Neither the grinch - nor an ethics debate - will be stealing the D.C. Council’s annual holiday party this year.
Despite mounting questions about some Council members’ use of their constituent services funds this year, some of them may be using the privately-raised money to help pay for a $5,000 holiday party Thursday night for themselves and their staffs, according to members.
In recent days, Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s efforts to organize the annual party have been roiled by controversy and infighting among members over concerns the celebration will send the wrong message as the body struggles over ethics reform legislation.
Unwilling or unable to pay out of their own pockets, Brown has told members they can dip into their constituent service funds to pay their share of the function. Each member has to come up with $380 for the party, which is being held at the Washington Court Hotel.
The general counsel for the panel has determined that members can use the fund to pay for the party, according to Karen Sibert, Brown’s communications director.
“The council members are aware this is an option for them,” Sibert said. “The general counsel has said it permissible, but it’s up to each individual member.”
Sibert notes that Brown, who does not have a constituent service fund, will be using his own money to pay his share of the party.
Several council members declined to comment on the matter, citing the ongoing division within the body over the party.
But Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she will be using her personal money to pay for her share of the party.
“I am using my own money, but if it’s permissible under the law, then they can do it,” Cheh said. “We all have to make our own judgements.”
Initially, according to members, the party was slated to cost a total of $7,000, but some members rebelled, citing the ongoing debate about how constituent service funds are being used.
"The Council's holiday party is something we hold every year as a way of celebrating the season and showing appreciation for our staff, who work hard all year,” Brown said. “Like most corporations, during this difficult economy, we have scaled back this event significantly."
Under city law, council members are allowed to raise up to $80,000 annually for constituent services. The funds are widely promoted as a tool to allow elected officials to help needy residents, but they have also been used to pay for meals, tickets to sporting events and bottled water.
D.C. regulations state constituent services funds may be established to offer “charitable, scientific, educational, medical, recreational and other services” to promote residents’ “general welfare.” But the law does not detail what is considered an acceptable expenditure, except to prohibit the funds from being used for political purposes.
As part of the ethics proposal making its way through the council, Council member Muriel D. Bowser (D-Ward 4) is proposing to slash by half the amount that council members can raise annually for the funds to $40,000. The bill also includes new restrictions on what the money can be used for, such as season tickets to sporting events and newspaper advertisements.