FOR ALL the talk out of city hall about defending local self-government in the District of Columbia against unfair allegations and/or investigations, D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke and some of the council members are trying to sink a proposal that would let the city government mind more of its own business -- before other forces get into it. The proposal would give subpoena power to one of the most important offices established by the D.C. home rule charter: the D.C. auditor. The idea is to give this independent office a basic tool of the investigatory process so that the council itself can take a more active role in oversight of the city government. What, then, are these legislators afraid of?
The discomfort may stem from the fact that the D.C. auditor these days is someone who has not been afraid to go after wrongdoing, no matter who in city hall may be at fault. But that's why this office was created, and it's why the charter specifically calls for the auditor to "have access to all books, accounts, records, reports, findings and all other papers, things, or property belonging to or in use by any department, agency, or other instrumentality of the District government." That's also why the auditor serves six years; the mayor and council members serve four.
Another reason for the opposition of some members may well be petty and partisan: the proposal was introduced in various forms by Carol Schwartz, lone Republican on the council. She has no real base of influence there, but some Democratic members -- notably Charlene Drew Jarvis, who unsuccessfully sought a public hearing on the measure -- agree with her. With them in one vote last week were Nadine Winter, Betty Ann Kane and Frank Smith.
Chairman Clarke argued at the time that the council itself should conduct more investigations rather than relying on "anybody over whom we have very little control." But who just reappointed Otis Troupe to another six-year term -- by a unanimous vote? The council. And who appointed a special three-member review panel that concluded that the auditor's operations had "matured and strengthened" under Mr. Troupe? Chairman Clarke. Why should the council have "control" over this office, anyway?
When this measure comes up again, it deserves support from every member of the council who believes in strong home rule -- in local government that has the strength to undergo independent, honest investigation by a local official with all the powers necessary to do a good job. To curb local initiative in oversight is to abdicate a major city responsibility to outsiders.