Super scoop from WAMU-FM’s Patrick Madden Tuesday morning on how D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) is spending $12,000 out of his council budget to produce a half-hour “documentary video on Ward 8.”
Barry tapped Kirk Fraser, the filmmaker behind a well-regarded Len Bias documentary that aired on ESPN — and “Mayor for Life,” the abortive reality show about Barry whose pilot was never picked up by a network.
So what’s stopping Barry from doing this?
Not a whole lot. As long as the spending doesn’t violate ethical strictures — including conflict of interest rules and bans on political activities — Barry is more or less free to make as many documentaries as he likes. That Fraser once produced Barry’s reality show doesn’t really constitute a conflict of interest under the council’s definition, and council members are under no obligation to open office contracts for bids.
Generally speaking, council members have broad discretion in spending their considerable budgets. In this fiscal year and the next, each council member is getting $429,000 to hire staff plus $409,000 for the committees they chair. (Yes, that’s a lot.)
Most of that goes to hire staff, but different members spend their shares in different ways. Some, like Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), hire relatively few staffers and pay them well; others, like Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), hire more staffers and pay them less well. Barry, in the past, has been a fan of contracting work out — such as the contract he gave a girlfriend in 2009, resulting in his censure.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said this afternoon he sees nothing illegitimate about Barry’s plan. “My understanding is that this is not a self promotional piece, that it’s about the residents and the issues in Ward 8, so that would not be inappropriate,” he said.
But if the film is less a documentary about the ward and more a tribute to its heeler, Barry would expose himself to serious charges of using taxpayer funds for political purposes.
Should that be the case, Mendelson said he “would have a conversation” with Barry. Have no doubt watchdogs will be watching closely to see if that might be necessary.
Disclosure: Fraser interviewed me for the “Mayor for Life” pilot back in 2010; he later listed me as a “cast member” in the credits without my knowledge.