Is the D.C. Council in malaise mode?

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For nearly an hour, she said, Catania (I-At large) complained about his colleagues, the mayor and what he called the council’s “dysfunction.”

“I spent an hour in there and we never got back to talking about why I was there,” Lang said.

Their exchange is a striking illustration of what troubles city activists, labor leaders and lobbyists: The D.C. Council is so preoccupied with feuds and ethical scandals that some of them have pulled back on meaningful legislative action until next year amid mounting concern that a local legislature most recently regarded as a trendsetter has become stale and uninspired.

George “Geo” T. Johnson, president of the AFSCME Council 20, said he decided several months ago that because of the “many distractions” on the council he would wait until next year before pursuing an agenda to reopen some contracts and build more workforce housing.

“As you get older, you just try to understand and be patient,” he said.

The council is torn among factions that include the traditional white-black split and more recent personality-driven divisions as members try to distance themselves from its tarnished image. And with two council members under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office — four others have managedpublic-relations crises ranging from failure to pay taxes to a staff member who illegally accepted a cash payment — nervous sniping seems the new norm among council members.

Business leaders and advocates said they understand the District can’t undertake costly, new initiatives with a city budget starved by the national economic downturn. But what’s missing, they said, is a sense of confidence that the city can overcome its scandal-plagued funk — perhaps through a coherent legislative strategy that positions the District for more prosperous times.

“I think there is a sense of malaise in the city,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University. “I like almost all of these guys. I know them, but they are a source of some disappointment . . . They seem to have fallen to hubris.”

Trying to focus

The previous council approved landmark legislation, including near-universal health insurance, same-sex marriage, a 5-cent tax on plastic bags and some of the nation’s most rigorous school-lunch regulations.

By comparison, the most significant legislative accomplishments this council period include resolving the city budget, overhauling a city law requiring contractors to hire a certain percentage of District residents and raising taxes on residents who earn more than $350,0000 a year.

Part of the reason for the relative lackluster legislative agenda is that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) — whose campaign is under federal investigation — is not sending significant bills to the council for consideration. While the council and Gray are credited with squaring off a $300 million budget shortfall and launching $2 billion in redevelopment projects this year, observers said the mayor’s legislative agenda has been paper-thin.

Administration officials privately acknowledge that Gray has been dogged by a federal investigation of his campaign dealings and controversy over his administration’s early hiring decisions.

“It’s the mayor’s job to articulate a vision for the city and develop and execute a strategy and collaborate with the council to get it done,” said Max Brown, who served as legal counsel and deputy chief of staff to former mayor Anthony Williams (D).

Yet, Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown called this session “historic” because the council held a record number of meetings and closed the city’s budget shortfall without deep cuts to social service programs. “The council has held up no legislation that I know of so far,” Brown (D) said. “We don’t run the government, we are legislators.”

This year, members have introduced about 500 bills, about the same number as had been introduced at this point in the prior session. The council has approved about 400 bills and resolutions this year, slightly below last year’s pace, when it cleared some 550 bills and resolutions.

Brown noted he’s working to rewrite the curriculum for middle schools while backing Gray’s efforts to continue school reforms started under former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). On Tuesday, the council approved a major overhaul of a city law requiring contractors to hire a certain percentage of District residents. By the end of the month, the council is expected rewrite city ethics laws.

And Brown, like Gray, notes few other big cities can match the District when it comes to returning the construction cranes to the city skyline. Gray said the city is on track to launch $11 billion in redevelopment projects by 2013.

“What you have are things taking place,” Brown said.

But Lang, who backed Gray for mayor, said business leaders are also frustrated with the government. “I think they are very challenged,” she said. “It’s very difficult to get them to focus on big things.”

The fact that the council designated ethics legislation as a centerpiece of its agenda this session underscores the tumultuous year for some local officials. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating whether Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) diverted more than $300,000 in public funds for personal use, whether Brown steered campaign money to his brother’s company and whether the Gray campaign paid another mayoral candidate to disparage Fenty in last year’s election. All have denied any wrongdoing.

