D.C. Council closes meeting, removes news media

The D.C. Council, struggling to repair fractured relationships among its members, met behind closed doors Thursday to discuss ethics and other reforms after it summoned police to remove reporters.

During an afternoon that punctuated the growing stress in the John A. Wilson Building, council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) gathered all 13 council members to distribute a new “code of official conduct” and to try to infuse more comity. Currently, many members find it difficult to identify one another as friends.

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Brown called the meeting two days after members cursed at one another during a debate over whether to raise income taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents.

When some members of the local news media tried to cover Thursday’s meeting, citing the city’s open-meetings law, Brown moved to kick them out.

Noting that the open meetings act allows for exemptions, Brown asked his colleagues to vote to close the meeting, saying the council would be talking about “personnel issues” and “financial disclosure statements.”

Under the open-meetings act, closed-door meetings are allowed to “discuss the appointment, employment, assignment, promotion, performance evaluation, compensation, discipline, demotion, removal, or resignation of government appointees, employees, or officials.”

All nine members in the conference room where members had gathered voted to close the session. But several members of the news media, including The Washington Post, tried to remain in the room until an explanation was given for locking the news media out of the proceedings.

“Mr. Chairman, I am going to object,” said Tom Sherwood, a veteran reporter for WRC-TV (Channel 4).

A few minutes earlier, Sherwood and other reporters had caught a glimpse of the meeting agenda that Brown had brought into into the conference room.

Brown first wanted to discuss “decorum,” the use of “ profanity” during meetings, an “internal code of conduct” and “financial disclosure information for members and staff,” according to a photographed copy of the agenda.

“Do you really believe this is not worthy of an open meeting?” asked WTOP reporter Mark Segraves, who also works for WJLA-TV (Channel 7).

After a five-minute standoff, Brown summoned Protective Services police officers who guard city buildings to escort members of the news media out of the room. “Officer, can you get them out of here, please?” council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) asked three officers who entered the room.

After council members left the three-hour meeting, most were unusually tight-lipped about the proceedings. “We talked about personnel issues,” Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said.

But David A. Catania (I-At Large) said the meeting gave members a chance to vent about the body’s direction.

“It was an opportunity for people to have a candid, honest discussion about the state of affairs,” Catania said. “It was a nice chance for people to get stuff off their chests.”

In the past, council members would meet monthly in private before each legislative meeting. But the council started admitting reporters to those sessions several years ago.

In an interview after the meeting, Brown said members needed to talk about “personnel matters” and to hear a presentation from the body’s general counsel.

“I’m a supporter of the open-meetings law,” Brown said. “This will be a rare occasion.”

As for the confrontation with reporters, Brown said the news media shares in the blame for what he views as an overall breakdown of trust and civility at city hall.

“I think the decorum of some of the media leaves a little bit to be desired,” Brown said. “I understand some people want to get a story . . . and I understand some of it is theatrical.”

But in the coming weeks, Brown said he hopes the council can enact a series of ethics bills. On Tuesday, the council’s first meeting after a two-month summer recess, five council members introduced separate bills dealing with ethics or campaign finance or lobbying reforms.

Two weeks ago, Brown ordered the council and its staff to comply with the federal conflict-of-interest law, which bans staffers from participating in matters that involve their spouses, children, business partners or potential future employers.

But some members objected, questioning whether a law written for the federal government should apply to a body that is an independent lawmaking body.

During Thursday’s meeting, Brown said he also spoke about the new 25-page code of ethics he expects members and staffers to abide by.

The pamphlet, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, largely emphasizes existing regulations on conflicts of interest, the acceptance of gifts, the reporting of outside income, and what can be mailed with city postage.

 
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