The D.C. Council voted Wednesday night to delay next year’s scheduled election for attorney general, putting off a major change in city government that voters authorized four years ago.
The surprise move follows growing discord between some council members and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) over what powers and responsibilities should be exercised by the District’s first elected attorney general.
Unable to resolve the differences, and with the April 2014 Democratic primary rapidly approaching, the council voted 8 to 5 to postpone the election until 2018.
“We are just not ready for this,” said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who engineered the delay. “We are putting in place something that, frankly, worries me.”
Evans muscled his proposal past a clearly agitated council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), who opposed the delay. His voice quivering in anger, Mendelson called the vote “an embarrassment.” He said afterward that he would work through the summer to persuade a majority of his colleagues to vote in the fall to hold the election as planned next year.
In other action at its last meeting before a two-month recess, the council also voted 8 to 5 in favor of a bill requiring certain large retailers to pay employees a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage, one day after Wal-Mart warned that passage of the “living wage” law would lead it to cancel plans for three of six stores planned in the city.
Other significant actions included votes to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, restrict smoking outdoors and impose penalties on motorists who fail to yield to bicyclists.
The busy agenda also included the introduction of several measures that could shape the fall legislative session, including a bill to decriminalize marijuana.
The vote to delay the election of an attorney general for four years marked a major reversal for the council, which first moved in 2009 to have an elected attorney general instead of one appointed by the mayor. At the time, council members were worried that then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s attorney general, Peter Nickles, was too unaccountable.
Since then, council members have appeared uneasy about how much authority an elected attorney general, who would oversee 350 city attorneys, would yield in city government. Gray and some council members have questioned whether an elected attorney general could perform the job and still fulfill the responsibility to provide legal advice to the mayor.
Gray and his appointed attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, proposed the creation of a legal office that would provide legal advice to city agencies independently of the elected attorney general.
When that measure came up for a vote Wednesday night, Evans amended it to delay the election. He noted that, so far, few lawyers or politicians have expressed an interest in running for the $190,000-a-year job.“There is great concern about who is going to run for this and who is going to get elected to this,” Evans said. “There is concern about what the elected attorney general would control and not control.”
Council members David Grosso (I-At large) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) blasted the delay, noting that 76 percent of voters supported the establishment of an elected office of attorney general in the 2010 referendum.
“This to me seems like just an affront to voters,” Grosso said. “The voters believed this was going to be an election in 2014. . . . This is saying to the voters, ‘Tough luck, too bad.’ ”
In voting to authorize driver’s licenses or formal identification for undocumented immigrants, council members set aside concerns that the measure could knock the District out of compliance with federal law. The federal government requires the states to vouch for the “lawful status” of those issued driver’s licenses and identification cards.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, did not waiver in her support of the measure. She said the bill will make life easier for an estimated 20,000 city residents who are not in the country legally.
“The importance of this bill to undocumented residents cannot be” overstated, Cheh said. “Without being able to get driver’s licenses, they may not be able to get to work. They may not be able to take their children to school or go to the doctor.”
Before the measure becomes law, the council must vote on it a second time after returning from recess in September. Several council members, as well as Gray, said they have major concerns with legislation that doesn’t comply with federal law.
Cheh also succeeded in overcoming opposition to win tentative approval of legislation that would curtail smoking on hundreds of city blocks. Under the bill, smoking would be banned within 25 feet of any city-owned park, recreation or community center, trail, or bus stop.
The legislation, which needs a second vote in the fall, would require that the city spend $185,000 to install more than 200 “No Smoking” signs in outdoor areas across the city, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
“Instead of someone moving away from the smoker, let the smoker move away from recreation areas, parks and bus stops,” Cheh said.
The council also gave tentative approval to legislation to punish motorists who fail to yield to bicyclists on city streets. Motorists ticketed for not yielding would receive 3 points against their driving records; those who collide with another motorist while failing to yield would get 6 points against their records.
The bill also, for the first time, would add bicycle safety to Department of Motor Vehicle driving exams.
Although the measure won’t be voted on until at least the fall, a majority of council members co-introduced the legislation to decriminalize marijuana.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the chief sponsor, said the bill is designed to “acknowledge that the war on drugs, in particular marijuana, has worked to criminalize many of our youth and disadvantaged them from being able to get jobs.”
Under current law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the District is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of as much as $1,000 and as much as six months in jail.
Wells’s bill would make possession of up to an ounce similar to a speeding ticket, which does not result in a criminal record. Minors would have to attend a drug-awareness class, and their parents would be notified.