Chairman-elect Kwame Brown shuffles D.C. Council committee assignments

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:57 PM

The incoming D.C. Council chairman, Kwame R. Brown, shook up the council's committee system Wednesday, assigning an embattled council member to oversee economic development while restoring some of Marion Barry's legislative clout.

Brown, who will take over from Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray on Jan. 2, made the moves after six weeks of squabbling among members over leadership assignments on the 13-member panel. In perhaps his most notable move, Brown decided that council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) will replace him as chairman of the influential Economic Development Committee.

Brown also announced new heads of the committees that oversee social services, parks and libraries, and public works and transportation.

As part of the realignment, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) are swapping chairmanships.

Although the full council must vote on Brown's picks, traditionally, the chairman designates committee assignments.

Thomas was tapped for Economic Development even as he deals with questions about whether he properly accounted for money raised for a nonprofit group under his control, Team Thomas.

After it came to light this fall that Team Thomas wasn't registered with the IRS, Attorney General Peter Nickles launched a probe into how the organization raised and spent its money.

In response to a subpoena from Nickles, Thomas disclosed last month that Team Thomas had raised and spent more than $200,000 during his time on the council. But he declined to list donors or itemize expenses, leaving unanswered whether groups or individuals with business before the council had contributed to Team Thomas.

Brown was not available for an interview, but in a statement he said: "I am proud of the work we have done, and I am confident that my choices to head the committees for the next legislation period will proceed with the business of government in the most efficient and transparent way possible."

Thomas said he will use the chairmanship to "do some good things" for Ward 5 and the city. Some council members said privately that they were surprised by Brown's choice, citing uncertainty about the direction of the investigation into Team Thomas. But Jim Abdo, a developer who has worked with Thomas on projects in Northeast Washington, praised Thomas's work ethic and managerial skills.

"It's an outstanding choice. . . . He's extremely knowledgeable,"Abdo said. "He understands business, understands economic development and understands the catalytic effect that projects can have."

Brown is also giving Barry (D-Ward 8) a committee to lead. In March, the council removed Barry as head of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee amid allegations that he had misused council earmarks. Gray also removed Barry, who has pleaded guilty to income tax violations, from the Finance and Revenue Committee.

Barry was chosen to lead the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs. The assignment comes with a $350,000 staff allowance provided to each committee chairman. Brown also agreed to let Barry serve on the finance committee again.

"Politically, I am stronger now than ever before," Barry said Wednesday, adding that he was off to the Players Lounge pub in Southeast to celebrate. "I am not only a survivor; I am a success."

The Graham-Wells swap puts Graham in charge of the Human Services Committee, with responsibility for welfare, youth programs and other social services, and Wells in charge of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, with oversight of trash pickup, water and sewer services, and snow removal.

The change, which Wells lobbied for, is widely viewed as a boon to advocates of so-called smart growth and mass transit. Wells, who often speaks of building "liveable and "walkable communities," said he would use the new position to improve bus service and advocate for environmental policies.

There had been speculation that Brown was poised to remove Graham as the council designate on the high-profile Metro transit authority board. In a statement issued Wednesday, Wells said he would be the new Metro board member. But minutes later, Brown issued a statement that said he was not ready to announce his decision on that position.

Graham declined to comment on the Metro appointment, but he said he's "fine" with the assignment overseeing human services.

"I have had a great interest in youth violence and homelessness," said Graham, a former head of the Whitman-Walker Clinic." I came to this council from human services, and I am ready for the huge challenges we are going to have."

Despite the change in committee assignments, Graham said, he will retain oversight over alcoholic beverage regulation.

Brown named Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) to replace Thomas as head of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), current head of the Aging and Community Affairs Committee, to head the Public Services and Consumer Affairs Committee.

Brown plans to lead the Committee of the Whole, which oversees the school system. Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David A. Catania (I-At Large), who had been vying to take over education, will remain in their current committee assignments. She chairs the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment; he chairs the Committee on Health.

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) will remain head of the Finance and Revenue Committee, and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) will retain control of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company