren’t pleased. At the time, Graham—who chairs the public works and environment committee that oversees WASA—told the Washington Times that the measure was “an effort to bring the issue to a head, frankly.”

“The only way this is going to get resolved, that I can see, is for Congress to resolve it,” he said.

Wish granted: The first Hill salvo came in a Sept. 17 letter to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, and WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson. In the letter, sent on Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s stationery, suburban Hill honchos explained that the WASA power move was unacceptable but they weren’t going to block enactment of the law. Instead, they played nice.

“Until recently, the D.C. Government has agreed that WASA needs to maintain its fiscal independence,” the letter read. “We would like to preserve this existing arrangement.” It was signed by Van Hollen, as well as Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, plus Maryland Reps. Albert Wynn and Steny Hoyer and Virginia Rep. Tom Davis. CC’d on the letter was Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped birth WASA back in 1996.

Fenty’s and Gray’s response: No, congressional overlords, we’d prefer not to. In an Oct. 17 letter, the District’s top dogs argued the Home Rule Act required the District’s CFO to oversee WASA, and, in support of that position, included a four-page legal opinion written by then Attorney General Linda Singer.

After that, Mikulski and Cardin, along with Virginia Sens. John Warner and Jim Webb, fired off letters to their Senate colleagues who chair the committee and subcommittee in charge of District oversight, asking them to “urge the District of Columbia to work with our states’ jurisdictions to find a solution that retains [WASA] as an independent authority with separate finances” from the District CFO.

In the following months, no solution to the impasse was found. So in December, the Marylanders reached for the nuclear option: a budget rider that would not only have kept financial oversight of WASA in its own hands but, under a version of the language obtained by LL, would have prohibited the D.C. government from passing “any act, resolution, or rule” concerning WASA ever again.

The rider never made it into the final bill. Sources say that the language was sent to the proper subcommittee chairmen, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, as the deadline for the omnibus spending bill approached, but it didn’t make it on time and was left out of the final draft.

Even so, the prospect of a rider did light a fire under Norton, who began accelerating her efforts to broker a deal amenable to all parties. But the latest parlay from the District, floated in a Feb. 7 letter, isn’t a crowd-pleaser. It proposes to essentially return to the status quo, by passing federal legislation that would explicitly allow the CFO to delegate his responsibilities to any independent agency. That, however, doesn’t get it done from the suburban point of view, since the CFO could ostensibly change his mind at any time.

In a statement, Van Hollen referred to the solution proffered by Fenty and Gray as a “non-starter.”

“I am working with Congresswoman Norton to put these problems behind us,” he said, “so that we can spend our time on more productive matters.”

A solution could come from a couple of directions. Either another rider could be inserted into an unrelated bill on the Hill, or a standalone bill could be moved that would take WASA oversight out of the District CFO’s hands for once and for all.

Clearly, as far as the District’s ego is concerned, the latter is preferable.

Another complicating factor is a jobs bill passed by the D.C. Council last October giving a preference to District applicants for WASA jobs. Talk about a direct shot to the Free State: More than 65 percent of WASA’s 967 employees are Maryland residents. In the rider floated in December, the section of the jobs bill pertaining to WASA was repealed, and any solution to this mess coming off Capitol Hill will likely do the same.

One guy who hasn’t been part of any high-level governance discussions until recently is Graham, who continues to hammer the utility for various jurisdictional disses. To wit: At a Feb. 22 oversight hearing, Graham went after WASA board president Robin B. Martin for having a Montgomery County board member, David W. Lake, head up the utility’s committee on environmental quality and operations, which oversees, among other things, the lead-pipe replacement program.

In no uncertain terms, Graham demanded that Martin pick someone else—someone-from-D.C. else—to head up the committee. “Mr. Lake has no business heading up such an inquiry,” Graham told Martin. “He must be taken off this function.”

Graham also brought up Fenty’s and Gray’s Feb. 7 letter. “The approach that this letter represents is just wrongheaded,” he said. “I don’t like it every time we have to go to Congress to fix our problems.”

