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The election is over, but the real campaign has only just begun at One Judiciary Square. That would be the frantic campaign by councilmembers who are jockeying for plum committee assignments to be handed out by D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp.
Greater political influence and budgetary power are conferred immediately when a member is anointed chair of a council committee. Past council chairs, such as John A. Wilson and David Clarke, tapped their choices on the basis of erratic moods, petty annoyances, and political favoritism. In 1997, when Cropp stepped in, she basically affirmed the committee structure set by her predecessors but relied principally on seniority as the guiding force for her decisions.
But the seniority system has a big drawback, and his name is Harold Brazil. Brazil is now poised, because of his seniority, to assume the chairmanship of the powerful Committee on Economic Development. That committee monitors government land deals, banking and insurance regulation, bond sales, neighborhood and community development projects, and the work of the quasi-independent National Capital Revitalization Corp. It became an orphan when Ward 4’s Charlene Drew Jarvis was clobbered by Adrian Fenty. But even before Jarvis’ drubbing, some activists had figured the committee for dead.
“Economic Development has not done much [under Jarvis], despite the best economy in the postwar period,” asserts activist Terry Lynch, a Fenty supporter. Raise your hand if you think anything will change under Brazil, who could be mistaken for the mayor of Mumbleland.
Although Cropp gets to shuffle the deck, she still needs seven councilmembers to approve the hand she wants to play. Despite the prospect of Brazil’s ascension, most of her peers want to keep the present seniority-based systembut only if Democrats prevail as chairs. Others want to split up large committees, like Human Services, offering a fiefdom for each member.
“There is a lot of untapped experience and education that could be used to improve the selection and make the overall operation more efficient,” says Ward 5’s Vincent Orange, currently without official portfolio.
“We should share the wealth,” says Ward 2’s Jack Evans.
To which LL says: That kind of egalitarianism is as frightening as polyester suits. Forget about seniority and each man (or woman) for his (or her) own island. Talent, demonstrated expertise, and quality of previous performance ought to be the criteria for making committee assignments. The prevailing view among the councilmembers is that executive-branch managers should be held to a performance standard, their pay or advancement in the bureaucracy predicated on their ability to meet and exceed the bar. So the legislative branch should hardly get a pass. If councilmembers mess up, they ought to sit on the sidelines the next time aroundor play in the baby pool.
Here, Madame Chair, is what you ought to do: Slice and dice the existing committees, as recommended by some of your colleagues, including Evans. The Human Services Committee should be split in half, divided between human services and health. Recreation should be broken off into its own committeemaybe that will finally get the grass cutand education and libraries can remain coupled. And public safety agencies should be stripped from the Committee on the Judiciary and given a committee of their own. Other committeesConsumer and Regulatory Affairs, Government Operations, and the restshould remain unaltered.
As for the actual assignments: File away Orange’s awfully polite letter dated Nov. 6 touting his legal experience and education as reasons why he deserves the Committee on the Judiciary. Ignore the pick-me, pick-me looks from Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson and At-Large David Catania. Brazil’s your man for the newly constructed Judiciary Committee, which should oversee courts, corporation counsel, and corrections.
Brazil is very into punishment. The former prosecutor spent his early years on the council rewriting the city’s misdemeanor and felony laws. He may have been outgunned and outmanned with police work and firefighting, but he can handle judges, lawyers, and jails.
Catania, with a reputation for thorough and aggressive oversight, is perfect for the new Committee on Public Safety. He’ll track crime stats, which some residents say don’t accurately reflect what’s happening in their neighborhoods; curb the action of those jump-out squads, regarded by some as discriminatory; and make sure police are on the streetsnot behind desks or in cruisers. Can’t you just see Catania catching one of the city’s overweight officers parked in a car, wolfing down a slice of pizza with everything on it? He’d order the layabout out of the vehicle to walk the beat while generously offering a gift certificate to Results, the Gym.
The best place for the methodical (and some might say anal-retentive) Phil Mendelson is the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the city department of the same name. The at-large councilmember spent his first two years on the council rooting around in school warehouses, weedy ballfields, and Metro stations in search of an issue he could claim as his own. Mendelson likes the minutiae born of the consumer department’s business, which includes inspections, licensing, and permits for all manner of enterprises. He’s also a known rules-and-regulations freak.
Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose should transition to the Committee on Government Operations, which monitors the offices of the mayor, the city administrator, procurement, and personnel. She knows municipal management, doesn’t suffer fools, and comes loaded for bear at each public hearingno fast-talking or jiving with her in the seat. Can’t wait to see highly polished City Administrator John Koskinen wither at the witness table under one of Ambrose’s legendary righteous-indignation tirades.
Patterson, the council’s master of all trades, performed exquisitely as the chair of the Committee on Government Operations. She’s earned the challenge, clout, and power of the Committee on Human Services, which ought to oversee welfare reform and the operation of the new cabinet-level agency, Child and Family Services.
Some neighborhood activists contend that Jim Graham, the Ward 1 councilmember, doesn’t know development and tenant-rights issues. But, as former head of Whitman-Walker Clinic, he knows a thing or two about bringing health care to needy and overlooked populations. He’s the logical choice for a new Committee on Health.
There have been so many foul-ups by city human-services agencies during Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen’s watch as chair of the current Committee on Human Services that she is a prime candidate for the baby pool. So send her to the Committee on Parks and Recreation. It’s a smaller agency, but the city has a lot riding on its improvement. If Allen, using her considerable community organizing skills, can elevate the agency, then maybe she can redeem herself.
With his business travel schedule and basketball talent, Kevin Chavous should be drafted by the Globetrotters, but don’t let him near the new Committee on Education and Libraries. The Ward 7 representative can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows upa councilmember, the mayor, or a million-mile frequent flier. His tenure as current chair of the Education, Libraries, and Recreation Committee has been undistinguished. Sideline him to the Committee on Local and Regional Affairs, whose light agenda would give Chavous lots of time for extended absences without being criticized for them. He could continue his mayoral campaign. And he also might have a moment to remember why he wanted to represent those citizens east of the Anacostia River in the first place. Hint: something to do with constituent service.
Fenty, who in the primary election whipped Jarvis as if she had stolen something, once served as staffer to the Education, Libraries, and Recreation Committee. It’s time for the staffer to become the chair of the newly paired committee. Fenty works hard, listens well, and has some interesting ideas about how to galvanize citizens and improve services. The city’s education system is being overhauled, with a new school board and a new superintendent. The council can join in, appointing someone with a longer attention span than the committee’s current chair.
Carol Schwartz should keep the Department of Public Works; a Judiciary Square watcher declares her “good at talking trash.” Evans should stay as the council’s numbers man as head of the Committee on Finance and Revenueno one else can be trusted to keep the administration honest. Recently, he helped lead the assault on the District’s antiquated tax codeswhich means he not only knows that finance and revenue stuff, he actually likes it.
As for that orphanEconomic Developmentgive it to Orange. Oh, stop screaming: He deserves it. The guy has demonstrated that he knows how to play with the big boys, how to put a deal together, and how to pick pockets, which is exactly what he did when he snatched the technology high school and the money appropriated for it from Ward 8’s Allen. Orange jumped right on the whole proposal to create a technology corridor in his ward, even though it wasn’t his idea. So what if he’s been on the council for only two years? If he can help goose the administration to pony up the kind of development funds for other communities that it is placing in his ward, then he will have earned his keep. Which is all any taxpayer really expects from a $90,000-per-year, part-time legislator anyway. Jonetta Rose Barras
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