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It was no Lincoln-Douglas debate, but Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry and at-large Councilmember David Catania had a mildly entertaining back-and-forth yesterday over the D.C. Council’s role in relation to the executive branch.

Ostensibly, the health committee hearing yesterday morning was about Catania’s bill that would require the head of the District’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Administration (or HAHSTA) be elevated to a cabinet-level position for the next two years.

But the real debate was whether the council ought to be telling the mayor how to organize city government.

Catania says yes, the council is perfectly in its right, especially with the District’s HIV/AIDS rate being so high and the International Aids Society Convention coming to town in 2012.

But Barry says the city no longer needs a meddling council sticking its nose in the mayor’s business. That’s because the no-account former Mayor Adrian Fenty,who Barry said was the “most unaccountable mayor” he’d ever seen, is no longer in power.

“This is a new day in the District of Columbia,” says Barry. “The day is over, Mr. Catania, when you’re going to tell the mayor what to do.”

Barry repeatedly praised new Mayor Vince Gray as a hands-on mayor who is deeply committed to addressing the city’s HIV/AIDS problems, but should be given some time and leeway to organize his new administration as he see fits.

“Let the executive take the lead,” said Barry, who added that he was speaking solely on his own behalf and not the mayor’s.

(Barry also reminded those present several times that he had once been mayor and stressed repeatedly that he has a long and distinguished record in supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS. “No one supports [HIV/AIDS issues] any stronger than I do. Nobody. Nobody. Longtime fighter.”)

Catania responded that it’s not the council’s role “to simply blow kisses” Gray’s way, but to engage the executive branch in a thoughtful conversation. Catania then let on that he’s feeling a bit ignored by Gray’s transition team and his new administration, who’d  hadn’t reached out to Catania or extended the “simple courtesies” councilmembers expect when new appointments are being made and announced.

“It is a little worrying to me, to be honest,” Catania said.

Things really heated up when Catania started questioning Dr. Nnemdi Kamanu Elias, interim senior deputy of HAHSTA, about whether she’s been having conversations with the new administration about what her future role might be.

That was too much for Barry, who interrupted Catania’s questions and called them “improper.”

Catania did not like Barry’s breach of council protocol and began banging his gavel several times in an attempt to get Barry to stop talking.

The gaveling appeared to have no effect. “Bang it as much as you want to, David,” Barry said.

He later scolded Catania for “second guessing” the inner workings of the Gray administration and told Catania that if he had any problems with the Gray transition or administration, he should do like Barry and take the “initiative” to reach out himself.

Catania replied that he had reached out to Team Gray, but had still been ignored.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery