Every once in a while -- generally not too long before the next campaign for mayor -- members of the D.C. Council find a way to toss aside their rubber stamps, kick up their heels and give Mayor Barry a little legislative what-for on a key bill. That's part of the local system of checks and balances, of course, and the members need an occasional opportunity to unify at the expense of the executive branch. But this time they picked a bad issue. If they continue their tantrum, housing policy in the city could suffer badly.
It began with a bill introduced by council member Charlene Drew Jarvis to strip the city's Housing Finance Agency of authority to approve bond issues. This six-year-old agency was formed to alleviate a shortage of housing for low-to moderate-income families. It has had the power to sell tax-exempt bonds and to use the proceeds to make low-interest money available for residential mortgages and construction loans. These have become even more important as federal housing money has dried up.
Nobody, including Mayor Barry, is claiming that the agency has worked housing miracles. But according to city hall statistics, the 16-employee agency has issued more than $198 million in bonds and notes to finance 1,600 units of low-to moderate-income rental housing, and to provide low-interest mortgage financing for about 200 single-family homes.
Some council members, however, said the agency had not set adequate priorities for new housing and had refused to follow council suggestions. So in yet another misuse of the "emergency" legislation provisions in the charter, council members discovered enough of a housing "emergency" to whip through a bill giving themselves authority to approve or disapprove every bond issue. The mayor vetoed the bill, the council overrode the veto, and six of the agency's nine members offered their resignations to the mayor.
One council complaint may have some merit -- namely, that not enough projects are being built in the outer neighborhoods. But this could be and should be negotiated with the mayor. To bring every council member into every bond-issue decision, though, would not only be cumbersome but would also invite petty politicking on every housing proposal.
The "emergency" has a legal 90-day limit. In the meantime, the council is working on a measure to give itself the same powers on a permanent basis. The members should think twice about their ill- chosen rebellion. Procedures could be agreed to, for example, by which the mayor would send proposals to the council at the outset for comment and review. That would be useful as well as efficient. The council's current intrusion is neither.