Spokes Too Soon: Mendelson took a late interest in Wells? bike-parking bill.
Spokes Too Soon: Mendelson took a late interest in Wells? bike-parking bill. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Ted Kennedy. William O. Douglas. Nancy Pelosi. Phil Mendelson. When it comes to liberal lions, Mendelson is surely the D.C. Council’s.

The three-term at-large councilmember has long stood ready to marshal the District government to address myriad injustices, whether to save Klingle Valley from construction crews or to protect the populace from the high caloric content of restaurant meals. Mendelson has a particular soft spot for tree-hugger causes—the guy did, after all, push through the Urban Forest Preservation Act.

So the Bicycle Commuter and Parking Expansion Act, one would think, would be right in Mendelson’s enviro-lefty sweet spot. The bill, introduced earlier this year by Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, aims to get folks out of their CO2-spewing autos by making the city a little more hospitable for pedalers. In its most recent incarnation, it mandates 16 bicycle parking spaces at the John A. Wilson Building and requires the mayor to make a study of bike parking at all other government properties. Bike-spot requirements for commercial properties would be upped from 5 percent of the number of auto parking spaces to 10 percent. And most sweepingly, it imposes a minimum number of bike parking spaces for residential buildings with eight or more units.

And that’s where the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington (AOBA) comes in.

AOBA is far from a liberal redoubt. As the trade association for the city’s landlords, the group is devoted to hammering away at the District’s tenant-friendly, consumer-friendly regulatory regime. And you better believe an unfunded mandate to set up bike racks isn’t its idea of model legislation.

Thing is, AOBA came late to the party. A June 22 hearing on the bike-parking bill held by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham generated virtually no criticism of the legislation, and it sailed through the public works and environment committee. At the full council’s July 10 meeting, the bill garnered unanimous consent on first reading.

And then it disappeared.

What gives? Wells says there was some late opposition: “I have to admit, I’m a little irritated because one group wanted to rewrite the bill.”

He’s referring to AOBA. And while Wells declined to speak ill of any colleague, several sources finger Mendelson as the guy carrying AOBA’s water. And they are oh-so-disappointed.

“This is a pretty big surprise that the opposition would come from him,” says Eric Gilliland, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Cheryl Cort of Coalition for Smarter Growth says she’s “very disappointed in” Mendelson. “He claims to be a champion for protecting the environment,” she says.

On Friday, Cort, Gilliland, and leaders of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth sent Mendelson a letter “to express our disappointment over your recent opposition” to the bike parking bill. “As a committed environmentalist, for whom combating the causes of global warming is a priority, you are undoubtedly aware that motor vehicles are the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” the letter reads. The greenies also complain about “numerous revisions [made] outside of the public eye because of concerns expressed by residential and commercial property owners who were not present at the public hearing.”

But here’s LL’s question: Why would Mendelson get involved? Isn’t this the sort of problem-solving endeavor for a Marion Barry or a Kwame Brown or someone else knee-deep in real-estate money?

Most conspiracy theories involve the fact that AOBA’s chief D.C. lobbyist, Nicola Whiteman, is a former Mendelson staffer. According to July filings with the Office of Campaign Finance, AOBA paid Whiteman more than $40,000 in the first half of the year; the group reported contacts with Mendelson and most other councilmembers.

Whiteman did not return calls for comment, but AOBA’s senior VP for government affairs, Shaun Pharr, says his group has been working with the council to make “reasonable modifications to make this work without it being too onerous.”

The onus, he says, is that even with current bike-parking requirements, there’s plenty of empty spaces to go around in most cases. AOBA proposes making the requirement kick in only after a tenant actually asks for additional spaces.

That’s a view Mendelson has sympathy for: “There was no analysis of how much or how to get the right amount” of bike spaces, he says.

LL posits that Mendo’s interference with the bike bill has to do with a more essential conflict: He may be a lefty at heart, but, even deeper, he’s a detail-obsessed policy nerd. Hence his objections that the Graham hearings, which AOBA did not attend, were “superficial” and that Wells’ bill is “formulaic.”

Mendelson cites personal experience when explaining his reservations. In his home in McLean Gardens, where he has long owned a condo, the 725-unit complex would require more than 180 bike spaces under Wells’ proposed one-bike-space-for-every-four-units formula. But the bike racks already in place, he says, are mostly empty.

“Most people I know take their bicycles up into their buildings,” he says.

