City Paper is not for tourists
In a fit of Gary Hartlike bravado, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous recently told Washington City Paper that critics of his attendance record don’t have the facts. “If you check,” he said, “[my record] is not at the bottom….My attendance is probably near the middle, or in the upper third.”
Well, we did check, and Chavous’ record is at the bottom. Dead last—at least when you measure attendance by number of votes. From January 1995 to July 1996, according to an analysis of council records, Chavous missed a stunning 292 votes—more than a quarter of the approximately 1,050 votes the council took during that period.
In an 18-month period, Chavous showed up for all votes on just 13 of 37 days. Colleagues Bill Lightfoot (At-Large) and Harold Brazil (Ward 6) were present for all votes on just seven and 11 days, respectively, during the same time period, but Chavous missed more votes overall.
Chavous, first elected in 1992, is fighting for a second term against Ward 7 school board member Terry Hairston. After failing to disqualify Chavous for faulty nominating petitions, Hairston, who is challenging Chavous in the upcoming Democratic primary, has sniped at the incumbent’s attendance record and has called him “Country Club Chavous,” according to the Washington Post.
Among other councilmembers running in the Sept. 10 primary races, Brazil has compiled the worst attendance record. He missed 25 percent, or 263, of the votes. Brazil is embroiled in the most competitive city race this year, the Districtwide campaign among eight candidates for an at-large council seat. A look at his attendance records shows he already knows something about being at-large. Councilmember Jack Evans, who’s running for a second term in Ward 2, had the fifth-worst attendance record. But no one blew off more votes than Chavous. As a member of the reformist “Young Turk” wing of the council, Chavous says his weak attendance record belies his effectiveness as a councilmember. “On the substantive issues that are important to the voters of Ward 7, I’m there,” he says. “If you check with my constituents, they will tell you that.”
He blames his high absenteeism on his late arrival to “a couple of” council sessions with busy consent agendas. The consent agenda, always the first item of business, consists of routine pieces of council business unanimously agreed upon at a meeting of the council’s Committee of the Whole two weeks prior to the formal meeting. According to council Secretary Phyllis Jones, there are often as many as 50 or 60 “votes” packed into the consent agenda. So missing one consent agenda vote can make councilmembers look like slackers.
Tony Robinson, Chavous’ executive assistant, says that showing up for consent agenda votes is hardly the heavy lifting that councilmembers are elected to do. “If you look at the total number of votes, a lot of those resolutions don’t have anything to do with anything,” says Robinson. Which raises the question why they are on the agenda in the first place. For instance, what in the hell is the “Isle of Patmos Plaza Designation Act of 1995”?
But Chavous and certain colleagues skipped more than the occasional frivolous consent agenda. In fact, attendance became an issue in the campaigns last month, when Chavous and Brazil missed a crucial vote to reform the District’s pension system. Sorely in need of change, the system is buckling under the weight of a $5-billion unfunded liability. But unions, important to both Chavous (who chairs the labor committee) and Brazil have opposed changes for years.
Most council bills go through two votes—a first reading and a final reading. According to the City Paper analysis, Chavous missed both votes on key issues, like charter schools, the new public benefits corporation to oversee the city’s troubled health care system, and child-support enforcement. Similarly, Brazil skipped several bills entirely, including budget legislation and the public benefits corporation.
Chavous says he was out of town the day of the pension vote and the day before, when the vote was scheduled. Brazil, on the other hand, slipped out of council chambers just before the vote. Phil Mendelson, a former council staffer running in the at-large race, hammered Brazil very effectively on the missed vote.
As well he should have. Every time a major issue has come up, the council has been so deep in the foxhole that its positions were rarely discernible. The average councilmember missed 135 votes, many of them critical. Some current council staffers think it’s a disgrace that during the last 18 months—a crisis period for the city—their bosses have been AWOL. Mendelson agrees. “I don’t think there’s a perception of [attendance] being worse” than in previous years, he says. “But the fiscal crisis magnifies the importance of councilmembers doing a good job.”
“On some of the tough votes, they might not be there, and it matters,” says one council staffer. “They didn’t represent their constituents on those hard votes.”
Besides, some candidates say, voters care about attendance, a simple barometer of councilmembers’ commitment. “Not everyone understands the issues,” says Mendelson, who formerly worked for council Chairman Dave Clarke and former Ward 3 Councilmember James Nathanson. “But this is something that people understand.”
Mendelson learned this lesson the hard way. Kathy Patterson flogged Nathanson repeatedly in 1994 for missing a special council meeting on the budget. “And it stuck,” Mendelson remembers. “People commented on it at the polls.” Patterson won by 23 points.
There’s no chance Patterson will end up swallowing her own poison: She missed just two votes (or 0.2 percent) from January 1995 to July 1996. “Her Saab is there every morning when I get there, and it’s there every evening when I leave,” says a council staffer. “Always.”
Why is Patterson such an anomaly? To be blunt, many of the slackers lack the balls to take a stand. “What they’ll do is they’ll walk out,” says a council official. “At 3 o’clock, when a certain vote is taken, they’ll be out on the cigarette break….You’ll see two or three of them get up and kind of saunter out with a grin on their face, and everyone knows what’s going on.”
But the desertions aren’t always motivated by political cowardice. Some councilmembers also have outside employment to distract them. The three members with the worst attendance records are all lawyers with busy caseloads. If their clients have trials, they must be in court to represent them, even if the council is voting. Failure to show up for court dates can lead to disbarment—an embarrassment that ranks up there with, well, poor attendance. Patterson and Hilda Mason (At-Large), who missed the fewest votes and voting days, have no other jobs.
The tempo of the council meetings may have something to do with all the empty chairs, as well. Privately, councilmembers agonize over Clarke’s management style—all talk, all the time. “The meetings have grown incredibly in length, comparing Clarke to [his predecessor, John] Wilson. If [a meeting] went to 3 in the afternoon back then, that was a long meeting. Now, it’s 5, 6, 7, 8—don’t make dinner plans that day,” says the council official.
Whereas Wilson worked hard to achieve consensus during regular “pre-meetings,” now the closed-door pre-meetings are endless battles that members often skip. Once a month, Clarke hosts a pre-legislative breakfast meeting, which are better attended but still descend into petty bickering over alley closings or other provincial matters.
Finally, some councilmembers spurn sessions because they simply don’t like Clarke. Personality clashes also partially explain why attendance at committee meetings and hearings is so paltry—perhaps only 20 percent for the latter. For example, Brazil is said to get along poorly with Harry Thomas Sr. (Ward 5), chairman of the public works committee. And Brazil attended only one public works committee markup from July 1995 to July 1996, according to Mendelson.
Practically speaking, it’s not hard to understand why councilmembers miss votes. Anybody who has spent time watching the proceedings on Channel 13 knows that the average D.C. Council meeting pushes the limits of human endurance. But if councilmembers are so tired of the endless minutiae, they should find a new gig—and quit voting with their feet.—John Cloud and Michael Schaffer
Additional research by Mark Murrmann