Chairman Kwame Brown wants to cut down on crude talk from D.C. Council members


Councilwoman Mary Cheh, left, tries to break up a testy exchange between councilmen David Catania and Marion Barry during a meeting on March, 28, 2011. Catania and Barry recently had a heated, profane argument during a council retreat. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
February 17, 2012

D.C. Council members better start watching their mouths.

After council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) got into a profanity-laced shouting match Tuesday, the body will consider a proposal next week that will prohibit members from using “profane, indecent or abusive language” at any public meeting.

The proposal is being advanced by Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who said Friday that he’s had enough disrespectful and crude behavior.

“It’s time for members to understand decorum, and a code of conduct, is in place,” Brown said in an interview.

If approved, the body’s code of conduct will be formally amended to state, “a council member shall treat other council members with dignity and respect, and refrain from using profane, or abusive language at another council member or the council member as an institution.”

The resolution would codify internal regulations implemented by Brown this fall.

If a member violates the provision, the chairman could remove the member from the meeting after a warning. But it’s doubtful the chairman could prevent a member from voting.

Without a council sergeant of arms, it’s also unclear who would physically remove a member who violates the code of conduct. But Brown said, “Members will get the point.”

Brown added that a member could be brought before a newly created ethics panel if problems persist.

As part of the ethics bill approved by the council in December, the three-member panel will be responsible for evaluating complaints. The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability could recommend that a member be reprimanded or disciplined.

Brown, who has been criticized for not having enough control over the council, is moving to quell the growing number of three- and four-letter words that have been creeping into the public debate.

In September, council members Catania and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) both used a vulgar term for excrement during a heated debate at a council breakfast over whether to raise taxes on the wealthy.

This week, the spat between Catania and Barry over United Medical Center became fodder for radio shows and media outlets across the nation.

During a council retreat at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Barry tried to ask Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi about United Medical Center’s finances.

Catania, a key supporter of the hospital, began hurling expletives at Barry, according to eyewitnesses,

The Washington Examiner also quoted Catania calling Barry a “despicable human being.”

Barry, 75, said in an interview that he nearly came to blows with Catania, 44, during the incident.

On Wednesday, when the feud hit the morning newspapers, angry residents jammed the phone lines at the John A. Wilson Building to complain about a lack of civility, according to staffers for Brown and Catania.

“This is outrageous, morally shocking, violent and cruel,” Bernadette Tolson, Barry’s former chief staff, wrote to Brown on Wednesday, asking that he reprimand Catania.

Catania stood by his remarks, saying he’s fed up because Barry does not do enough for Ward 8 residents.

“If he can’t take me swearing at him, too bad,” Catania said Tuesday.

But a Catania spokesman said Friday that Brown is “well-within his right” to push for the new guidelines. Barry also endorsed the move.

“If you are in the Army, you can be dishonorably discharged for conduct unbecoming,” Barry said. “The chairman has my full support.”

Under Brown’s proposal, the updated code of conduct would apply at any council meeting or gathering governed by the Open Meetings Act, which allows members of the media to be present.

Behind closed doors, council members can curse away.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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