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

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No surprise, medical marijuana was a hot topic at the D.C. Council legislative meeting yesterday. The Council unanimously approved a measure that extends the expiration date of medical marijuana cards from one year to two, doubles the legal amount someone can carry, and eases ID requirements. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman and Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto voiced concerns about illegal pop-up businesses driving crime in neighborhood hot spots, businesses “gifting” marijuana, and the question of fairness for legal small business owners in the cannabis industry. A public hearing on the issue will be held on Nov. 19.

Another contested item was Tenant Safe Harbor, a bill that gives grace to tenants facing financial hardship who would otherwise be evicted. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the bill may mean a tenant is never evicted, a loophole he said the Council needs to fix or he’ll be back with an amendment. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s McMillan emergency bill expediting the site’s demolition drew rebuke from Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Taking legislative action in the redevelopment project, which has been bogged down with legal challenges and nearby residents’ protests for years, sets a bad precedent for the Council’s interference with the courts, Cheh said. “I will be voting yes today but I’ll be shaking my head as I do so,” she said. 

And finally, the Council saved the best for last.

After months of refusing to hold hearings for two of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s four nominees—Natalie Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry—to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Mendelson faced a rare challenge to his authority.

At-Large Councilmember Robert White introduced a “motion to discharge” that removes the nominations from Mendelson’s committee and brings them to the full Council for a vote. Mendelson suffered an embarrassing 11-1-1 loss. Cheh voted “present.”

“Just as we should not kick the chairman or anyone else with a different opinion off the team or scapegoat them for a broader problem,” White said before the vote, “we should not be kicking Ms. Barry and Ms. Hopkinson off the team or scapegoating them for the same reason.” 

The two Black women leaders have been among the most vocal critics of the agency’s historic inequities, noted most recently in their opposition to unequal funding opportunities given to majority White-led arts organizations

In defending his decision, Mendelson cited unnamed arts commissioners who used terms such as “mean spirited,” and “bomb thrower” to describe Hopkinson and Barry.

Ahead of the vote Tuesday afternoon, Mendelson said he was concerned that Hopkinson and Barry’s reported divisiveness would hinder the commission’s work. He used an all-too-familiar argument when he pointed to other Black nominees he has moved to the arts commission. The chairman also denied Bowser’s claims that he had called the two commissioners “pushy.”

Cheh again whipped out her referee’s whistle, citing concerns about proper protocol and warning against a dangerous precedent. Cheh said the Council should defer to the judgment of a committee chairperson, who is theoretically best positioned to evaluate a candidate’s suitability for appointment. No councilmember should use a discharge petition to “wrest from a committee a matter that the committee or the chair feels should not go forward,”  she said, except for the most “exceptional circumstances,” which she doesn’t believe apply in this case. Otherwise, the committee system would erode, Cheh argued.

Again, Cheh shook her head, this time at White:

“I’m deeply disappointed in my colleague for making a public statement saying that this is about keeping strong Black women down,” she said. “Can we not evaluate someone’s performance and suitability of any gender or race without raising false and deeply divisive tropes? Must any person be given immunity from an objective evaluation because of gender or race?”

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White lambasted the “silencing” of the two commissioners “for speaking up against the status quo or standing up for Black and Brown artists in the District.” 

The Ward 8 rep, a mentee of Barry’s late husband, Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry, described her as “feisty, but yet a heart of gold.”

After Robert White’s motion to discharge was approved, the Council approved Hopkinson’s and Barry’s nominations 12-1. Mendelson was the lone dissenter.

“Today’s vote was a vote for equity, fairness, and inclusion,” Barry said in a statement after the vote.

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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