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When the D.C. Council and Mayor Vince Gray left their monthly breakfast on Sept. 24, they were unusually united on trying to keep D.C. open during the shutdown. Precisely how wasn’t clear—ideas included declaring every city employee essential or just staying open and challenging the Department of Justice to prosecute the mayor and Council. Watching the stream of tweets coming out of the meeting, Walter Smith felt like he was losing his mind.
“I thought I must be the one who’s crazy,” says Smith, the executive director of local think tank D.C. Appleseed. Smith, whose group backed the District’s budget autonomy referendum, had been preparing for the possibility of a shutdown for months. Now that it was actually here, he thought the city had the perfect solution—but no one at the breakfast meeting talked about it.
The object of Smith’s crazy-making was the District’s $144 million contingency fund, money set aside in the budget for the proverbial rainy day. Since contributions to the fund had already been appropriated in past fiscal years, Smith figured the District could use the money legally. That idea would put Smith’s group, usually content to put out press releases about HIV/AIDS funding and cleaning up the Anacostia River, at the center of the District’s shutdown saga.
Smith took his usual path through the Wilson Building, firing off emails to mayoral chief of staff Chris Murphy and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. By Friday, the city’s Office of the Attorney General issued an opinion giving it the legal OK. The following Tuesday, the Council passed a resolution asking the mayor to use the contingency fund to keep the city open. Thanks to Smith and a few emails, the initially unmentioned idea has paid for the District’s government for 15 days (and counting).
Smith and Appleseed have had less success with his latest idea. With the contingency fund nearly tapped after this week’s city payroll, Smith is floating a back-up scheme he hatched with pro bono help from a District law firm back in July. The budget autonomy amendment passed in April doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, but lawyers say the Council could pass legal language backdating it to Oct. 1, 2013.
That would offer the District a more permanent exit from shutdown threats. While Smith met with Mendelson last Friday to discuss the idea, Gray’s staff isn’t as thrilled about it. “Judges don’t give points for creativity,” says mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro.
That could change if the shutdown goes on much longer. In the meantime, Smith insists tapping the contingency fund didn’t take much thinking from his think tank. “In the end, it really wasn’t rocket science,” he says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery