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Here’s an idea: committee staffers on the D.C. Council shouldn’t be political hires.
Currently, each councilmember gets to hire the staff of their respective committees. This set up can lead to all sorts of headaches, as illustrated yesterday when Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown reshuffled several committee assignments. Now Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh‘s committee staff will have to transition from government operations issues to transporation and public works issues. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser‘s committee will have to drop what they know about parks and recreation and learn all about government ops. And Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells‘ committee staff will have to forget all about transportation and public works and begin working on parks and recreation issues. (There’s even a possibility that one of Wells’ committee staffers might be let go because the parks committee has a smaller budget, says a Wells staffer.)
As Wells noted yesterday when he was being taken to the woodshed, it takes committee staff a few months to get up to speed on their respective issues. Big changes like the ones we saw yesterday disrupt that learning curve and put the council behind. (That’s not to say that there aren’t tremendously bright committee staffers. You know who you are.)
An alternative setup is found in Montgomery County, where the county council has a staff director who hires and fires committee staff outside of political considerations. This means that committee staffers stay put when there’s a change in officeholders, and often stay on the job for many many years, allowing them to become experts in their field.
It also means, presumably, that they can be clear-eyed and objective in their work without worrying (as much) about the consequences of drafting a report or making a recommendation that will anger a particular politician. One council employee told LL yesterday that Brown’s punishment of Wells is bound to affect the work of committee staffers, who will have in the back of their mind that they could lose their jobs if their bosses anger Brown.
There’s plus and minuses to both arrangements, of course, but it seems the more you can take politics out of type of yeoman’s work expected from council committee staff, the better.