Michael Brown (I-At large) also failed to pay his taxes on time this year while Council member Jim Graham’s (D-Ward 1) former chief of staff pleaded guilty to felony charges of accepting a cash payments. The media also scrutinized Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) on their use of constituent service funds, designed to help need residents.

Jim Abdo, president and founder of Abdo Development Company, said it’s natural for business leaders and activists to “step back” when they see “this level of disorder.”

“You want to have confidence in leadership and stability in leadership, and I think a lot of business people who have been committed to this city for a long time, and have seen it at it worst and seen it at its best, want to step back when they see this level of dysfunction,” said Abdo, whose company has built thousands of apartments and housing units across the city since 1996. “I hear it in business meetings. I now it from the boards I sit on.”

Tension and mistrust

While divergent personalities are a staple of many legislative bodies, current and former members said several recent councils largely rallied around a central idea to unify and pursue a broader common agenda.

Under former chairman Linda Cropp, the council pushed economic development initiatives, including a battle over whether the city should help finance Nationals Park, while preserving decorum through a non-confrontational style.

Gray, who succeeded Cropp as chairman, also developed a reputation as a diligent chair who kept the council’s internal disagreements from spilling out into public view. And once Gray bought into an idea, there were few lobbyists or politicians could derail the agenda. That’s one reason why Tommy Wells’s (D-Ward 6) bag tax proposal sailed through the body in 2009, despite opposition from grocers and the plastic industry.

Consumed by his own political survival following his request for a taxpayer-funded luxury SUV as his official car, members said Brown has been less inclined to expend capital to get other members’ priorities this year.

But Brown’s efforts to control the council have grown difficult because of soured interpersonal relationships.

The tension and mistrust began when Phil Mendelson (D-At large) felt misled by Wells during a debate about the confidentiality of juvenile records. Earlier this year, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) was unnerved by Catania because she refused to support his effort to get appointed chairman of the education committee. And, more recently, members say Brown has felt embarrassed and betrayed after Evans said the council was “the worst” he’s served on.

“There have been so many distractions over the course of the year, it has hampered the body’s ability to move the city’s agenda forward,” said Catania, who added that he and Lang met on the council’s plans to raise taxes, not health care.

Complicating matters, some members said, is Marion Barry’s (D-Ward 8) campaign to rally some black members by arguing the media is unfairly targeting them, leading to more racial polarization.

“What I have said to the six other black members, very clearly, is that when other ethnic groups get into power, they respond to their constituencies,” said Barry, adding that the needs of many black communities are different from Northwest.

In many ways, the council’s rift reflects the broader cultural split in the 2010 election results, when Fenty handily won predominately white neighborhoods while Gray racked up landslide margins in majority black areas.

Gray, who was elected on a “One City” platform, has spent his first year in officestraddling the city’s polarized electorate. Some observers said he has struggled as he transitioned this year from the legislative to the executive branch.

He has so far sent just two formal proposals to the council: a bill to toughen the city’s sex-offender registry and a new tax on movie theatre concessions.

In an interview, Gray defended his record, noting he’s decided to focus on reforming the government in ways that don’t require legislative approval, such as efforts to overhaul the Department of Employment Services and steering more money to public education.

“It isn’t always necessary to create new legislation in order to move forward,” Gray said. “I think the budget reflects a lot of what I wanted to do.”

But Julius W. Hobson Jr., a consultant who headed the city’s intergovernmental affairs office in the late 1980s, worries District leaders are losing some of their vision as the city becomes more and more removed from the enactment of Home Rule in 1973.

“They are starting to act more like local officials everywhere,” Hobson said. “When their personal behavior gets questioned, they become more reactionary instead of looking at the big picture. You can call it damage-control public policy.”

 
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