By Nikita Stewart and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The D.C. Council unanimously approved emergency legislation last night that ends the strictest handgun ban in the country and voted 12 to 1 to approve the transfer of almost $125 million to renovate schools by fall -- two major issues that showed the council's complex relationship with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
The gun bill establishes regulations for residents to keep handguns in their homes legally to comply with last month's historic Supreme Court decision that found the city's 32-year prohibition of handguns unconstitutional.
City leaders say the legislation goes as far as it can on gun regulations while respecting the high court's ruling. Weapons must be unloaded, disassembled or trigger-locked, except when there is a "threat of immediate harm to a person" in the home.
The legislation also requires that guns remain inside homes. It requires eye and written exams for gun owners, and ballistics tests conducted by police.
Opponents of the gun ban say the new legislation and the city's continued prohibition of semiautomatic weapons are not in accordance with the high court's decision. Fenty (D) and council members, presenting a unified front on the gun ban, say they are prepared for lawsuits.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary and one of the mayor's most vocal critics, said he and the administration collaborated on the legislation.
"I want to commend my partners on the Council for their swift, sensible action on our gun laws today," Fenty said in a statement yesterday in which he singled out Mendelson's leadership. "None of us wanted this bill to be necessary. But I think we have struck the right balance between honoring the Supreme Court's Heller decision and protecting the safety of our residents."
But on schools, the council and the Fenty administration continue to be divided. Several council members said they were reluctantly approving the transfer, called a reprogramming of funds.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) resisted pressure from the Fenty administration, which had insisted that the council quickly approve the reprogramming and several contracts two weeks ago.
Gray refused to place all of the school contracts on the council's agenda, saying that the school system had to address the issue of several schools being reconstructed to become pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. He and other council members said that a hearing was necessary because the switch represented a change in education policy, not just a construction project.
"We took the opportunity to be serious about our jobs," Gray said. "To receive contracts . . . and expect someone to approve them in a matter of hours or days is totally ludicrous."
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and school construction chief Allen Y. Lew told Gray this month that continued delay in approving funds jeopardized the orderly opening of schools Aug. 25.
Lew's office said it had been forced to issue "stop work" orders to nine construction companies working on 30 schools.
Both officials later backed away somewhat from that declaration.
A spokesman for Lew said yesterday that the council's action will allow work to resume, and that all renovations "related to classroom instruction" will be ready at the start of school.
Other kinds of work, on roofs, boilers and other infrastructure, will continue as classes begin, the spokesman said.
Rhee's push for the pre-K-to-8 configuration involves academic and pragmatic goals. Some experts contend that traditional middle schools (grades 6 to 8) have not met the emotional and academic needs of adolescents.
Big urban districts, they say, have not had the funds to provide sufficient teachers or specialized training. Consolidating pre-K, kindergarten, elementary and middle grades could make it easier to provide those resources, as well as ensure more continuity for students during a turbulent developmental stage.
The pre-K-to-8 format is also an attempt to staunch the traditionally heavy flow of students away from public schools after the fifth grade. Having the option of remaining in a familiar environment, proponents say, might lead more families to remain in the system.
"We've lost a lot of our children at the middle school level," said Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).
But many parents are reluctant to place young children and the often unruly older ones in the same building.
Referring to his own grade school-age daughter, Council member Mendelson said, "I'm not sure I'd want her in school with adolescents."
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was the lone dissenter. Earlier in the day, he issued a news release about the transfers and school construction contracts that were also approved last night.
Though the council voted on the contracts last night, work had started. The contracts were retroactive, giving the council vote little power.
"The Fenty administration is jamming the Council with this last-ditch effort," Barry said in the release.
"The mayor's office should understand that retroactive contracts cannot be awarded. . . . I personally urge my colleagues to vote against all of them."
Before the vote, Barry said on the dais that the council's lopsided relationship with Fenty must end, referring to frequent fights over the mayor initiating contracts without council approval.
"I'm disturbed because it follows a pattern of Mayor Fenty," he said.
The day-long legislative meeting was the council's last before summer recess, which ends in September. The council will tackle permanent gun legislation when it returns to work.
The marathon meeting also ended a legislative session in which the council approved its version of universal health care, mandatory paid sick leave for all workers and energy-conservation legislation.