The lawyers argued legal points. The politicians argued policy. But at least one witness said the bill to limit the terms of D.C. mayors is nothing more than an attempt to get rid of Mayor Marion Barry.
More than 45 witnesses spoke on the controversial proposal at a D.C. Council committee hearing yesterday, and while several council members insisted that the debate ought to avoid personalities, Barry supporter Lawrence Guyot said the real subject was the incumbent.
"It's impossible to separate the two," said Guyot, who works in the office of the general assistant to the mayor, but appeared at yesterday's hearing as a private citizen.
Under the bill, which is sponsored by 10 council members, future mayors after 1990 would be limited to two terms. Barry would be permitted to run for a fourth term in that year, but would be barred from running in 1994.
Although no one publicly accused Barry of packing the hearing, it was clear from the loud applause that council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) received when he spoke in opposition to the measure that the audience was pro-Barry.
Thomas, saying he would support a two-term limit on the mayor only if the same limit were applied to the council, argued that the bill would give the council more political power than the mayor.
"Maybe that's what this bill envisions," he said. "But if a council member wants that kind of influence, then they should run for mayor, not use a back-door attempt to water down the powers of the mayor's office."
Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), while refraining from suggesting that the mayor had summoned his supporters to the hearing, commented on an overnight increase in the number of scheduled witnesses from 6 to 45 and thanked the Office of Community Services -- an agency that Barry critics often have called his political arm.
Guyot, in an interview, said that a meeting in Ward 1 Wednesday night had helped spread the word to Barry supporters in several wards and that the heavy turnout of Barry supporters was a result of the meeting.
Council Chairman David A. Clarke said at the hearing that he believes the bill has merit, but favors letting the voters decide the matter in a referendum.
Lawyers for the council and the executive branch, meanwhile, disagreed on the bill. Corporation Counsel Frederick D. Cooke Jr., who represented the mayor at the hearing, said the proposed legislation violates the home rule charter. Gregory E. Mize, general counsel to the council, argued that the council has the authority to enact legislation limiting the mayor to two terms.
Summing up, council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said she was not surprised by the difference in legal opinions.
"This is not a legal question," she said. "This is a political question."