D.C. Council seeks to make attorney general an elected job

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The D.C. Council is expected to approve legislation Tuesday that would require the city's attorney general to be elected by voters, not appointed by the mayor, and to meet certain qualifications -- a bill that comes amid the council's ongoing friction with Attorney General Peter Nickles, a longtime friend of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's.

Last month, the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary approved the legislation by a 4 to 1 vote. The measure would end mayoral appointment of the city's chief lawyer and put the District in line with 43 states that elect attorneys general.

Nickles "is a typical spokesman for the mayor," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. "The office has repeatedly issued letters as if they were independent opinions but clearly state the political positions of the mayor's administration."

Mendelson, who proposed a similar initiative before Fenty appointed Nickles interim attorney general in January 2008, said that the legislation is not aimed at Nickles but at strengthening the office.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who said he will vote for the bill, also said Nickles is not the target.

"This discussion has been around a long time," he said. "You don't want to make a legislative decision of this impact based on personality."

For the change to be implemented, Congress would have to amend the city's Home Rule charter.

Until then, the bill would require that attorneys general serve a four-year term upon being appointed by the mayor and be a D.C. Bar member in good standing for at least seven years, with some exceptions.

Linda Singer, Nickles's predecessor, was criticized because she had not practiced law for a decade while working at a nonprofit agency and did not apply for a license in the District until she accepted the job. Friends said that Singer resigned because Nickles, who was the mayor's general counsel, interfered with her office.

Mendelson said that as far as he could tell, Nickles would meet the qualifications established by the bill. But he might have to run for the office someday.

Nickles said he's not interested. "I'm a non-politician," he said. "The city better think twice about creating another center of power. The first thing the attorney general will think about is running for chairman or mayor."

Nickles has clashed with council members who say he interprets the law in ways that circumvent the council's authority. One of the more recent fights has been over contracts the city entered into without the council's approval.

The council will also vote Tuesday on a bill that would stop payment on all retroactive contracts not ratified by the council by Jan. 20, forcing the administration to submit agreements for approval by then.

Nickles said he does not want to submit the contracts unless he has "assurance that they will be ratified."

"This affects $800 million in contracts," he said. "I don't want to bring the District to its knees, which is what this would do."

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