As D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams pursues his short- and long-term strategies for reform, the D.C. Council has shown -- even before its recent tax cut initiative -- that it wants to keep pace.
In early 1998, the council retained the National Conference of State Legislatures to study the council and recommend changes in its operations. At the same time that the conference was doing its study, a local public interest group, the D.C. Appleseed Center, also studied the issue of council reform. Both groups agreed that substantial reform was needed, and both made nearly identical recommendations as to how that reform should take place.
The good news is that many of the suggestions -- such as increasing the accessibility of information and keeping to announced hearing and meeting times -- do not require any rule changes and could be adopted immediately.
The problem is of long standing. For example, last Feb. 23 was a particularly bad day for members of the public who tried to testify at oversight hearings. Because a 9 a.m. hearing of the committee of the whole ran over, the hearing of the Committee on Human Services on the D.C. Department of Health that was scheduled for 10 a.m. did not begin until 11 a.m. Government witnesses did not finish answering questions until 1:30 p.m., at which time 17 witnesses from organizations and the public still were waiting to testify. Some waited for as long as six hours.
The disorganization did not end there, either. Because the D.C. Department of Health's hearing was so lengthy, the Committee on Human Services canceled a hearing on the Public Benefits Corp. only a half-hour before its scheduled 2 p.m. start time. With the commitment of the council members this sort of situation need not recur.
A second recommendation made by both studies was that the council organize its resources so that it can perform first-rate analysis. Although many committee staff members are dedicated and competent, they lack the supports necessary to fulfill the legislature's functions in the most effective way.
The reports found that committee work could be done better by a professional staff. This staff could be hired by a director, who in turn would be chosen either by a majority of council members or by a new committee on council management headed by the D.C. Council chair.
Some council members have worried that the move to a centralized staff would cause them to lose power. But the loss of patronage positions would be more than offset by the increased credibility and effectiveness that would accompany the establishment of a truly professional staff that would improve the council's work -- from policy analysis to legislative drafting to oversight.
In addition, the D.C. Appleseed report criticized the council's excessive use of emergency legislation, which bypasses input from those most affected by the changes enacted. The council used such "stealth" legislation, for example, to eliminate the emergency-assistance program, which helped families in crisis maintain their housing, as well as the burial-assistance program, which provided resources for low-income persons to bury their loved ones. Through another emergency legislative act, the council reduced levels of cash assistance to welfare families. None of this legislation was the result of a real emergency that would warrant shortcutting the democratic process.
As we continue to move toward home rule, we need a legislative body to act like a professional branch of government. We urge the council to reexamine both reports and move on the recommendations within them now.
-- Angela M. Jones
-- Patty Mullahy Fugere
are, respectively, executive director of DC Action for Children and executive director of Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.