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Well, this could be awkward. On Monday mornings before Tuesday D.C. Council legislative meetings, Mayor Muriel Bowser allows Chairman Phil Mendelson to join her regular media briefing.
Before the pandemic, Mendelson held his own briefings ahead of Council meetings, but when Bowser began holding regular weekly pressers last March, they decided to combine the production for the sake of efficiency.
The Council’s next legislative meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 2. Two of the most significant items on the Council’s agenda are overrides of two of Bowser’s vetoes, setting up a potentially uncomfortable Monday briefing. LL cannot wait.
Last year, the Council unanimously passed two bills so objectionable to Bowser that she sent them back with her fourth and fifth vetoes of her six years in office. Herronor is 1 for 3 in vetoes as D.C.’s top executive. It appears she’ll add two more to the loss column come Tuesday.
The first bill would split up the beleaguered Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs into two agencies. Mendelson first introduced the idea in 2018. Bowser believes the $11.7 million price tag ($33.1 million over the next four years) is too high at a time when money is tight, and she says the bill would create more unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, according to a letter explaining her veto. Bowser also says the agency has made progress under the leadership of DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah that councilmembers have not recognized. The bill would kill that progress, Bowser claims.
In a memo circulated Thursday, Mendelson asserts that “DCRA has not demonstrated marked improvements in the handling of plan reviews, illegal construction, or housing code violations, the primary concerns that led to the introduction” of the bill. Mendelson’s memo cites statistics showing that DCRA repaired known housing code violations only 14 percent of the time, and “less than 1 percent of all fines owed to DCRA have been paid,” in fiscal year 2020.
The second bill, introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, would establish an independent ombudsperson for the Child and Family Services Agency, which already has an internal ombudsperson and had been under federal court oversight for the past 30 years. A judge gave initial approval for a settlement in August of 2020, though City Paper reported in 2019 how the agency was cutting corners to escape court oversight.
In her veto letter, Bowser argues that the bill conflicts with the Home Rule Act for several reasons, including that it creates an executive office with a director appointed by the Council. Bowser’s letter also cites concerns from the Office of the Attorney General that the proposed bill tries to empower the office to handle complaints involving ongoing agency decisions, engage in mediation, investigate agency actions or decisions that may not be final, and facilitate interagency coordination and communication, among others. That authority, the OAG says according to Bowser’s letter, may violate the law.
“An agency headed by a legislative appointee simply cannot carry out these types of roles that insert it into ongoing agency operations and intrude into the essential executive functions of the agency,” Bowser writes.
It would cost $577,000 in fiscal year 2021 to establish the office, and $3 million over the next four years.
Mendelson, in his memo, replies that the new ombudsperson’s office is intended to replace CSFA’s existing, internal oversight arm.
“The office created by this legislation is not intended to duplicate the existing office, but instead to improve and replace it by prioritizing independence and impartiality to increase credibility … and by expanding the office’s scope to provide oversight of systemic issues, including special attention to matters affecting crossover youth—children who interact with both the foster system and the juvenile justice system,” Mendelson’s memo says.
He argues that an independent ombudsperson is necessary as CFSA is coming out from under federal court oversight “to ensure that the agency does not backslide.”
Even the typically Bowser-friendly Post editorial board scolded the mayor for her veto.
“The likelihood that D.C. may soon be on its own should be impetus for the city to ensure there are sufficient and multiple safeguards in place,” the editorial board writes of the end to court oversight of D.C.’s child welfare system. “Instead, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has inexplicably—and maddeningly—vetoed legislation that would have helped to strengthen oversight of the agency given the critical job of protecting vulnerable children.”
The Council is expected to overrule the mayor on both bills next Tuesday. They need nine votes to do so.
Bowser previously vetoed an emergency bill that would have allowed seniors to graduate despite missing a lot of school (she won that one), a bill that decriminalized Metro fare evasion (the Council overrode it), and a bill that clarified the arts commission’s independence from the mayor’s office (another Council override).
Spokespeople for Bowser and Mendelson confirm that the pols will host a joint media briefing Monday morning.