How does that jibe with his earlier line, the one about congressional intervention being the “only way this is going to get resolved”? Graham says the earlier line referred merely to Congress’ constitutional right to disapprove any District legislation—which, he points out, it declined to do. Anything beyond that, he says, would be undue federal meddling.

Shortly before LL’s Tuesday evening deadline, Graham and City Administrator (and WASA board member) Dan Tangherlini both called to report that a revision to the Feb. 7 letter would be sent, one that proposes the same essential move though council action rather than congressional action.

That certainly won’t satisfy suburban critics, but so be it, says Tangherlini: “They have to respect the fact that the District has sovereignty, that WASA is a creature of the District’s creation.”

GOP Honcho Takes Interest in ANC Races

Local Republicans have a hard time winning election to the city’s 15 partisan offices—only At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz holds it down for the GOP these days. So here’s an idea for turning our deep-blue city a more purplish hue: Try some of the nonpartisan races.

As reported in last week’s Dupont Current, curious circumstances surround the special election to a vacated seat on the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission. Four candidates are vying for the spot, and after each had submitted their nominating petitions to the Board of Elections and Ethics—they need 25 signatures each from registered voters in their district to get on the ballot—three of the four had their petitions challenged.

That’s pretty much par for the course in petty neighborhood politics, save for this fact: The petition challenger was a top honcho in the city Republican party, and the three candidates who had their ballots challenged are all registered Democrats, while the sole candidate whose ballots went unchallenged is a registered Republican.

Paul D. Craney, the executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, is the man who filed the challenges, which he chose to withdraw after the board made a preliminary ruling that the petitions were OK.

Craney declines to call his activities partisan. “I never came forward using my work address,” he says, “and I could have taken this a lot farther if I wanted.” Rather, says the Cathedral Heights resident, he was exercising his rights as a District citizen. After all, he points out, the board doesn’t vet those signatures itself. (Just ask Dorothy Brizill.)

The Dupont race isn’t the first time that Craney’s decided to exercise those particular citizenly rights. In October, a special election for an ANC district near Thomas Circle pitted Jerome Sikorski, a registered Republican, against Dustin Cole, a registered Democrat. Craney challenged Cole’s petition signatures, also unsuccessfully. Sikorski went on to outpoll Cole by a single vote, 17-16.

The Republican-registered candidate in the Dupont Circle election, Jim Kadtke, is a GOP donor and is slated to be a delegate to this year’s Republican National Convention. He says there was no coordination between him and Craney. “Frankly, I had no idea any of this was going till I saw this Current article,” he says. “I almost fell out of the chair.”

Kadtke calls the challenges “good governance,” but he’s not pleased that the controversy has resulted in his political affiliation being plastered all over the local media. “I think they’ve really seriously biased this race now,” he says. (For the record, of fellow candidates Robin Diener, Jack Jacobson, and Marisa Uchin, only Jacobson has donated to a federal campaign in recent years—$250 to John Kerry in 2004. Diener has given to various local Democrats.)

Question is, is Craney planning to make a habit out of his petition challenges? With 286 city ANC districts, he could find himself challenging dozens of petitions come fall.

Says Craney: “We’ll have to see.”

In any case, Craney need not expect much company from his Democratic counterparts while poring over petitions. Anita Bonds, head of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, says her party has bigger fish to fry: “I have no idea why they would get involved at that level.”

Political Potpourri

• In LL’s last column (“Transitive Property,” 2/15), he referred to the D.C. Council’s newly founded Office of Policy Analysis and went on to state that, to date, “the office’s sole work has been a particularly self-serving ex post facto report on school governance.” LL was wrong; a more accurate statement would be: The office’s sole publicly released work has been a particularly self-serving ex post facto report on school governance.

Doxie McCoy, Gray’s spokesperson, assures LL that the office has been plenty busy, having finished six draft reports for councilmembers and currently working on seven more. “Subjects include: the District’s structural imbalance, higher education, affordable housing, emergency preparedness, prisoner re-entry, and uses for closed schools,” McCoy writes in an e-mail.

None of those reports were available for review, but LL apologizes to the office’s hardworking staff all the same.

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