Real Oversight by the D.C. Council
The White House and Congress created the financial control board to manage the city's finances in 1995 -- my first year on the D.C. Council. At the end of that difficult year, the council had held oversight hearings on a scant 12 of the city's 86 departments. Oversight -- seeking action and answers to the tough questions from executive branch leaders -- was at best an occasional feature of the legislature, and not a regular habit.
I proposed annual performance hearings as part of the budget process to make certain that every agency came under scrutiny. We had recently required performance reports by each agency to gauge how effectively tax dollars were spent. The annual performance hearings began in 1999. Today, in the wake of the D.C. tax office scandal and the horrific deaths of four sisters known to child welfare authorities, the performance hearings set to begin on Feb. 11 should be particularly vigorous. Here is what I'd like to see the council do:
¿ Review every report by the D.C. auditor and the District's inspector general in the past several years, agency by agency, and committee by committee. What else is there, on paper already, that has not been closely examined by the council? Auditor Deborah Nichols warned of the lack of internal controls at the Office of the Chief Financial Officer several years ago. What other warnings have been issued, and what has been done about those red flags?
¿ Scrutinize the "performance budgets" that were phased in, starting in 2000, in an effort to calculate the real costs of government services. What's been accomplished, and are we measuring what ought to be measured -- again, agency by agency and committee by committee?
¿ Revisit the confirmation hearing records for every member of the Fenty cabinet. What were their goals and what did they promise in order to get "yes" votes from the council? Which promises have been kept?
¿ Check through a sampling of new laws each committee has enacted in recent years and the status of implementation. Recent columns criticized the Bureau of Prisons for failing to give D.C. prisoners the "good time" break for drug treatment the council approved in 2004. What else is out there waiting to be implemented?
Separately or as part of the performance hearings, I'd like to see the government operations committee hold a hard-hitting oversight hearing on government ethics laws and rules. Nichols noted in the hearing on the financial scandal that current law requires D.C. employees to report wrongdoing. Do we need more stringent ethics rules and sanctions? What do other city councils, county boards and state legislatures require of their employees? Bring in national experts on corruption and its cures: How much have we done and what more can we do?
There is much more council oversight that can and should be done, and can be particularly effective early in a new administration. Getting maximum bang from the performance hearing buck would be a real signal that our legislature is doing its part to strengthen the D.C. government.
-- Kathy Patterson
The writer represented Ward 3 on the D.C. Council from 1995 through 2006.