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D.C. voters to decide on election of attorney general

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; B05

District voters will decide in November whether the city's attorney general should be elected instead of appointed by the mayor, according to emergency legislation the D.C. Council approved Tuesday.

The council's action, which follows years of wrangling over the role of the D.C. attorney general, sets the stage for the first citywide referendum since 2002.

Under the city charter, the mayor appoints the attorney general, but the council must confirm the nominee. But council members are skeptical that the city's attorneys general are viewed as being independent of the mayor.

Although council members say their decision is not aimed at Attorney General Peter Nickles, they are rushing to move to an elected attorney general at a time when many have been suggesting that Nickles is too cozy with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

"The city's chief legal officer needs to represent the public's interest and not any particular branch of government," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "This makes the AG more independent."

As the council wraps up its final month of business before summer recess, members also debated proposals on youth curfews, earlier bar-opening times to accommodate World Cup soccer fans and installation of sidewalks on city streets that lack them.

Because South Africa is hosting the World Cup, many games will be broadcast early in the morning because of the time difference. The council voted unanimously to allow bars to open one hour earlier, at 7 a.m., from June 11 to July 11 to accommodate soccer fans. Despite the earlier opening time, bars still won't be able to serve alcohol until 8 a.m. weekdays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. Sundays.

By a vote of 12 to 1, the council also approved a bill calling on the Department of Transportation to gradually install sidewalks on at least one side of the street in areas where paved pedestrian pathways do not exist.

The proposal, introduced by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) almost a year ago, has generated intense opposition in some parts of the city from residents who say they like the suburban feel of their sidewalk-free neighborhoods.

"I object to the notion that we treat every piece of land in our city like every other piece of land," said council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), whose ward includes several neighborhoods where streets do not have sidewalks. "Everything in our city is not broken."

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Committee on Public Works, countered that "for many people, walking is the only choice."

"This is not something that should be decided on a block-by-block basis," Graham said.

Under the bill, the Department of Transportation would install sidewalks on at least one side of a street where none exist. Exceptions can be made if the installation will result in "extraordinary expense" or if the Transportation Department certifies that a sidewalk is unlikely to be used or that pedestrians can safely navigate a block without a sidewalk.

The biggest debate during the council meeting centered on a proposal by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) to impose a more stringent summer curfew for youths 15 and younger.

Currently, all D.C. youths 17 and younger have to be off the streets by midnight in the summer, although exceptions are made if they are with a parent, on the sidewalk in front of their house or if they are traveling to or from a school, church or recreational event.

In an agreement hatched with council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Wells proposed moving the curfew to 11 p.m. for youths 15 or younger, arguing that it would combat crime.

But a majority of the council opposed the move, saying they were not convinced that curfews lead to safer streets. Several members say they also worried that Wells's proposal would lead to profiling.

"This is all about allowing the police to round up youths who look suspicious," said Mendelson, who voted against the bill.

If approved by voters in November, the first election for an attorney general would be held in 2014. The council approved a bill this year asking Congress to change the city charter to allow for the election of an attorney general.

But Mendelson decided to put the issue on the ballot after the public-policy advocate DC Appleseed concluded that it would be easier for the city to change the charter via a referendum.

Nickles said Tuesday that he will not oppose the council's effort to put the issue on the ballot. But he questioned whether the council should have also sought to broaden the powers of the attorney general.

Under the city charter, the attorney general does not have the authority to enforce the criminal code. That power rests with the U.S. attorney's office.

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