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Monday, Jan. 5 at noon ET

D.C. Council Begins New Session

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Vincent C. Gray
Chairman, Council of the District of Columbia
Monday, January 5, 2009; 12:00 PM

Vincent C. Gray, chairman of Council of the District of Columbia, was online Monday, Jan. 5 at noon ET to discuss the issues facing the council when it begins a new session this week.

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The transcript follows.

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Vincent C. Gray: I would like to thank Washington Post.com for the opportunity to chat with the online community about the issues facing the Council of the District of Columbia and our government in this new year. And I thank you for logging on.

I will convene the first legislative meeting of a new Council period tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 6th ) at 10 a.m. This past Friday, one new Councilmember -- Michael Brown, and five members who were re-elected in November -- Jack Evans, Marion Barry, Kwame Brown, Yvette Alexander and Muriel Bowser, took the oath of office. With them and the six other members who are returning, I am looking forward to digging in to address the needs of the residents of the District Columbia.

We have many challenges ahead, particularly the economic crisis on the national scale and the District government's $127 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year. Just months ago, the Council took action to fill a $131 million budget gap. We will act swiftly again -- this time using the operating cash reserve of $46 million the Council established and probably surplus cash from the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2008 once an audit has determined the magnitude of a surplus -- to ensure a balanced budget, and at the same time make decisions to protect the most critical city programs and the social services safety net for our most vulnerable residents.

I look forward to your questions.

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Temple Hills, Md.: Chancellor Rhee has put over 400 certified and tenured (including special education) teachers on probation in order to terminate them by the end of March. Will they lose their benefits or will they be given an opportunity to retire with full benefits under age 55? Many of the teachers have twenty years or more and are under the retirement age of 55. What will happen to the students at this time of year who will have no instructor? I personally think terminating teachers, especially at this time of year, is going to result in overcrowded classes that will include special needs children in regular classes with no special ed teacher thus resulting in ineffective teaching. Perhaps, this is what the Chancellor wants so she can put more certified and tenured teachers on probation.

Vincent C. Gray: The Council is conducting a public hearing on Jan. 16 on teacher quality. We intend to raise a number of questions at that hearing about the basis for placing teachers on probation and how DCPS intends to address the myriad issues associated with this. We continue to be deeply concerned about DCPS and the Washington Teachers Union being able to reach an agreement which would allow far more predictability in the relationship of teachers to DCPS.

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Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on the proposed new DDOT Director? What are some changes you would like to see?

Vincent C. Gray: I know very little about the new DDOT Director other than what I have read in the past few days once the Mayor named him to this post. Since he is subject to confirmation, we will learn a great deal more about this suitability for this position as we approach the confirmation hearing.

DDOT has an enormous responsibility in the city. Creating and expanding additional methods of transportation is one challenge facing the city, especially to reduce our dependence upon oil and gasoline. DDOT also needs to take the lead on encouraging more people to use mass transit so we reduce the number of cars on the street and also impact our parking problems.

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Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on your recent Historical Preservation award for Public Policy and Law. I was not there to see the award presentation and have been unable to find any information for your preservation efforts. Could you explain why you were chosen for this award?

Vincent C. Gray: I was very honored to receive the Public Policy and Law Award. I have been very active around historical preservation issues. For example, I helped to spearhead the identification of $1.25 million in grant funds that had not gotten out to homeowners to make repairs to their homes. A number of grants that together totaled $1 million already have been awarded with many of the homes located in historic Anacostia. I look forward to grants of similar levels being awarded this year. I also worked assiduously, especially with the community, to ensure that the board members nominated for the Historic Preservation Review Board were qualified for these important roles.

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Washington, D.C.: Please discuss your proposal to conduct and independent evaluation of policies and programs put in place by school chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Vincent C. Gray: This is not just a proposal. The Public Education Reform Amendment Act, which became law in June 2007, contains a provision that an Annual Evaluation shall be conducted. At the end of five years, there is to be an assessment of the entire period to determine progress. The Mayor nominated two people to conduct the evaluation last April. The Council conducted a public hearing at the end of May and decided it would not approve them because, while they are eminently qualified professionals, they also have a position on Mayoral takeovers. Moreover, we were concerned that the Mayor proposed to pay for this through a private fund. Despite making a formal inquiry, we were unable to learn the source of these private funds. Both of these issues left me with discomfort about moving forward on this nomination and approach. We have received no other nominations from the Mayor. Thus, we are looking at taking additional steps in order to move forward on this overdue legislative requirement.

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Washington, D.C.: As a 20-year plus resident of the City, I usually have more complaints than anything, but I have to acknowledge how smoothly my recent experiences with DMV went. I made an appointment to get my car inspected, and was in and out of the inspection station in under 20 minutes. Then, on 1/1, I renewed my registration on line, and received the new registration sticker on 1/3. That is just outstanding. This is a vast improvement over prior years, when I waited on line for over 2 hours to get my car inspected, and had to return to the inspection station to get my sticker when it never arrived in the mail as promised.

