What would an ideal city council do?
District Council Chairman Arrington Dixon says an ideal city council should be "reflecting the concerns and needs of the city."
But by the standard the current city council may be failing. The council is inactive on the one subject -- the District's financial problems -- that touches the life of almost every District resident. The council has yet to hold a hearing on budget cuts proposed by the mayor; it has yet to construct a tax package to help the city out of its debt; and despite having a staff of 130 for 13 council members and a budget of $3.5 million, the council has left vacant its single position for a staff member to review the city budget.
Not only is the council inactive on so major a problem as the budget. It has also left other bills unattended for months, casualties of intramural fighting. For example, last November the council passed -- as emergency legislation -- a bill prohibiting utilities from stopping service to apartment dwellers when landlords do not pay their bills. Despite the emergency nature of such a bill -- with the winter months coming -- the council did not deal with it for more than six months.
"Given the actios of the council in the past two years," says at-large city council member John Ray, "I can understand the perception that the council is the worst the District has ever had."
"It is obvious the council is not working," says council member Nadine Winter (Ward 6). "The council is not effective on major problems facing the city."
Explanations of why this is are divided between attacks on council Chairman Dixon and claims that the council lacks authority under the home rule charter to do the work it should. Among council members themselves and politicians in the city, the Dixon theory is more popular.
"What's happened to the council is a disgrace to the city," says Everett W. Scott, president of the Federation of D.C. Civic Associations. "And I think it has to do with Arrington. He leaves much to be desired, is all I can say. He is elitist. He is concerned with himself and a few rich folk."
Dixon colleagues on the council add to the criticism. "I like Arrington," says Polly Shackleton (Ward 3), who supported Dixon's candidacy for the chairmanship with money and personal appearances. "But the job is too much for him. . . .He doesn't have the experience and he has not kept in touch with the members. No one knows where he is on anything. I think that is why we are having problems."
Council members say Dixon has changed since becoming the head of the council. He had served as a councilman from Ward j for four years before defeating the brash Douglas Moore for the chairmanship. Since he became chairman, much of Dixon's old council staff has left and been replaced by people who are viewed as arrogant and aloof.
And Dixon has sparked resentment in council members by seeming to show great interest in appearing at dinner parties and ceremonial affairs, sometimes pulling rank on other council members to make sure he is invited. He had a big fight over whether he should have been invited with the mayor to the White House to meet the president and another over whether or not he should greet the pope. "He's interested in the tinsel and sparkle of the job," according to one council member.
Others say Dixon does not do the trenchwork necessary to establish a majority on the council that could make the laws that are needed.
Dixon aggravates his differences with the council by publicly ignoring or fighting with council members who are not his allies. He once held a private meeting at his home for all but five members of the council. Last week, without informing the other council members, he introduced a new rent control bill. Later, seven other members introduced a separate bill on rent control, a big issue for the council this year. Dixon, the chairman, was left outside the action, watching what a majority of the council was doing.
But while dixon is blamed by some for the council's problems, others say the trouble is that the council has no power under the charter granted by Congress in 1974 to establish a city government in the District of Columbia.
"The council is not functioning well," says council member John Wilson (Ward 2), "because the charter does not intend for it to function well."
He cites the council's failure to handle the budget crisis as evidence that the council lacks the authority to argue with the mayor over whether recreation centers, say, should be eliminated from the city budget.
Even in drafting a normal budget, Wilson argues, the mayor can change the council's budget priorities and give as much or as little money as he wants to any city agency or program. In most cities, the mayor is allowed to veto part of the budget but has to return to the council to revise that part of the budget. In the District, Mayor Barry can redistribute money any way he wants -- without the approval of the council.
Since the council's only real power, according to John Wilson, is the power to levy taxes, he is now trying to use that power to force the mayor to allow him to make some decisions about how the city cuts its budget for this year. These would concern which programs get less money or are eliminated. Wilson says any revised tax package will not get past his committee until the mayor decides to give hime some say over which areas of the city budget are reduced.
Besides its power to tax city residents, the council of course has the power to make laws for the city. But even that power is incomplete. Congress can veto council legislation and the federal courts can get into the act. Last year, to take a case, the council made it impossible for most people to get a home loan mortgage for three weeks: the Superior Court ruled that the council had abused its power to pass laws on an emergency basis in setting a usury ceiling that went into effect for 90 days without the usual congressional review. When mortgage companies heard of the Supreme Court ruling, most stopped giving mortgages in the District.
The council then went to Congress to get permanent legislation passed quickly so homes could be bought and sold in the city. But before Congress passed the law, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) attacked the council as incompetent. "Wow! What an emergency!" Eagleton said, making fun of the 11 times the council had passed emergency bills dealing with ice cream vendors. "Can you," Eagleton asked Dixon, "in your experience think of any ice cream vendors' emergency?"
The mortgage crisis ended when Eagleton abandoned efforts to change the council's authority.But concern over the council's use of its emergency powers has not diminished.
Last month the D.c. Court of Appeals ruled that the council cannot use its emergency powers as "an alternatie legislative track" for making laws and cannot pass more than one emergency law on any one subject unless it has permanent legislation before Congress.
"We are in the process of reassessing out procedures and testing our powers," Chairman Dixon says of the council, which in its five years as an elected body has passed 334 emergency laws and only 305 permanent ones, according to testimony at congressional hearings. He also defends the council's inaction on the budget crisis, claiming the mayor has failed to give the council or anyone else sufficiently good information to work with. "The size of the deficit keeps changing," he says. But some of Dixon's own colleagues cynically suggest that he has decided to let the mayor take the heat from the budget crisis, a crisis that could ruin the mayor politically and leave the way open for Arrington Dixon to become mayor.
"In this profession," Dixon says when asked if he will run for mayor in 1982, "it would be foolish to preclude going on to higher office." Dixon is one of about five council members who appear to be interested in becoming mayor. The 13 egos and ambitions on the council may simply guarantee the kind of infighting that goes on. Some council members argue this fighting is due to the frustration that comes from being on a council that most people think is powerful but that is actually all but powerles. Still, even as the council seeks more clout for itself, Congress and the courts are pointing out that it has not used what powers it already has with much wisdom or skill.