The D.C. Council Makes an Absurd Vote Concerning a Labor Relations Panel

Thursday, April 23, 2009

DEBATING a proposal to allow the lone person on the District's labor relations board to decide cases, D.C. Council members agreed it really wasn't good public policy. That, though, didn't stop a majority of them from voting for the measure. Hand it to the D.C. Council for not letting a little thing like the public good stand in the way of its feud with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

The council on Tuesday approved emergency legislation to enable the five-member Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), hobbled by longstanding vacancies, to operate with a quorum of one. It didn't matter to council members that crucial labor-management disputes would be decided exclusively by the labor representative on the board; or that Mr. Fenty promised to have an alternative list of qualified appointees by week's end; or that Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) -- posing the question of whether it was the best public policy approach -- thundered, "Of course not."

Mr. Gray and eight of his colleagues blithely went on to vote for the measure because, as at-large member Kwame R. Brown (D) said, it's more important to "send a message" to the mayor. Also voting yes on this ridiculous bill were its sponsors, Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), as well as Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). Showing good sense in opposing the bill were members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David A. Catania (I-At Large).

More troubling than this one issue is what it says about the deterioration of relations between the executive and legislature -- and how that affects the public's interests. We've criticized Mr. Fenty for his churlish treatment of the council, as exemplified by the unbelievable pettiness of actions such as withholding baseball tickets. Nonetheless, that the mayor has hurt the council's feelings doesn't give the council license to retaliate at the expense of D.C. residents. The PERB decision is simply indefensible, as was the council's toying with school renovations that were desperately needed or its refusal to award a new lottery contract that would have saved the city millions of dollars. D.C. residents are right to wonder why their elected officials are squabbling like 3-year-olds while serious city business languishes.

It is distressing that Mr. Fenty, who can be so smart about what the city needs, is so obtuse about the importance of collaborating with the council. It is disappointing that Mr. Gray, whom we respect, seems increasingly to view his job as defender of council prerogatives, with the need to line up votes against the mayor. It appears that a compromise was in the works to avert the PERB showdown but that Mr. Gray insisted on putting the measure to a vote. Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray would do well to look at the example set by their predecessors, former mayor Anthony A. Williams and former council chairman Linda W. Cropp, who knew their interests were best served if they worked together for the city.

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