LL’s gotta say, Mendo has a point. Bike racks outside commercial establishments are well and good, but most anyone who owns a bike—at least a bike that they care about—isn’t going to leave it overnight on an outdoor rack. If your bike’s still there in the morning—and isn’t short a wheel or a seat—count your blessings.

Mendelson says his talks with Wells have moved away from a rigid formula and more toward the AOBA-endorsed “as-needed basis,” where residents could request additional bike spaces and building owners would be obligated to provide them. “We’re very close to having worked things out,” Mendelson says.

Wells plans to bring the bill back for the council’s Oct. 23 meeting with the parking-on-demand provision for older buildings. But he’s kept the formula for new construction and major rehabs—and pumped it up: He now wants to require one bike space for every three units.

Mendelson isn’t concerned about losing his green cred due to his bike-bill machinations. “They should talk with me first,” he tells his eco-critics. “They need to understand the nuances.”

Fenty Finally Obeys the Law

How long does it take for the District to decide how many inmates the D.C. Jail can hold?

In 2003, the D.C. Council passed a law requiring the mayor to establish a maximum inmate capacity at the jail. To come up with the actual figure, the city hired a consultant who came back with a range between 1,958 and 2,164 inmates.

Still, with recommendations in hand, the city did nothing. Now, a lawsuit filed by jail inmates to force the city to comply with the law has finally come to a head; in August, Superior Court Judge Melvin R. Wright ordered the District to set a cap.

Well, set a cap the city did: In a filing last week, the city announced its intention to set the cap at 3,198 inmates—more than 1,000 above what its own consultants recommended as an upper limit for the jail population.

Lawyer Theodore A. Howard, representing the inmates, called the figure “a number that has no relation to anything.”

How exactly was Mayor Adrian M. Fenty managing to skirt the provisions of the 2003 law? Turns out his lawyers had been taking a page out of the Alberto Gonzales legal strategy book: Defend executive power at all costs!

In September, the city filed to vacate Wright’s order, claiming that it “impermissibly interferes with the Mayor’s discretionary authority to allocate the limited resources of the District.” In a convoluted argument, city lawyers claim that if the bill set a hard cap, fine, but because it doesn’t—it relies on the consultant to come up with a number—Wright can’t make them set one now.

No, LL doesn’t quite follow the logic either.

Says former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who sponsored the 2003 bill, about the city’s current posturing, “That’s absurd on its face.”

Mendelson, chair of the judiciary committee, says “the whole thing is outrageous. I think they should be held in contempt.”

The city’s high-principled posturing came to a head in a hearing before Wright last Friday. “I don’t understand at all the District’s position,” Wright said.

City attorney Andrew Saindon replied to the judge, “It’s a political decision. It’s a dispute between the executive and legislative branch.” Wright took the opportunity to give the courtroom a civics lesson and ask Saindon why, if the executive branch had such a big problem with the bill, didn’t the mayor veto it.

The mayor didn’t veto the bill because back when the law was passed, Patterson negotiated the language of the bill with the administration of Anthony A. Williams, which showed no more willingness to impose a cap than Fenty’s people did, specifically to avoid one.

Incidentally, when Department of Corrections chief Devon Brown was confirmed back in 2005, Patterson had him promise to implement the cap. Brown sent a letter to the council saying, “I come to the job of Director of the Department of Corrections with the commitment of bringing the population down to within [the consultant’s range], and to ensure compliance with…all other aspects of the Jail Improvement Act.” Brown’s spokesperson says that statement “reflects the position of the former administration.”

Wright gave the city until next Friday to comply by submitting a number within the suggested range—“not an arbitrary number that you think you can justify”—lest it face contempt-of-court proceedings.

“The District of Columbia…has the same obligation to obey the law that any individual citizen does,” Wright told Saindon. “The fact that the mayor or the Department of Corrections doesn’t like the legislation is not a reason not to obey.”

The District apparently got the message: On Wednesday, parties announced they had reached a settlement capping the jail population at 2,164—the high end of the consultant’s range.

It was quite a change of heart: In Saturday’s Washington Post, Peter Nickles, Fenty’s general counsel, had announced that the city was planning to take its separation-of-powers shtick to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Nickles says the city decided an appeal was not worth the time or expense. “I believe the judge is always right,” he says. “It is not a good use of taxpayers’ money to litigate forever after the court has ruled.”

One part of the settlement that was important to the city, Nickles says, was that it include a “provision of exigent circumstances,” where the cap could be temporarily lifted in the case of a mass-arrest anomaly.

Without such a provision, he says, “you invite the possibility of violating a court order, which we don’t do.”