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Early this month, colleagues of At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson exacted some long-sought revenge on the first-year legislator. Mendelson had proposed a measure that would have exempted teachers at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts from daytime parking restrictions in the surrounding neighborhood.
The proposal never even reached the council dais. Some councilmembers faulted it for singling out one group of teachers for special treatment; others wondered how it would affect local residents. Nearly all councilmembers, however, chided the proposal on other grounds—namely, it came off Mendelson’s desk as emergency legislation.
Only Mendelson could prompt that kind of reaction. In his nearly 11 months on the council, Mendelson has served as the council’s procedural Barney Fife, a process fanatic who quibbles over the wording of resolutions, holds up council meetings to clarify rules, and—his specialty—inveighs against emergency legislation at every opportunity, save when he himself proposes it.
The nitpicking reputation is about all the community activist has to show for nearly a year of service on the council. Mendelson took his seat in January alongside a squadron of good-governmenters who promised to reinvent city politics. And by all rights, he should now be known among his fellow councilmembers as the body’s foremost authority on land use and zoning—a policy area that he mastered in two decades as an activist in his native Ward 3.
Even as a booming economy makes land use a critical political issue, Mendelson is making about as much noise as he did as a McLean Gardens advisory neighborhood commissioner. He’s become the guy who speaks up when his parliamentary sensibilities are offended.
When asked what Mendelson is up to, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose replied, “He’s up to objecting to emergencies or waivers—that’s primarily what he’s up to.” And that’s just why Mendelson has been so invisible during his short council tenure.
For those who don’t read the papers—and for those who do, as well—Mendelson is one of four at-large councilmembers. He is tall, has a mustache, and is a thoughtful chap (see photo). The last time you saw his name in print was probably on last year’s ballot, where he beat a crowded field in the Democratic at-large primary and then breezed to victory in the November general election. He returned in January to the very place where he had served for over seven years as a legislative aide to former Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson and the late Chairman Dave Clarke.
Mendelson’s low profile isn’t entirely a product of his inability to fight for big-picture issues. Part of it is a function of the council’s oddities. In his at-large role, Mendelson has no territorial anchor and thus cannot take aim exclusively at, say, curb replacement costs in Ward 1 or leaf collection in Ward 7. And as a first-year councilmember, Mendelson also has no committee toward which to channel his considerable civic energies.
The result is a neophyte legislator who doesn’t quite know what to do with his time. LL suggests that Mendelson follow the route chosen by many of his colleagues: take up a career in law or find some university to administer.
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If Mendelson is allowed to continue serving full time, he’s bound to infect the entire city with his quibbles. Take, for example, this excerpt from a Nov. 11 Mendelson letter to George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: “Your October 21st letter reveals that my point was misunderstood. I am not suggesting that a section simply be added to the campus plan on how GW protects the neighborhood. Rather, the plan should define the neighborhood and then state how it will be protected. Such a step would, in turn, inform the text as to land use over the next decade.”
Also, replace that comma in the second sentence of the first paragraph with a semicolon.
The councilmember’s niggling agenda, in fact, is the most persuasive argument yet to keep the job of councilmember part-time in perpetuum: If Mendelson had a full-time job, he’d be forced to set his priorities and focus only on matters becoming a councilmember. As it stands, he has done good advocacy work against the Rock Creek Park cellular phone towers and the cap on lawyers’ fees in special education cases, but Mendelson’s legislative agenda brims with some marginal measures: preventing needle pricks at hospitals, enabling doctors to negotiate fees with health maintenance organizations, and removing Social Security numbers from driver’s licenses. At this rate, Mendelson will soon be authoring bills to overhaul filing protocol at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Mendelson’s only moment in the limelight came when he protested deep tax cuts in the Tax Parity Act of 1999, a bill sponsored by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and At-Large Councilmember David Catania. Arguably the council’s most liberal member, Mendelson contended that the bill would screw the poor by lumping them in with the middle class.
But even during that campaign, Mendelson—like a true freelance activist—seemed to save his most impassioned salvos for process objections. “This bill is not even three weeks old,” said Mendelson at a May 3 press conference on the bill. “There’s barely been time to discuss these issues….We have to focus on trying to slow this down.”
Mendelson knows that his self-appointed role as the council’s traffic cop hasn’t exactly cemented any alliances for him. “This has been a tough one for me because I’m not comfortable being the lonely vote, and sometimes there’s a certain amount of peer pressure and a lot of subjectivity to all this,” he says.
And it’s not that Mendelson’s procedural points are entirely devoid of merit. Sounding the alarm against last-minute agenda changes and emergency legislation—which Mendelson says “freezes out public participation”—has drawn support from Mendelson’s neighbor, powerful Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. “At the first legislative meeting of the year, it was like a breath of fresh air to have Phil and [Ward 1 Councilmember] Jim [Graham] ask why we were voting on legislation that they just saw,” says Patterson.
Mendelson, though, has been blowing that air for 11 months, and it doesn’t feel so fresh anymore. “He obviously has a right to do what he’s doing, and he’s making a point,” says Ambrose, “but I’m not sure people are paying attention to it anymore, because he does it all the time.”
Mendelson’s assault on the council’s business practices would also be fitting for an entity that cuts the public out of the policy-making loop. These days, however, councilmembers are jockeying among themselves to reserve the panel’s hearing room. And, although the tally for hearings on specific bills may not top previous years, the one for oversight hearings will. As of September, the council was on pace to hold 102 oversight hearings in its 1999-2000 session, compared with a total of 27 in 1995-1996 and 51 in 1997-1998, according to council secretary Phyllis Jones.
