The otherwise routine matter of giving final approval to a bill became a hot potato last week as the D.C. City Council witnessed two demonstrations of how not to play a political hand.
The bill under consideration was the much discussed utility regulation legislation that would expand the authority of the D.C. People's Counsel office, which represents consumer complaints before the Public Service Commission, which sets utility rates. The bill, strongly backed by City Council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At-Large) and Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), would also prohibit the PSC's staff from advocating positions in rate cases before the PSC.
The first attempt at political maneuvering took place during an exchange of letters well out of public view.
One day before the council was scheduled to meet, Pauline Schneider, the mayor's director of intergovernmental relations, sent Kane a letter asking that the council delay action because representatives for the PSC, the utility companies, the People's Counsel office and the executive branch had met to discuss some differences and had "agreed to pursue earnestly a resolution of these differences within the next 10 days. . . . "
The next day, People's Counsel Frederick D. Dorsey sent a letter to Kane that said, in essence, what agreement? ". . . . The letter is in error. This office did not participate in the meeting or agreement referred to in Ms. Schneider's letter," Dorsey's letter stated.
Kane made certain that the council members received copies of both of those letters and sent one of her own to Mayor Marion Barry: "I am also appalled that the executive would deliver to me a letter containing incorrect and misleading information as the basis for requesting a delay . . . .I would hope that it is not the practice of the executive to intentionally mislead members of the council on such vital issues as the adequate representation of District citizens in respect to the utility costs they will have to pay."
It was in that climate that the council prepared to take its second and final vote on the utility regulatory bill.
It appeared to be business as usual when City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) moved to amend the bill by eliminating the restriction against the PSC staff's advocacy role. Crawford had said he was introducing the amendment on behalf of Rolark.
Rolark had not shown up for the council meeting, but council members, aware of her strong position against staff involvement in PSC hearings, apparently thought she had reached a compromise on that provision. The amendment passed on a voice vote.
Enter Rolark, who was late for the meeting. She said she did not support Crawford's amendment. Crawford sheepishly apologized, saying he confused Rolark with council member John Ray (D-At-Large). Meanwhile, some council members lost control. The situation tickled them to tears and City Council Chairman David A. Clarke had to declare a short recess to restore order.
When the council returned there was another vote on Crawford's amendment and it was defeated.
"Nobody has ever dared do that to me," Rolark said the day after the meeting. "I wouldn't take it. I never speak for someone without asking. I will have my tentacles up from now on. I think everyone on the council should be concerned about that Crawford's action ."
Kane blamed part of the confusion surrounding the bill on post-election tension. "I don't know if this was done as a joke or done as if someone was trying to pull a fast one," Kane said. "Whatever they had in mind, someone overplayed his hand by using Mrs. Rolark's name."
"I don't think Crawford should have done what he did," said Clarke. When asked if any action should be taken to reprimand Crawford, Clarke said: "He had the reprimand last night when the council turned around and voted the piece down."
But, Clarke immediately retracted that statement.
While last week's political gamemanship appeared humorous to some, it is clear that two attempts to influence council action were based on misinformation, inadvertent or otherwise.