Each time Congress considers using the District's annual budget bill to score political points--by imposing restrictions on abortion spending, needle-exchange programs or health insurance coverage for domestic partners, among other things--angry protests by home-rule advocates erupt.
"Unnecessary and undemocratic," were the words Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) used last week to describe the so-called riders that had been attached by conservative Republicans to the D.C. budget bill that was pending in the House.
But city leaders have a somewhat different standard when it comes to disabled children. Instead of denouncing a special mandate Congress may impose on the city, many D.C. officials are praising it.
"I am writing to request your assistance in ensuring that the attorney fee cap in special education cases is implemented," Williams wrote in a June 30 letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), asking her to help maneuver the mandate through Congress.
The issue concerns how much the city will have to spend in fiscal 2000 to cover the cost of lawyers who represent children with physical or learning disabilities.
Federal law requires that school systems reimburse parents for their legal bills if their children have improperly been denied special education services. The District wants special consideration by Congress to limit the attorney fees to $50 an hour.
"The rationale . . . was to direct more of the limited special education budget to programs for children and less to lawyers," Williams wrote in his letter to Norton, noting that the limit on the hourly rate should save the city $10 million to $12 million in the coming fiscal year.
Advocates for children with special needs do not dispute that the city is better off spending money on educating these children, rather than on lawyers. The problem, they note, is that hundreds, if not thousands, of youths who should be getting special attention in the D.C. school system are not because the city's dysfunctional special education program does a poor job figuring out what kinds of special services children need.
With attorneys' fees capped at $50 an hour, they argue, law firms with special education expertise will not take these cases, meaning children who need specialized help might not get it. A reasonable rate for these experienced special education lawyers, according to a 1997 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District, was $180 to $250 an hour. The school system has paid lawyers as much as $350 an hour to defend it against special education lawsuits, according to one local law firm.
Tammy Seltzer, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said she is disappointed in Williams's stand, adding that if Williams supported such a measure he should have included it in his original budget package, held a public hearing on the matter and asked the D.C. Council to vote on it.
"It frankly is a blatant contradiction of the mayor's public position in favor of home rule," she said. "It is really dishonest. Either he is for home rule, or he is for running to Congress."
Janet Unonu, a D.C. resident with a 15-year-old son with Down syndrome, said parents need good lawyers because the city's special education program is so flawed.
"We have no choice but to go to court because the school system won't listen to us otherwise," said Unonu, who has had the city cover legal costs in one case she filed related to her son.
Williams acknowledged this week that the city's request for the congressionally imposed mandate "raises this question" about whether it is contrary to the city's traditional home-rule stand.
"My preference would be to work through local elected officials and the stakeholders--parents, teachers, everyone else--to come to a resolution on this," he said, though he added that he stands by the city's position on the matter.
D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who received a copy of Williams's letter to Norton, declined to comment. But President Clinton has entered the debate as well, making it clear earlier this week in a memorandum issued by his staff that he opposes the attorney fees cap backed by Williams and so far endorsed by Congress, the only disagreement to surface between D.C. officials and the White House on the city's $4.7 billion budget.
"The administration strongly objects to a provision . . . . that would cap the award of plaintiffs' attorneys' fees in cases brought against the District of Columbia public schools," said a statement issued by the Clinton administration on Monday. "In the long run, this provision would be likely to limit the access of the District's poor families to quality legal representation, thus impairing their due process protections provided by" the federal special education law.
Clinton's statement goes on to object to other home-rule intrusions, urging the House to reject restrictions on city spending on abortions, needle exchanges or on health-care benefits for domestic partners--all issues on which he agrees with Williams. Clinton called GOP proposals to change D.C. policy on such matters "unwarranted intrusions into the affairs of the District . . . that would seriously undermine local control."
Salas's Honor Is a First
After last year's mayoral race, Max Salas was president of Williams's Inaugural Committee. He chaired the mayor's transition team on Latino issues. A prominent businessman, Salas is a founder of the D.C. Latino Chamber of Commerce.
Now, Salas has another distinction to add to his list of accomplishments: He is the first Latino to be named Rotarian of the Year by the D.C. Rotary Club.
"I was surprised. Honored, really," Salas said. "Rotary is a lot of service-oriented work, and it's a real honor to be named Rotarian of the Year."
Salas, a partner in Cornet Technology Inc., got involved in the District's Rotary Club five years ago after moving here from Nashville. He is chairman of its program committee and arranges for speakers to address the organization at noon every Wednesday at the Hotel Washington.
Salas organized a Rotary Night at a D.C. United soccer match; one-third of the game's proceeds in ticket sales were returned to the Rotary Club, which is renovating a soccer field in Adams-Morgan as one of its projects.
In Salas's short time in the District, he's become a fixture in many political circles and community organizations.
Williams recently reappointed Salas to the Alcohol and Beverage Control Board, and Salas is a member of the D.C. Committee to Promote Washington, a nonprofit group that markets the city's tourist attractions.
As a founding member of the year-old D.C. Latino Chamber of Commerce, Salas has used his political connections to bring attention to efforts to develop Latino-owned businesses.
Besides working with Williams's campaign, Salas has been involved in the campaigns of Cropp and council members Jim Graham, Jack Evans, Charlene Drew Jarvis, Kevin P. Chavous and David Catania.
"District politics is important to the Latino community," Salas said. "My mission is to be helpful to the community. You can't do it without politics. We have to have a voice."
He also is president of the D.C. Recreation Wish List Committee, a nonprofit organization created four years ago by Cora Masters Barry, the wife of former mayor Marion Barry. The Wish List Committee works to improve the city's recreation centers and is raising funds to build the first multimillion-dollar tennis and learning center in Southeast Washington.
Pedro Lujan, chairman of the Latino chamber, praised Salas's commitment to the District and to the Latino community, in particular.
"Max Salas is an important and recognized figure in the Hispanic community," he said. "He is the key personality in a new wave of Latino leadership that will be taking the city by storm in the coming years."