That’s great news for Mendelson, who’ll have more opportunities than his predecessors to nitpick away from his swivel chair at the council dais. “He still hasn’t made the transition from being a council staffer to a councilmember,” says a council source. “We call him ‘Staffer Phil.’”
D.C. developer Joe Horning and Giant Food Inc. need to consult LL’s classic primer How to Create Phony Grass-Roots Organizations. In recent weeks, the development partners spawned something called “Citizens for the Tivoli Retail Center,” a group purportedly dedicated to locating a Giant supermarket and several other retail establishments in the decaying Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.
LL can certainly understand Horning and Giant’s need to flaunt the populist appeal of their proposal. Although the partners on Sept. 9 won a bidding war for rights to the city-owned Tivoli parcel, the deal has unraveled over the past two months. Protesters who want to preserve the historic Tivoli as a performing arts venue have lobbied for a reversal of the Horning-Giant award—a movement that forced Mayor Anthony A. Williams on Nov. 5 to endorse a mediated solution to the dispute.
But rather than watch their retail emporium scheme disappear, the Tivoli partners are teaming up to prove that their plan has the same ingredient claimed by the other side: neighborhood support. In all fairness, Citizens for the Tivoli Retail Center does comply with Rule No. 1 in LL’s manual, which advises all corporate types to choose a “grass-rootsy-sounding name for their pet group.”
Beyond nomenclature, though, the “Citizens”‘ organization violates every precept in LL’s book, a popular guide for voracious developers and corporate seekers of government largess all around the country. Here’s a sampling:
* Rule No. 2: Never appoint a PR firm as the public face of your grass-roots organization.
Sharon Robinson of Robinson Associates, a D.C. “community relations” outfit, handles all questions about the Tivoli group. Robinson orchestrates, monitors, and coaches all press calls with leaders of the group. She also dishes out the most concise rundown of its mission: “We came together to let the community know that there is support for Horning and Giant’s efforts to build a retail center in Tivoli Theatre.”
* Rule No. 3: Choose a slogan for your organization that summons civic-mindedness and shuns commercial grotesqueries.
Oops—the Citizens’ slogan fails on both accounts: “We Want Giant Food in Columbia Heights.”
* Rule No. 4: Ensure that your grass-roots organization’s literature cites lofty goals of neighborhood togetherness, avoids mention of corporate moguls, and is riddled with errors of punctuation, logic, and spelling—the real marks of a grass-roots cause.
Here, again, the Citizens fall short, having issued a sleek, professionally packaged “fact sheet” that celebrates Horning as “the District’s most renowned neighborhood revitalization developer.”
* Rule No. 5: Designate a founder for the organization. Every worthwhile grass-roots group has a founder, preferably someone who recycles everything and wears a fanny pack.
When asked to ID the founder, Robinson responded, “I don’t know who the founder is. The group just sort of came together.”
* Nearly a year into his mayoralty, Williams has already started talking about his legacy, with varying degrees of justification. When he speaks of leaving behind refurbished neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, the mayor is on firm ground. After all, he has gone out of his way to funnel city funds and prop up all kinds of community programs in Wards 7 and 8.
But now he’s anointing himself the “tree mayor.” “One of the legacies I want to leave behind is the District as a city of trees,” said Williams at a Nov. 10 town hall meeting in Ward 5. “And the thing with trees is, you gotta make sure that you don’t just plant one kind of tree,” continued the mayor, launching into a painful digression on Dutch elm disease. The Washington Post hopped on the tree-hugger Tony bandwagon a week later, with a story titled “Mayor Working to Keep It Green.”
Too bad, then, that Williams’ budget proposal for the current fiscal year would have actively hurt Dutch elms, Dutch maples, and Dutch oaks from Friendship Heights to Congress Heights: The mayor proposed scrimping on funds for tree disease control, tree planting, and tree removal. And if the council had simply rubber-stamped his plan, the city would today have enough resources to plant a mere 1,500 new trees—far short of the recommended 5,000 to 8,000 annual plantings required to fill empty treeboxes citywide. Public Works Committee Chair Carol Schwartz threw in an extra $2 million so that the mayor could propagate his legacy.
“I’m glad to know that he is now committed to keeping our beautiful city full of trees, and I look forward to his 2001 budget reflecting that commitment,” says Schwartz.
* At an Oct. 16 D.C. Council hearing on reforming the city’s school board, the school system’s brass found a pretty solid excuse for their well-worn no-comment policy. “To comment upon the current governance structure, or alternatives to that structure, gives rise to a conflict of interest,” said Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks on behalf of her boss, Arlene Ackerman. “[Next year], the office of the superintendent will, once again, report to, and be employed by, the elected board. As a result, the potential conflict in commenting upon the authority, etc., of those who will supervise the superintendent is real.”
Not real enough, however, to keep Ackerman away from a Nov. 8 forum at the Brookings Institution, where she delivered an address titled “Perspective: Effects of Governance Policy on Education Reform Agenda.” Unlike the council hearing, the Brookings function was closed to the press—which suggests a corollary to the city’s conflict-of-interest rule: Anything goes as long as it’s done in private.
School system spokesperson Devonya Smith gave her standard response to LL’s inquiries on the matter: voice-mail recordings. CP
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