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Hear the Latest About the Federal City Council?

By Yolanda Woodlee and Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 9, 2007

The District is full of conspiracy theories, especially when it comes to the Federal City Council, the mysterious nonprofit organization of 200 city leaders working behind the scenes to help shape government policy and improve the city.

The group's own Web site says that it does not seek publicity for its work.

The timidity often lends itself to tittle-tattle, most recently that the group is the puppeteer behind Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's schools takeover. It also doesn't help that the Federal City Council is the former employer of Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso.

Let's see if we can begin to explain this most recent episode:

Last month, schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee spoke to about 40 D.C. Chamber of Commerce board members at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. According to several board members, questions were asked about how the business community could "partnership" with the schools system. Rhee said she welcomed any assistance, but that her immediate priority is to focus on getting the schools open. She said the schools system didn't have the "capacity" -- staff and tools -- to engage in a partnership right now.

Well, along the way, a rumor began circulating that Rhee had told the business leaders that any approval for initiatives must come from the Federal City Council.

Gina Arlotto, co-founder of Save Our Schools, wrote to D.C. Watch, the government watchdog blog, that Rhee "had calmly informed those in attendance that all proposed school initiatives (presumably any from the business community, but it seems like any through her office as well) must 'secure approval' from the Federal City Council before implementation in DCPS." Arlotto said this was evidence the business group would be running the school system.

When asked about her e-mail to D.C. Watch, which is widely read in the community, Arlotto said: "I stand by what I posted. People are afraid to call the Federal City Council on the carpet. . . . They're meddling in our business."

Several board members, including Chamber President Barbara B. Lang, said that Rhee did not tell them they needed to coordinate programs with the Federal City Council. Lang said she personally remembers speaking of the council, but wasn't sure Rhee had.

"I mentioned that I was working with the Federal City Council to make sure we coordinate our efforts and don't step on each other," Lang said. "Rhee certainly did not say that everything needs to be coordinated through the Federal City Council."

From this episode, however, an idea has sprung. Kelvin J. Robinson, a member of the D.C. Chamber who asked Rhee about the partnership, became even more concerned about helping the school system after hearing last week that student textbooks were stacked in a warehouse.

Maybe his fellow business leaders could pull together and offer some much-needed assistance, Robinson said, particularly if the school system sent out a "clarion call."

"I'm not criticizing what they're doing, but if there's a way for us to help, I'm sure many in the business community would step forward and do their part," said Robinson, the chairman of the chamber's political action committee. "Everybody's excited about Rhee and wants to help. Now it's about finding out the right thing to do."

Lang says that Robinson's idea for the business community to step up to the plate and help organize the textbooks so they can reach the schools on time received resounding applause from her.

"That sounds like an idea that we would be interested in pursuing," Lang said. "That's what business folks do. They organize things. We know how to execute. We would be very willing to approach the business community and ask for help."

Graham's Summer Vacation

So all of the D.C. Council members don't go to Rehoboth Beach for the summer recess.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has been in El Salvador since July 23 and now, when he returns, he can officially enter with a llave. That means key en EspaƱol.

Graham received the key to San Salvador, the capital of the Central American country.

The council member, who represents the most culturally diverse ward in the city, has made El Salvador an annual trip to brush up on his Spanish and immerse himself in the culture. About 20 percent of foreign-born constituents in Ward 1 are from El Salvador.

"I'm humbled by this recognition," Graham said in a news release. "I'm proud to represent the most diverse ward of our city. The Salvadoran community is a great contributor to our neighborhoods and development."

The trip marks Graham's third visit to the country. He also traveled to Ethiopia in 2004.

According to the release from Graham's office, having the key to San Salvador is rare for someone at the council member's level -- only presidents, royalty and other high-ranking officials have earned the distinction.

Graham will return to the District on Sept. 7 or 8 and plans to advocate for a sister city relationship with San Salvador. The District currently has 11 sister cities, none of which is in Central or South America, according to Sister Cities International.

"Jim has been a friend of our communities in Washington, D.C., and has worked hard for inclusions of all people, regardless of their immigration status," San Salvador Mayor Violeta Menjivar said in the release. "Salvadorans have benefited greatly from his actions and unconditional support."

Prescription Drug Law Bounced

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) was busy in Boston with his duties as chairman of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices (NLARx). He presided over the group's summer meeting earlier this week.

Catania, who heads the D.C. Council's heath committee, has become a figure in the fight for cheaper prescription drugs, garnering even a little national buzz.

Last week, a federal appeals court threw out a D.C. law, championed by Catania in 2005, that allowed residents to sue a drug company for selling a patented prescription medicine at a wholesale price 30 percent higher than in Canada, Germany, Australia or the United Kingdom.

The law was intended to keep the price of prescription drugs low. But the court ruled the city law, which never went into effect because of a successful injunction filed by the drug industry in 2005, violates a federal patent law.

Catania said last week he would talk to city officials about appealing. In a news release about the meeting in Boston, Catania said, "The members of NLARx continue to push the envelope on the issue of prescription drug access."

Staff writers Nikita Stewart and Sylvia Moreno contributed to this report.

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