D.C. Council plods through raft of bills

December 4, 2012

D.C. Council members tentatively approved dozens of bills Tuesday night, including measures for lower traffic fines, stricter drug laws, a surcharge on water bills and a tax break for a developer looking to build hundreds of housing units near Howard University.

But the council rejected legislation to authorize red parking meters in the District that would be reserved for handicapped motorists.

The meeting, the next to last before the council adjourns for Christmas, stretched for more than 12 hours as members considered one of their heaviest workloads since the current council period began two years ago. The council will hold final votes on pending legislation Dec. 18, its last meeting before the new year.

At times, Tuesday’s meeting grew heated as Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) stared down council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) over Barry’s proposal to grant new employment protections to ex-offenders. Mendelson led a successful effort to kill the bill, and an outraged Barry vowed political retribution against the new chairman.

After the council voted down the measure, Barry accused Mendelson of being a bully.

“You’re wrong, Mr. Chairman,” Barry charged after the 7 to 5 vote against the ex-offender bill.

“Mr. Barry, you’re out of order,” Mendelson said as the former mayor refused to yield to Mendelson as the chairman tried to move on to other business.

As Barry kept speaking and accused his colleagues of being insensitive, the televised feed of the proceeding was briefly cut off while Barry spoke.

The council also became entangled in a fresh political battle with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) after it approved several bills, including one that would reduce traffic fines, which the mayor said the city cannot pay for.

In all, Gray estimated that the council approved more than $340 million in new spending or tax cuts over four years that now must be funded or shelved. Under city rules, bills approved by the council cannot become law until the council and the mayor agree on how to fund them.

Underscoring Gray’s impatience with the council’s votes, the mayor visited the pressroom at the John A. Wilson Building to blast the council even before its meeting had concluded.

“I think it’s irresponsible,” said Gray, who served as council chairman from 2007 to 2011. “When I did legislation, I tried to figure out where the funding was coming from.”

Gray added that the council was “making promises to people” by approving legislation that won’t become law because it won’t be funded.

In an interview, Mendelson countered that it’s routine for the council to approve bills that are contingent upon future funding.

A major point of contention Tuesday centered around the council’s plans to lower the fines for speed-camera tickets and other speeding tickets.

Gray administration officials say the change, which would reduce the fine for traveling 11 mph and 15 mph above the speed limit to $75 from $100, would cost the city tens of millions of dollars. But the council disputes the estimate, and members vowed to implement the reduced fines even without the mayor’s support.

“The council has said the fines will come down, so the mayor has to fund it,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). “If the mayor doesn’t fund it, the council will fund it next year.”

The council also voted to extend library hours and approved new tax breaks for low-income residents and some developers, including an $11 million tax incentive for a proposed housing and retail project at Georgia Avenue and V Street NW, without off-setting the cost.

But the council found ways to pay for other priorities, including voting to establish a $1 million fund to reimburse residents of the Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park neighborhoods whose homes have been affected by frequent flooding and sewer backups.

To fund it, the council approved a surcharge on DC Water bills, which could increase monthly bills by an average of 30 cents. The council enacted the fee even though DC Water reported a $20.5 million surplus this summer and the District government ended fiscal 2012 with a $140 million surplus.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the only member to oppose the bill, questioned the need for a citywide “water tax” that would do little to solve the underlying issue of aging water pipes. Gray is also skeptical of the surcharge, fearing it could set a precedent and have other residents expecting the government to reimburse them for storm-related damages.

“That is why you have flood insurance,” Gray said. “Are we becoming an insurance company, too?”

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents Bloomingdale, countered that the surcharge amounts “to 1 cent per day” for ratepayers.

The council also approved a comprehensive rewrite of alcohol laws Tuesday night, but only after members stripped out a provision that would have limited residents’ ability to protest liquor licenses. It also voted to stiffen criminal penalties for synthetic marijuana, despite some members’ concerns that it would lead to more drug arrests.

Later, the council rejected on a tie vote red-top meters that would have been reserved for motorists with handicapped placards. The D.C. Department of Transportation hoped to designate about 10 percent of city meters to be converted to red tops to increase accessibility for the disabled while reducing the abuse of handicapped placards for free parking.

But opponents were concerned that the proposal required handicapped motorists to pay for parking and reduced available on-street parking for non-disabled motorists.

But the most intense debate of the day-long meeting, which continued after 10 p.m., centered around Barry’s ex-offender bill.

Under the proposal, employers could rescind offers only if the applicant’s convictions were 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.

Mendelson successfully fought the bill, a priority of Barry’s, after business leaders said it would lead to a flood of lawsuits.

“This is an invitation to endless litigation,” Mendelson said.

Barry and council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said Mendelson was turning his back on the estimated 60,000 D.C. residents with a criminal record.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Barry said. “In 2012, there are people on the dais who oppose a measure giving some semblance of rights to returning citizens.”

Instead of Barry’s bill, the council approved a lesser measure that encourages employers to hire ex-offenders and offers certificates of good standing to former inmates not believed to pose a risk to future employers. But several members said the council can revisit the ex-offender debate in coming years. “We can’t write off a significant number of this population who have crimes and served their time,” Bowser said.”

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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