By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
In its first legislative meeting of the year, the D.C. Council voted to strip Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier of the subpoena power that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty recently gave her as a crime-fighting tool.
The council voted 9 to 4 to take away the authority to issue subpoenas on the grounds that such power could threaten the civil rights of D.C. residents.
The emergency legislation drew quick condemnation from D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, who called the move "silly" and said it put politics ahead of the need to help Lanier improve public safety.
"The mayor has the authority, the city administrator has the authority, but the chief of police doesn't. I don't think that the council action is lawful," Nickles said. "It seems logical to give the chief of police all of the help that she can get to conduct criminal investigations and to protect the safety of the public. This is wise public policy. We are not trying to short-circuit the grand jury process."
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the judiciary committee, said: "The authority that was proposed for the chief of police is unprecedented and without any limitations. There is no other jurisdiction that we know of that gives the chief of police this broad authority to subpoena people regarding any municipal matter."
The tug of war over Lanier's subpoena power is one of many issues facing D.C. officials, who must also navigate a budgetary shortfall in the hundreds of millions and the potential collapse of several city programs, including assistance for first-time home buyers and an initiative to provide permanent housing for the homeless.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said yesterday that the joy of the coming presidential inauguration is tempered by the fact that the council is facing many tough decisions.
"We already know that we are facing a 300- to 400 million-dollar budget reduction," Gray said. "There is no question that the budget has to be at the top of our list. Obviously education will continue to be important because programs like early childhood education will save us money in the long run." He added that the city has depleted its operating cash reserves.
Yesterday's session was the first for Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who introduced bills to increase funding for mental health and drug treatment programs at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the city's psychiatric hospital, and for youth mentoring programs.
"We wanted to get off to a fast start. We have a lot more work to do, and want to lead on a lot of issues," Brown said.
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the new chairman of the council's consumer affairs committee, and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation designed to establish new regulations for the city's vendors.
David A. Catania (I-At Large) introduced bills intended to make sure that city health-care professionals are properly licensed, and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) reintroduced legislation that would require the city to establish a facilities plan and to accept public comment before selling vacant school properties.
Cheh also introduced legislation to allow interns working in the District to sue employers for sex or race discrimination. "It is extraordinary that we haven't protected interns until now," she said.
Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), the new chairman of the council's Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, said the intern bill is important because for too long some of the most vulnerable workers in the city have not been protected. She said this bill was motivated because of a recent sexual harassment suit filed by an intern.