Now, please focus on getting the tax office fixed. Thank you.

Vincent C. Gray: As you know, the Council worked with Wilmer Hale and Price Waterhouse Cooper on a thorough examination of the issues surrounding the theft of nearly $50 million over a period of approximately 20 years. There are many recommendations contained in that report that will form the basis for our ongoing oversight. We are very grateful for the outstanding work done by Wilmer Hale and Price Waterhouse Cooper. They did not charge the city anything for their services, including absorbing the out-of-pocket expenses as well. Together the value of their services was estimated at $6-$8 million over the year-long investigation.

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Washington, D.C.: What's on your agenda for the University of the District of Columbia and public higher education in D.C.?

Vincent C. Gray: As you know, we have a new President of UDC who has a clear vision for the university and has moved quickly to begin reforms. We are working on the role and configuration of a Community College, including the options of location within or outside the university as an independent entity. There has been discussion about additional autonomy for the university, an issue that undoubtedly will draw attention from the Council during this Council period.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you discuss reforms of the emergency legislation process?

Last month the Council passed emergency legislation regarding bar hours during the inauguration with absolutely no public hearings or even any notice to the public -- even though apparently the well-connected restaurant and nightclub owners were fully aware of the planned legislation.

Previously, the Council voted by emergency legislation to sell the West End Library and Fire Station to a private developer - again with absolutely no public notice or input and again with only the well-connected lobbyists aware of the plans.

Can you require that all emergency legislation MUST be posted online for at least 5 business days so that the public can see what their Council is voting on?

Vincent C. Gray: We made a great deal of progress in actually reducing the number of pieces of emergency legislation during Council Period 17. And overall, we have increased our efforts to make as transparent as possible the work of the Council. For example, we hold televised press briefings before each legislative session to review the upcoming agenda; and we have equipped hearing rooms, that heretofore did not have television capacity, with the ability to televise those proceedings on Channel 13, including the mark-up of legislation.

One of the changes we made in our rules for Council Period 18 is to require that a proposed piece of emergency legislation be submitted on the Friday preceding a Tuesday session rather than Monday (or what was just 24 hours prior to consideration) as had been the case previously. This is the first change of this kind in 25 years.

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Washington, D.C.: It does not appear feasible that the FY 2010 budget can be balanced with service cuts alone. Will the Council consider a balanced approach to balancing the budget that includes service cuts as well as tax increases? If yes, what type of tax increases would be on the table?

Vincent C. Gray: The Council approved $131 Million in cuts to the current year budget in November. In the course of that reduction, we established a $46 Million Operating Cash Reserve in the event additional reductions became necessary.

Just days ago, we learned that a new forecast indeed indicates an additional reduction of $127 Million in our revenue. We face very difficult challenges for the FY 2010 budget and thus, we must look at all options. We have made no specific decisions as yet on what, if any, tax increases might be considered.

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Washington, D.C.: One thing I've never understood about how the D.C. Council does business is regarding amendments. How can legislators propose amendments to bills without writing down the amendment? Isn't that an irresponsible way to conduct business? Shouldn't all amendments -- like all legislation -- be written down and circulated to both legislators and the public BEFORE the Council votes on it?

Vincent C. Gray: We do have a requirement that amendments are presented in writing. And I think you will find that the overwhelmingly large percentage of amendments are in writing, prepared before the legislative session. And fiscal impact statements are provided for those that have a fiscal impact. In certain instances (a relatively small number) issues arise during a debate that result in a proposed amendment. Even with these kinds of spontaneous situations, the proposed amendment must be reduced to writing before a vote is taken. Our General Counsel is on the dais with a computer and actually chronicles proposed amendments that had not been presented in writing. The language is read back to members before a vote is taken.

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Downtown D.C.: Can you please, please, please fix the absolutely awful online legislative tracking system the Council uses? It's top-of-the-line if we were still living in 1995. I work for a legislative tracking service and the absolute worst jurisdiction for such research is D.C.

Vincent C. Gray: We have made enormous progress on these kinds of important upgrades. For example, we launched a new Council Website just a few months ago. And the LIMS system (the legislative tracking system) is slated for major revision as well, although we have been slowed by budget challenges that have beset the entire city. We have a three-year Council Capacity Building Plan, much of which already has been addressed or begun. The plan is on the Web site.

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Columbia Heights, D.C.: I like to know the status of the "new" D.C. gun law? Also, why does the council insist on passing gun laws that we know the courts will strike down? I'm all for keeping handguns off the streets, but thumbing your nose at the Supreme Court is both foolhardy and expensive to tax payers.

Vincent C. Gray: The Council adopted new legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court's Heller decision. The permanent legislation was adopted on December 16th. We believe this legislation is consistent with the Heller decision.

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Vincent C. Gray: Thanks for your questions. We received a very large volume and answered as many as the time allowed. We hope this provided additional information about the work of the Council. I certainly appreciated the opportunity to connect with our citizens in this way and look forward to doing this again in the future.

Vince Gray

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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