Norton to Offer a Home Rule Plan
By David A. Vise
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton plans to introduce a bill in the House today that would accelerate the return of home rule in the District by fully restoring power to Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council next year.
Under current law, the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board would remain in place until the District has balanced its budget for two more years. Norton's "D.C. Democracy 2000" bill would jump-start the restoration of self-government by returning power to the mayor and the council after the city balances its budget this year.
"Mayor Williams's election has produced a great deal of goodwill on the Hill. The congresswoman is right to strike while the iron is hot," council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said yesterday.
"The control board served a vital function," she said. "Its presence helped us get back into the bond market successfully. A transition back to prior powers is an appropriate step at this time in the life of the city."
Norton's bill concludes that Congress should strip the control board of power one year ahead of schedule because the city's financial recovery has been more rapid than anticipated. It also states that Congress can aid the city's efforts to improve delivery of services by granting "clear and unambiguous authority" to the mayor to run the city.
"The D.C. Democracy 2000 Act is essential to quickly stabilizing a transition to full self-government already begun by the control board," said Norton (D). "The advantage of having a government that knows that it, and it alone, will be fully accountable cannot be overestimated. . . . This means that in 2000, the District will return to at least the home rule status it had before its financial crisis."
Under a memorandum of agreement signed Saturday, the control board already has delegated day-to-day control over city operations to Williams, who has vowed to fight for the fastest possible restoration of power for locally elected officials. Williams said during a news conference this week that he wants Congress to give him the power to fire top-level government officials without seeking prior control board approval, a move that he said requires a change in federal law.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District, said he supports the new mayor's request for firing authority and his efforts to aggressively improve trash collection, street repair and a vast array of other city services. However, Davis responded more cautiously yesterday to Norton's comprehensive legislative proposal, which the two lawmakers have discussed.
"He is not cosponsoring the bill," Davis spokesman Trey Hardin said. "He wants to wait and see how things work out. Let's see how this memorandum of agreement works before we start agreeing on cutting the lifespan of the control board short."
Williams is slated to testify before Davis's subcommittee this month, and Hardin said Davis does not want to reach any conclusions about changes as dramatic as Norton's legislation until after that hearing.
"Tom wants to withhold judgment on this until he hears from the mayor and the control board and the council at his January 22 hearing, where he has asked the mayor to come up and present his vision to the Congress," Hardin said. The hearing will give Davis and other legislators "a better sense of not only this memorandum of agreement but the vision of Tony Williams in getting this city back on its feet again."
During his inaugural address, Williams devoted considerable attention to the restoration of home rule in the city and argued that the time has come to return power to officials chosen by city residents.
"Self-governance," he said, "is a prerequisite of true freedom. A city that governs itself makes decisions that voters can evaluate. A city that governs itself finds joy in solving problems. . . . The epicenter of democracy must reflect the core values of democracy. And I promise that the Williams administration will be a tireless champion of that cause."
Norton's bill would reverse changes in the city's governance structure put into place in the summer of 1997 by then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth, the North Carolina Republican whose legislative amendment transferred operational control over most of the government from the mayor to the control board. Until that time, the control board, which was created in 1995, had focused mostly on the city's finances.
Although some members of Congress may argue that power should not be restored to District officials until city services have been improved, Jarvis said that is an arbitrary and unfair standard.
"No city has had outside intervention because of poor delivery of services," Jarvis said. "Mayor Williams now has an obligation to citizens. He will produce, or citizens will meet him in four years. I have every confidence that he will produce improvements in city services."
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