Getting a leg up on D.C. Council

Sunday, November 14, 2010

CHANCES ARE that most D.C. residents have little idea of who sits on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Despite its obscurity, this committee will soon play an outsized role in picking a new member of the D.C. Council. And that should be an occasion for the council to revisit the all-important issue of how best to fill vacancies that occur in city government.

An oddity of the city's Home Rule Act governing vacancies for citywide (not ward) council seats gives the Democratic committee authority to name an interim appointment for the at-large seat that becomes vacant when Kwame R. Brown (D) is sworn in as chairman of the council. Among those reported to be interested in the post are former council member Vincent Orange, D.C. State Board of Education member Sekou Biddle and Ward 8 activist Jacque Patterson. The candidate winning the committee's appointment would still have to run in a special election to fill out Mr. Brown's original term of office.

The date of that election is unclear because of legislation, passed by the council and pending in Congress, that would reduce the number of days for a special election from 114 to 70 days. The fate of this amendment to the city's Home Rule Act is unclear in the lame-duck session, so election officials are holding off on scheduling the special election. It could be as early as March 15 or as late as May.

One has to wonder about the need for an interim appointment, particularly if the special election were to occur in March. Is it really fair to give one person a leg up going into the special election? Does the process reward those with the best connections as opposed to those with the best qualifications or the best ideas? It's curious that interim appointments occur only when a citywide seat is open. Consider, for example, that when the Ward 4 and Ward 7 seats were left vacant in 2007 with the election of Adrian M. Fenty and Vincent C. Gray to higher offices, no one was named to fill those seats. Couldn't the argument be made that it's more critical to quickly fill ward seats, with the demand to help constituents get individual needs met, than at-large seats? There are, after all, four at-large members, in addition to the chairman who are elected citywide.

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