D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

We’re only four days into the new year, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is already cranky. What’s irking him? A revived amendment from Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh.

During the Council’s organizational meeting today, Cheh proposed changes to the rules governing how the Council will operate for the upcoming two-year period. Her amendment, which failed today and in years past, would have required Mendelson to submit his budget recommendations 48 hours before the Council votes on it. Under the current rules, the chairman is not required to circulate the budget to councilmembers by a certain time before the first vote. But he is required to chart any changes between the budget recommendations from each individual committee and the full budget that he proposes.

Cheh argued that Mendelson’s changes are often substantial, and councilmembers need more than a few hours to understand their effects.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“We simply need time to unpack what you put in this budget, and we haven’t had it,” Cheh said. “I think it is doable.” She added that circulating a budget, which runs hundreds of pages, less than 24 hours before councilmembers are expected to vote is disrespectful.

Mendelson didn’t like that very much. Adding a 48-hour deadline for the Committee of the Whole, which he chairs, imposes a requirement that doesn’t exist for the other committees, he argued. None of his recent predecessors dating back to 2009 were able to circulate the budget 24 hours before the first vote, let alone 48 hours, he pointed out. Last year, Mendelson circulated the budget at 6 p.m. the night before the Council was scheduled to vote. His addition of an advertising sales tax, which City Paper lobbied against, caused some last minute heartburn and prompted critics to call out the sloppy policy making.

Mendelson said a 48-hour deadline is impossible to meet considering all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing a final product. He said that last year, for example, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer “screwed up” the financial plan, which added several hours to the process.

He also acknowledged that he typically moves some money around but makes a point to speak with his colleagues about the changes before he circulates the whole document.

In a follow-up phone call and during the meeting, Mendelson chastised Cheh for circulating her amendment with no time before today’s meeting began.

“There’s an irony to her wanting 48 hours from the Committee of the Whole, and she can’t even get her amendment circulated until noon,” Mendelson said. “It wasn’t even 11:59.”

Cheh countered that her amendment pales in comparison to Mendelson’s budget changes.

“There’s nothing even remotely comparable between changes in hundreds of pages in a budget and my little amendment to say 48 hours notice,” Cheh said. “People talk about apples and oranges. It’s like apples and automobiles. They’re not even in the same category.”

The 6-7 vote against Cheh’s amendment offers a glimpse into potential alliances for the upcoming two-year Council period.

New councilmembers Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4) and Christina Henderson (At-Large) voted in favor. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, who was sworn in after she won the special election last June, voted with the chairman.

“Sometimes when the chairman gets all exercised and fuming about something, you might want to keep your head down,” Cheh said. “But I was proud of them to vote how they felt they should vote.”