The D.C. City Council yesterday voted 11 to 1 to override Mayor Marion Barry's veto of a bill that would increase the authority of the D.C. people's counsel and curtail Public Service Commission staff participation in rate cases.
The PSC's general counsel called the council's action "a defeat" that would "handicap" the PSC's ability to meet its regulatory responsibilities. But People's Counsel Frederick D. Dorsey said the legislation would "resolve many of the problems that have beset" his office.
Barry, who entered the council chambers several times during the meeting and sat in the hallway outside the chambers when the roll call began, left before the vote was completed and could not be interviewed.
"It was not a do-or-die situation," Barry said through a spokesman. "We win some and we lose some and the city was very concerned about the high rates and we will have to wait and see what happens."
Although Barry lost on the veto, he won at least a temporary victory on a bill he had opposed to overhaul the city's long-troubled purchasing and warehousing system. After intense negotiations with Barry and others, council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), the bill's sponsor, withdrew the measure, saying that changes had been proposed for the bill that need further study.
The vote to override the veto came during a 5 1/2-hour meeting in which the council considered a laundry list of legislative measures, including a bill to establish more stringent requirements for obtaining hackers' licenses, the final and most controversial element of the city's Comprehensive Plan and resolutions to give 24,000 District employes salary bonuses.
By the time the council met yesterday, consumer groups had lobbied for an override of the mayor's veto of the utility regulatory bill, which would increase the people's counsel's authority to assess utility companies for the costs of representing consumers in rate cases. Consumers and some City Council members who supported the bill argued that consumers would pay higher rates without the bill.
In vetoing the bill last Friday, Barry referred to the PSC's opposition to a provision in the bill that would prohibit the PSC's staff from continuing to take formal positions on rate increases. But City Council Chairman David A. Clarke said the veto was not justified and introduced a motion to override it.
Before the council voted, only two other members, City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) and council member Jerry A. Moore Jr.(R-At Large) -- the only member to vote against the override -- spoke.
Ray, who favored allowing the PSC staff to participate in rate hearings, said that claims that utility bills would increase without the bill were "scare tactics" and that objections to the bill had "nothing to do with the authority of the people's counsel."
Ray, however, said he would vote to override the veto because the special legislation under which the people's counsel has been operating expires in February and the council would not have sufficient time to adopt other legislation.
Howard Davenport, PSC general counsel, said that the PSC's only objection to the bill was the limitation placed on its staff. "The PSC believes that its staff provided helpful testimony on very complex issues and that only the PSC staff takes a position on what is in the public interest," he said.
Meanwhile, Spaulding's move to pull the bill to reorganize the city's purchasing system took most of the council by surprise.
Monday night, aides for Spaulding worked with Barry staff members and with council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) on half a dozen amendments to the year-old bill. Spaulding said he decided the proposals were too major to be debated before the full council and he would bring the bill up again in committee.
Jarvis, who wanted to include an amendment on minority contracting, agreed with Spaulding. "These are not the sort of things you work out midnight the night before," she said. But aides for other council members interpreted the bill's withdrawal as capitulation to political pressure from the mayor, who has strongly opposed a provision that would dictate how he should allocate purchasing authority.
"There was obviously enough time," said one aide, who asked not to be identified. "The amendments were only an excuse to withdraw it. It gave the mayor more time and Spaulding an out."
The bill marked the council's first legislative attempt to respond to numerous studies that called for centralization of the city's purchasing and warehousing operations to cut down on waste and mismanagement. The bill would put the Department of Administrative Services clearly in charge, transferring what may amount to hundreds of procurement officers now scattered throughout city government to that department.
Supporters of the bill said they believed the city would be able to save money and better guard against abuses if it had a strong central authority to combine and police purchases. However, Jarvis said she questioned whether the bill's requirement that all purchasing officials be under one roof was necessary.
In a six-month investigation of the purchasing system this year, The Washington Post reported that the city may be losing as much as $5 to $7 million dollars a year by allowing individual agencies to handle much of their own purchasing. The Post also found a widespread pattern of abuse of competitive bidding procedures at major city agencies.
Barry's amendments would have established a centralized purchasing system but would have let him choose which agency should operate it.
The mayor's amendments would also have given him more say over who sits on a contracts appeals board that hears complaints by contractors and would have increased the bill's leeway on purchases made through informal bidding procedures.
Pauline Schneider, the mayor's chief lobbyist on the bill, said the mayor "agrees with the thrust of the bill" and plans to work closely with Spaulding on it but was "very pleased" with its withdrawal from the agenda yesterday.
Though the council backed off from a full-scale revamping of the purchasing system, it tentatively passed a bill to deal with one long-standing criticism of the city's purchasing system -- late payments to vendors.
The bill, sponsored by council member Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6) and Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), requires the city to pay its bills within 45 days or pay vendors interest of at least 1 percent a month.
In other action, the council:
* Tentatively adopted a substantially amended taxicab bill that establishes more stringent requirements for obtaining hackers' licenses.
The measure, introduced by City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) in response to a growing number of complaints about taxicab service, would expand the examination from 25 questions to 60, require new applicants to take a training course to learn the city and taxicab regulations and authorize the mayor to establish a point system that could be used to revoke or suspend licenses of drivers who violate taxicab or traffic laws.
* Revised and gave initial approval to a land-use plan that would chart commercial and residential development in the city. Adoption of the land-use segment will complete the city's Comprehensive Plan, which is a guide for the next 20 years for city policies in such areas as transportation, housing and human services.