September 23, 2011

“This is the worst council I’ve ever served on in my 20 years on the council,” Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said after the D.C. Council’s rancorous breakfast meeting Tuesday. No argument there.

Some current members of the council have made spectacles of themselves. Sadly, they are too self-absorbed and too obtuse to know it.

The coarsening of the council was on display at the breakfast meeting, as reported by Post staff writers Tim Craig and Vanessa Williams. From David A. Catania (I-At Large), we got a curse; from Evans, a tossed expletive. In a formal legislative session later, The Post reported, members spent hours bickering over who got to talk first and who was recognized. Shades of a meeting of the “Mystic Knights of the Sea,” Amos ’n’ Andy’s fictional lodge.

What fine role models. What great contributors to our children’s civic education. What better examples of respect for law and civil discourse.

Let’s briefly recap from Post accounts.

Citizens are expected to pay their taxes, and pay on time. So where does that leave council members Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), two well-documented tax delinquents?

Public officials should set examples of good behavior. You accomplish that by demanding a luxury sport-utility vehicle as soon as you get elected. Turn down the SUV when it’s not the right color. Demand another. Make D.C. taxpayers pick up the tab for leasing both vehicles. As did newly minted Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D).

Go one step further. Conduct your election campaign in such a way that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, after an investigation by the Office of Campaign Finance, asks the U.S. attorney for the District to investigate whether your campaign used a now-defunct political consulting firm to funnel $239,000 to a firm operated by your brother. (Again, meet Kwame Brown.)

Public service is a public trust?

What are our youth to think when a self-described champion of their cause is accused of diverting $300,000 in city funds from youth programs, using some of that money to pay for luxury vehicles and expensive trips? The youth champion in question, Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), denies any wrongdoing but has agreed to repay the money. Meanwhile, he’s under investigation by the U.S. attorney. What next? A plea bargain? Involuntary public service? Both?

Civic responsibility? A trusted aide tries to pass a “cash gift” to you. You refuse the money. But you, a council member, lawyer and officer of the court, neither report the attempt nor fire the money-toting aide. Take a bow, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), and thanks for that lesson in ethics. (Graham says that in retrospect he believes he should have reported the matter to authorities. But he insists he never suspected that the cash nor his aide were connected to illegal activity.)

Serve the public good? Here’s how the D.C. Council does it. First, pass a law that lets a council member set up a “constituent services fund” that can take in as much as $80,000 in contributions from lobbyists and others doing business with the D.C. government. Next, parcel out the money to constituents and groups, the chief purpose of which is to make the member look good. Evans, The Post reported on Aug. 21, has shelled out $437,720 under the program since 2002. The public interest? Constituent services funds serve council members’ political interests. (Evans defended the spending, saying he had done nothing illegal.)

Let’s cut to the chase. Is this the best we can do? Is it possible to find women and men in this city who, when it comes to ethics, can walk the talk?

The flurry of ethics legislation now flying around the council tells us that some lawmakers have figured out that residents are getting sick and tired of the council making a spectacle of themselves and, by extension, of the city.

Residents are sick of puffed-up, self-serving, marginally effective council members. And they are tired of being embarrassed.

Next year, Michael Brown, Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Evans, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Barry will be up for reelection.

Primaries will be held April 3. The deadline for ballot access for the seats occupied by Orange, Evans, Bowser, Alexander and Barry is Jan. 4.

Michael Brown, an independent, will not have to compete in the April party primaries. His name, along with those of other at-large candidates, will appear on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot.

There are some promising new names and faces out there on the hustings. They want to be heard.

Civic associations and community groups ought to invite them in. Schedule candidate forums. Listen to what they have to say and, by all means, ask away. Maturity? Civility? Integrity? What do they inspire?

Match them up against what we have now. Are they any better?

Help wanted, D.C. Council: Spectacles need not apply.

kingc@washpost.com