D.C. Council has much to consider as session runs down

Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST - The Wilson building, which houses the Mayor's office and the City council chambers.

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The D.C. Council will close out a tumultuous two-year session this month, completing work on dozens of bills that include specifying where motorists can park and new employment protections for ex-offenders.

Starting on Tuesday, members also will consider lowering traffic fines, changing alcohol regulations, extending library hours on weekdays, implementing harsher penalties for possession of synthetic marijuana, and other measures. The council also must decide whether to tackle campaign finance reform before its final meeting, scheduled for Dec. 18.

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Last year, the council term began with headlines about bitter infighting, including members cursing at each other in public. Members’ woes only deepened this year when Harry Thomas Jr. resigned his Ward 5 seat in January after he was charged with stealing $350,000 from taxpayers. Six months later, the council’s chairman, Kwame R. Brown, stepped down after he was charged with bank fraud and campaign finance violations.

“This has been the most disappointing council period in my entire tenure on this council, and I’m looking forward to the sun setting on it,” said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a member since 1997.

But several potential legislative battles loom before the council ends its 19th period under home rule.

During a tense hearing Thursday, council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) outmaneuvered Chairman Phil Mendelson to approve a bill in committee that would grant new anti-discrimination protections for ex-offenders seeking work. Mendelson had opposed the measure, which now goes to the full council.

“I used the legislative process that allowed me, where I sat, to do what I did,” said Barry, who chairs the committee that was considering the legislation. But Mendelson on Friday called the move a “serious” breach of protocol.

The episode sets the stage for a potential fight over the issue Tuesday that could spill into other areas of council business. 

After reports that the city generated $178 million in traffic fines last year, including $85 million from speed cameras, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) signed an executive order lowering a speed camera fine for going 10 mph or less over the speed limit from $75 to $50.

The new regulations also reduced $125 tickets for going 11 mph to 15 mph over the limit to $100 but raised fines for going over the limit by 25 mph or more to $300. 

But Mendelson and council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) are pushing for lower fines, citing concerns about the city’s growing reliance on revenue from tickets. The council will consider separate proposals that reduce fines for traveling between 11 to 15 mph above the limit to $75 as well setting a maximum $250 fine for exceeding the speed limit by 25 mph or more.

Gray and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer have said the council plan could cost the District tens of millions of dollars and adversely affect the budget. Mendelson and Cheh dispute the estimates.

“We got in way more money [from traffic citations]  than we had budgeted for, so that is extra,” Cheh said. “It’s very manageable.”

The council also will vote Tuesday on whether to authorize the D.C. Department of Transportation to establish red-top parking meters that are reserved for motorists with handicapped parking placards. The drivers would have to pay to park at meters, reversing a long-standing policy of free parking for disabled drivers.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) will oppose the legislation, arguing that handicapped motorists should not have to pay for parking. Bowser also worries that DDOT’s plans to convert about 11 percent of meters to red tops will reduce on-street parking for non-disabled motorists.

“Are we that intent on charging people in wheelchairs to park?” she asked. “It’s terrible.”

Bowser, chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, could also find herself at odds with Gray over campaign finance reforms that are under consideration. 

With a federal investigation into his 2010 campaign ongoing, Gray has proposed a series of reforms, including banning city contractors from donating to District candidates and prohibiting lobbyists from bundling donations.

On Friday, Gray called on the council to complete the legislation by the end of the year.

But Bowser said there is only “a slim chance” that the council will act before it recesses for the year, citing the complexity of securing majority support for a bill. “Most members have expressed to me they don’t want to rush in getting it out,” she said. “They want more time.” 

However, other pieces of legislation are heading for up-or-down votes.

The council is expected to vote Tuesday to revise liquor laws, including authorizing Sunday carryout sales and placing new limits on residents’ rights to lodge complaints against liquor-license applications. The hospitality industry supports the bill, but some neighborhood groups want changes to it.

 Mendelson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is pushing a crime bill that classifies synthetic forms of marijuana such as “KZ” and “Spice” as Schedule 1 narcotics, which are subject to more stringent criminal penalties. The measure also clarifies that a rapist cannot have custody or visitation rights with a child who resulted from a rape, establishes an assault on a taxicab inspector as a new crime and clarifies that someone can be charged with disorderly conduct for using loud or abusive language in a government building. 

To respond to recent flooding in Bloomingdale, council members will ponder legislation to create a $1 million fund to re­imburse uninsured homeowners who have experienced flood damage or sewer backups. The fund could be paid for through a small assessment on residents’ water bills.

With an eye to the future, the members will consider a bill authorizing driverless or autonomous cars on city streets as long as a licensed driver retains the ability to manually drive the vehicle if necessary.

 An environmental bill extends solar tax credits for homeowners, regulates the use of fertilizers near waterways and restricts dry cleaners from opening near child-care centers to protect kids from fumes.

The bill also rescinds a city ban on beekeeping, allowing residents to have up to four hives per quarter-acre.

 
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