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Behind Closed Doors, a Broad Agenda Takes Shape

By Eric M. Weiss
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page C05

From all accounts, it was the city's elected leaders doing their best to discuss the most pressing problems facing the District.

All 13 members of the D.C. Council gathered in a windowless room at the Georgetown University Conference Center on Jan. 21 to hash out solutions. By all reports, it was a high-minded, sober discussion about schools, affordable housing and the best way to spend billions of tax dollars.

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The council's retreat was held in private, and as in previous years, no members of the public or the media were allowed to observe. City officials maintain that the retreat, like the weekly closed council breakfasts, is an informal meeting that does not violate a city law mandating open meetings. The open-meetings law, which dates to 1973, requires the council, and for that matter any agency, board or commission, to open all meetings to the public in which "official action of any kind is taken."

Over a tasty catered lunch, members reportedly spoke about their hopes and priorities.

"It's a good opportunity to talk about goals for the upcoming session," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "I don't know how lofty it gets, but it gives people a chance to focus. Everyone has their own take on things."

In the morning, chairmen of council committees told their colleagues what issues they plan to emphasize and then took questions and suggestions, according to several participants.

Then, after lunch, members talked about areas they want the council to explore, brainstorming ideas from reviewing special education to demanding the "local appointments of judges" to "eliminate nuisance properties."

As fast as members tossed out the ideas, Secretary to the Council Phyllis Jones wrote them on large pieces of paper with markers. There were 55 priorities.

"It wasn't unhelpful," said Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4). "Most of the stuff, everybody agreed on, like more affordable housing or better community policing. The priority list becomes like a campaign platform where nobody disagrees. The real question is how are they going to get done."

Affordable housing issues were placed at the top of the agenda. Members say they will push for inclusionary zoning, which would require that affordable housing be included in every new or renovated development, because the city needs to increase the number of units while keeping revitalized neighborhoods economically diverse.

Youth issues also appeared frequently on the list of priorities, from a summer jobs program to reducing juvenile crime to improving juvenile justice. The council also pledged to increase oversight of the government's contracting and buying operations and to monitor the implementation of council legislative and budget priorities.

And, nestled in the middle of the priority list of big-ticket government programs and initiatives, the council called for "responsible fiscal management."

But members cautioned that this was just a wish list that will be whittled down. And, in the end, participants said, the retreat was a good way to consider the things that really matter.

"Affordable housing, schools, and policing," Fenty said. "Those are the things that are driving people out of the city."

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