D.C. Council’s killing of mayor’s plan is a sign of tension between government branches


Mayor Vincent C. Gray, center, and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, left, demonstrate in favor of D.C. voting rights in April 2011. A year later, the two leaders are fighting each other. (Bill O'Leary/THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 17, 2012

Amid increasingly dour relations between Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, a unified council on Tuesday rejected Gray’s plan to spend a $79 million budget surplus.

With the District flush with cash after higher-than-expected revenue this fiscal year, Gray (D) has proposed using the funds to close midyear budget gaps in funding for schools, libraries, health care and economic development. He also has recommended repaying city employees a combined $20 million for four furlough days that they took last year to help close a projected budget gap.

But flexing his political muscle as he tries to position himself as a fiscal hawk, Brown (D) rallied all 12 council members to kill Gray’s proposals. Brown said it was irresponsible to authorize additional funding in what he said was the administration’s response to overspending by some agencies.

Instead, the council approved $15 million in new spending to close a shortfall in charter school funding and shore up the city’s Unemployment Compensation Fund. If Gray wants to spend more, he must submit another proposal for consideration, the council said.

“We pass a budget and the agency simply does not comply with it, and then it comes back to us asking for money?” Brown said before the vote. “Clearly, it’s the responsibility of agency management to resolve this kind of spending pressure internally.”

Brown’s effort comes after several weeks of tension between him and Gray, which has unnerved some council members.

After Brown and Gray were elected as political allies in 2010, they pledged to cooperate and put an end to the high-profile spats between the council and then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

But relations between the city’s two highest-profile elected officials have deteriorated as both men try to govern amid federal investigations into D.C. political campaigns.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said in a statement after Tuesday’s council vote that the council was “unfortunately . . . just kicking the can down the road.”

“We will continue to work with the council to ensure that [spending] pressures are resolved in a responsible manner,” Ribeiro said.

Asked to comment on Ribeiro’s statement, Brown said he had no response because Ribeiro was “clueless.”

“I don’t respond to the mayor’s spokesperson, because I think he’s clueless on some things that came out of his mouth,” Brown said.

Brown added that he will respond only to comments by the mayor, even though Ribeiro speaks for Gray. “If the mayor says some things, I will respond,” Brown said. “But I’m not going to respond to a communications director who said things that are not as factual as they should be.”

Ribeiro would only say: “We don’t engage in that kind of name-calling.”

Last week, a Washington Examiner story quoted an unidentified senior Gray administration official as calling Brown “a do-nothing chairman.”

Despite Brown’s insistence that he will respond only to the mayor, government officials said Gray has struggled in recent weeks to get Brown on the phone.

Gray called Brown “a couple” times last week but the two men were only able to exchange voice mails, staffers said. Both men agreed Tuesday evening to meet on Thursday.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he is concerned the the rift between Gray and Brown may be expanding.

“People want to see this government function well and expect the [mayor and council to work] collaboratively,” he said. “If there is tension between either the mayor or the chairman, whoever is at fault, it needs to be fixed.”

Part of the friction between the two appears to stem from a power play over who should take the lead in shaping city spending plans.

On Tuesday morning, Brown said he was going to pass emergency legislation requiring that the mayor get council approval before reallocating any money in the capital budget. Under current laws, the mayor must get council approval only when the administration seeks to spend more than $500,000.

Gray said he “strongly opposed” Brown’s bill, saying it could cripple ongoing construction projects. Brown withdrew his proposal before it came up for a vote.

But Brown isn’t the only member questioning Gray’s oversight of the budget. Several members said they were concerned that Gray appears so willing to spend the city’s surplus instead of looking for savings in other agencies.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said the plan approved by the council Tuesday is “careful, measured, responsible measure.”

And while the council rejected much of Gray’s proposal, Brown said he would reconsider the matter, including whether the city should repay employees for their missed days.

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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