It was billed as a “security briefing,” where the District’s homeland security and public safety directors would update all 13 council members on the city’s preparations for President Obama’s inauguration later this month.
Homeland Security Director Christopher T. Geldart and Public Safety Director Paul Quander told members, for example, that the U.S. Secret Service is in charge but the city will have a backup command center at the ready should and emergency develop.
Council members, like the public, should also prepare for much of downtown to be locked down as early as Sunday afternoon prior to the Jan. 21 swearing-in ceremony on the Mall, officials said.
But when it came time for council member questions, the meeting turned into a debate about the adequacy of the perks for council members wanting easy access to the inauguration.
And the biggest point of disagreement was over – you guessed it – parking.
Though most public parking spaces and garages will be off-limits near the inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue, Quander told members that the Secret Service has authorized 23 spaces where they and senior administration officials can park.
But Quander added that the Secret Service is requiring that the members clear the checkpoints and park their vehicles by 6 a.m. on Inauguration Day.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) quickly pushed back, angrily declaring it was “unacceptable” to require members to park their vehicles so early. He instead demanded that Quander and Geldart inform the Secret Service that council members should be given a “corridor” so they can move their cars in and out of the area around the parade route at will.
“It’s totally unacceptable,” Evans said. “What, I’m going to wake my whole family up to get them here at 6 o’clock for a 2 o’clock parade? That is ridiculous. Sit around for 8 hours?”
Beyond his personal needs, Evans said he’s speaking out because the restrictions are an infringement on Home Rule. He cited the role District public safety personnel play in ensuring a smoothly run event.
“We are the city council for the District of Columbia,” said Evans, noting that council members were granted easier access to the Wilson Building during past inaugurations. “The Secret Service is going to allow somebody in. And if they allow anybody inside the corridor after 6 o’clock in the morning, which they will, they should allow us.”
Council members also questioned why they haven’t been given more tickets for Obama’s swearing-in. Currently, each council member will obtain one ticket for a reserved seating area near the West Front of the Capitol when Obama takes the oath.
But several members felt as though they should be given more tickets, noting that the District decisively backed Obama in the 2012 election.
“Obama got 91percent of the vote here,” Evans said.
With the Wilson Building facing Pennsylvania Avenue, the city has erected an enclosed viewing stand on the steps where the mayor, council members and invited guests can watch the parade. Each council member can invite as many as 15 guests.
The one thing missing from the Q&A was any question from council members about security and other preparations for D.C. residents, very few of whom will receive reserved seating or parking spaces for the events.
The tiff between some elected officials and the Secret Service surfaces just as the council has been trying to move beyond its past reputation for squabbling over perks.
In recent years, public spats have erupted between the council and mayor over who received free tickets to sporting events. All council members also receive free parking in front of the John A. Wilson Building.
After the meeting, Quander said he will take council members’ concerns back to the Secret Service for consideration.
“We will urge them to consider this,” Quander said. “I think the council requests are reasonable, but the final decision is with the Secret Service.”
But Quander added that council members may also want to consider using public transportation on Inauguration Day, a message city officials are stressing to the public.
“We think the best way to get around will be Metro,” Quander said. “We think vehicular traffic will be difficult and urge everyone to take public transportation.”