D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) faces his first significant test Tuesday at keeping civility within the council as he tries to keep the body from fracturing over a bill by Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to grant new employment protections to ex-offenders.
At a heated breakfast meeting prior to Tuesday’s council session, Barry suggested Mendelson was insensitive because he is trying to kill a bill that would outlaw employers from asking for an applicant’s criminal record until after a job offer is made.
After Barry outmaneuvered Mendelson last week to force the bill out of committee, the chairman plans to rule the bill out of order during Tuesday’s session.
Mendelson, who has been acting chairman since June but elected permanently in November, said the bill should not be subject to an up or down vote because, he said, Barry did not properly notice the committee vote last week.
“Members were excluded,” Mendelson said. “To exclude members in how a meeting is run goes against the core of this institution.”
But Barry plans to put a fight to get an up or down vote on the bill, casting it as a landmark choice in the body’s long-running history of seeking to clamp down on “discrimination.”
“All of us acknowledge the existence of discrimination in Washington DC and all of America,” Barry told his colleagues. “This bill is an effort to bring relief to discrimination occurring with ex-offenders.”
Under the bill, employers could only rescind offers if the applicant’s past convictions are directly relevant to the job. If denied a job, applicants could appeal decisions to the Office of Human Rights — in effect giving formerly incarcerated residents protections afforded to other minority groups.
Business leaders are strongly opposed to the bill, arguing it would open the door to a flood of lawsuits.
To try to kill the bill, Mendelson attempted to exercise his power as chairman last week by showing up at the committee vote to try to sway the outcome.
When Mendelson showed up, he created a 3 to 3 tie on the committee, which would have killed the bill. So Barry called for a recess, only to reconvene the vote a few minutes later when Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who opposed the bill, was not in the room.
Mendelson has received a legal opinion from V. David Zvenyach, the council’s general counsel, that Barry was “out of order” so the bill should not be brought up for a vote.
But Mendelson’s role in the debate outraged not only Barry but also Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At large), another supporter of the legislation.
Orange argued Tuesday it was extraordinary for a chairman to seek to exercise his authority to vote in any committee, except when his vote is needed to break a tie.
“There was a full committee in place,” Orange told Mendelson. “For a chairman to come down like that is (unprecedented)…you come down to break a tie, not create a tie.”
It appears unlikely that Orange and Barry will be able to convince a majority of their colleagues to bring the matter up for a vote.
Barry, however, vows he will spend the rest of his tenure on the body “exposing” Mendelson’s links to the business community while also fighting for enactment of the ex-offender legislation.
“Mr. Chairman, you are headed in the wrong way,” Barry warned Mendelson at the breakfast meeting. “Discrimination is discrimination.”