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Harry Thomas apparently isn’t too concerned about losing his position as Ward 5 representative on the D.C. Council. During this summer’s campaign, Thomas has skulked out of candidates forums, antagonized labor leaders, and dismissed his rivals in the Sept. 15 primary as poseurs.
And over the past couple of years, Thomas hasn’t been a role model on the council, either. Washington City Paper’s biennial analysis of attendance at council votes places Thomas last among the 13 councilmembers. In the two council sessions since January 1997 aka Council Period 12 Thomas missed 24 percent of all council votes.
However, Thomas denies that he has missed so many votes as far as he can remember. “I’m one of the few guys who is always there. I’m there for consent and everything else unless it was when I went out of town a couple of times,” he says. And when asked whether there was a health emergency that caused his absence: “There may have been….I can’t remember.”
His colleagues remember things a little differently. “I know there have been a number of times when [Thomas] has been absent,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
The Ward 5 councilmember, though, was the only D.C. politico whose impending campaign induced torpor. Worried about alienating voters and hoping for a few extra crumbs from Congress, councilmembers once renowned for playing hooky are putting in face time on the dais. “All but two councilmembers are running for something this year,” notes Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “They decided it behooved them to pay attention.”
Ambrose’s generality doesn’t work for all of her colleagues. At-Large Councilmember David Catania, for example, joined the council last December amid pledges of accountability and oversight. In just seven months, though, Catania racked up one of the council’s worst attendance records, registering absences on 25 of 287 votes a fourth-to-last-place showing. When asked to account for his record, Catania refused comment, insisting he needed to check the tally for himself. If he does, he’ll find absent marks alongside critical council actions such as a whistle-blower protection act, a bill granting enforcement powers to the city’s inspector general, and a welfare reform act.
Catania can only hope that D.C. voters care as little about attendance as in 1996, when Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous breezed to re-election with a dead-last attendance ranking (see “Absent and Unaccounted For,” 8/30/96). Chavous and then-Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil missed over a quarter of the council’s votes in the 1995 and 1996 sessions, aka Council Period 11.
Since then, they must have decided that 99 percent of running for office is showing up for the one you have: Mayoral contender Brazil didn’t even make the bottom three in this year’s rankings. Chavous, another mayoral wannabe, climbed two spots, missing only 12 percent of the votes.
In Council Period 12, the average councilmember missed only 36 votes out of 681, or just over 5 percent, compared with 13 percent in the previous period.
The improvements seem to translate into better government for D.C. residents. Many bills before the council have two or sometimes three “readings,” or votes. In the Washington City Paper’s last survey, Chavous and Brazil had missed all the votes on critical measures like budget and health-care legislation. This time around, when an important bill had two or three readings, almost nobody missed all of them.
Patterson says councilmembers now know their records are being scrutinized: “[They] have been much more circumspect about being in attendance for major votes. Councilmembers are more aware of their voting records.”
Patterson has no dearth of credibility when it comes to judging her colleagues on attendance: She missed only one vote 0.1 percent of all council votes in Council Period 12, a distinction that she shares with Chair Linda Cropp. “It may have been that I stepped out to go to the restroom,” says Patterson of her missed vote, the final reading of the Business Improvement Districts Emergency Amendment Act of 1997.
Thomas, first elected in 1986, is fighting for a fourth term against six candidates, the best known of whom is Vincent Orange. According to informed sources, Thomas suffered a stroke late last year which may explain why nearly 61 percent of his absences occurred in the first six months of 1998.
And even though Thomas seems to be back in better health, he won’t relinquish his title as king of the don’t-shows unless Ward 4’s Charlene Drew Jarvis skips out on a few more votes. Jarvis, who served as chairman pro tempore for much of Council Period 12, still managed to miss a stunning 103 votes, or 15 percent of the total. “That isn’t anything that comports with my attendance,” argues Jarvis. “I’m not one who misses council meetings.”
“She missed votes for meetings she was present at,” says Council Secretary Phyllis Jones. That may sound impossible, but not when it comes to the council. Jones suggests that Jarvis may have ducked out of votes to get some food or use the bathroom. Jarvis missed most of her votes 74 out of 103 during just two sessions.
However, those votes are just as important as any others. Some say that since she became president of Southeastern University in July 1996, Jarvis has been burning the candle at both ends. Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, city historian and president of the 16th Street Neighborhood Association, says Jarvis has not been seen as often in her ward lately. “Some of our members feel that we need more presence from her office,” she says.
And present doesn’t always mean accounted for, according to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. He says mayoral opponent Chavous has a simple MO when it comes to missing votes. “What Kevin does is he shows up, just to be marked present, and then he leaves,” he says.
That theory may explain why Adam Maier, a campaign volunteer for Chavous, insists his candidate’s record is actually better. “What we’ve got in our records is a study that was done by Kevin’s office. From ’93 to ’98, [of] 127 legislative sessions, he was absent for seven, making over 90 percent.” Like any home-cooked figures, though, the Chavous numbers skew reality, including only sessions in which Chavous missed every single vote not sessions where he left in the middle.
In Council Period 11, Chavous’ ranking sank under the weight of his absence from number-heavy consent-agenda votes. The consent agenda is a long docket of action items, set aside as noncontroversial by the council’s Committee of the Whole, that are approved with one vote at the beginning of a meeting. It typically contains items like the Bishop Aimilianos Laloussis Park Designation Act and the Definition of Optometry Act. Evans also blames consent-agenda votes for his fifth-to-last place standing in Washington City Paper’s 1996 survey. Evans claims he was at the hospital with his wife, Noel, who was pregnant with their now 21-month-old triplets, when he missed two lengthy consent-agenda votes, distorting his record. This period, Evans missed only
18 votes, or 2.5 percent, putting him in the top half. “My record has not improved,” he says. “It has always been good.”
Brazil did even better. This period, the at-large councilmember missed only 14 votes, or 2 percent giving himself the greatest margin of improvement over last period. However, that doesn’t mean his record is clean he actually missed votes in more sessions than Evans. One of Brazil’s colleagues says he is famous for pulling the in-and-out routine.
Patterson says a vote cast doesn’t necessarily reflect a vote considered. She fingers colleagues who show up to give their “aye” or “nay,” then scurry out the door, missing any debate on the issues. Another member says that colleagues do the same at council hearings, reciting a set-piece speech and then leaving. “Harold does it all the time. Kevin does it. Harold’s done it a couple of times at the Special Investigative Committee on the Police,” says another council source.
And frivolous consent agendas are not the only votes being missed. On July 1, 1997, six councilmembers were absent for the final reading of the budget bill for fiscal year 1998. “It’s an important act,” says Jones. She suggests that members probably missed the final vote because they had already voted on the budget in an earlier legislative session.
That kind of bump-and-run approach to governance has to go, says Patterson. “Sometimes there are critical amendments that surface between first and final readings,” says Patterson. “It’s important to be there for all of the discussion.” That means sitting through every single consent agenda, enduring lengthy debates, and suffering through meetings that can last as long as 16 hours.
Why are Patterson and Cropp the only ones equal to the task? Some members argue that these two, who have no outside employment, just aren’t as busy. “Most people are out because they’re doing other council-related things,” says Evans. “It’s not like they’re sitting outside having a cigarette.”