Mayor Marion Barry has asked Congress to prohibit District residents from using citizens' initiatives to decide whether the city should sell bonds or make long-term loans.
Barry, long an advocate of increased home rule for D.C., made the request in letters sent May 13 to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill and Vice President George Bush. The letters asked Congress to enact a number of changes in the city's home rule charter to make it easier for the city to enter the bond market.
Barry's proposed amendment to the charter would provide that "authorizing or prohibiting the issuance of bonds, notes or other obligations" could not be the subject of a citizens' initiative or referendum.
Long-term debts, especially bond sales, are routinely the subject of referendums in many jurisdictions around the county. Bond sales in Virginia, for example, must be put to a vote.
If Barry's propsed amendment is approved, the city council would retain the right to put a bond sale to a public vote. But individual citizens would not have the right to draw up an initiative or referendum about a bond sale and gather petitions to have it placed on the ballot.
The city currently has authority to raise capital improvement funds in the bond market, though no such general obligation bonds have been issued, largely because of the city's beleaguered financial condition. The city is also seeking authority from Congress for a special $184-million bond sale, the proceeds of which would be used to pay off some of the city's accumulated debts. The city does not now have the legal power to sell bonds to pay off its bills.
During a fight two years ago about whether residents could use the initiative procedure to vote on the D.C. Convention Center, Barry favored prohibiting such a vote, saying he believed elected officials should be the ones to make hard choices for the city. The issue was not put to a public vote and the convention center is now under construction.
Barry's new request was immediately attacked by council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), who objected that the council was not asked its opinion before Barry sent the letters. She called it a "sneaky" attempt to circumvent home rule.
"The right ro initiative and referendum which you want the Congress to restrict was approved by the D.C. City Council (of which you were then a member) and overwhelmingly ratified by direct vote of the people in the general election," Kane stated in a letter to Barry, which she circulated to other members of the council. "I cannot believe that you would so highhandedly ask the congress . . . to take away part of our hard-won right to put serious questions to direct vote on the public ballot."
Kane charged that the right to vote on long-term debt was "a right enjoyed in virtually every other jurisdiction in this country," and accused him of trying "to move us backwards."
Through spokesman Alan Grip, Barry denounced Kane's charges as politically motivated. "Mayor Barry is desperately trying to protect the financial integrity of the city," Grip said. "Mrs. Kane's letter demonstrates to us that she is apparently only interested in political matters."
Barry has told associates that he plans to run for reelection next year. Kane has been mentioned as a possible contender for mayor of the chairmanship of the council.
Barbara C. Washington, Barry's assistant city administrator for intergovenmental relations, said she didn't regard the requested change as "any substantive thing."