A heated D.C. Council debate Tuesday split legislators on the merits of a summer youth-jobs program, pioneered by former member Marion Barry, targeted for expansion into young adulthood by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
The council approved Bowser’s request to expand the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program. But along the way, the debate exposed deeper fault lines over the program’s effectiveness as well as the larger question of how best to deal with the high levels of poverty and unemployment that affect the predominantly black communities living in the city’s poorest wards.
The jobs program has been among the city’s most popular initiatives among disadvantaged families. After Barry’s death last year, many of the thousands who turned out to remember him credited the program with helping them start their careers.
But for some D.C. politicians, the program has remained a yearly headache, with questions about the management, effectiveness and ever-growing cost.
On Tuesday, Bowser’s plan to expand the program — including offering jobs to residents up to 24 years old, from the current cap of 22 — became a new flash point in a budget battle between Bowser and the council, including whether the city should increase the sales tax to fund her initiatives.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the mayor boxed in lawmakers by beginning to expand the program before the council had approved funding. That forced the council into the awkward position of having to approve Bowser’s plan retroactively on Tuesday, he said.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) proposed an amendment to add an evaluation process at the end of the summer. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) urged colleagues to cap the number of older participants ages 22 to 24 years old who would participate, citing the potential for escalating costs.
After the session adjourned, Mendelson said that the mayor’s unilateral decision to revise the terms of the program before asking for the council’s input hindered its ability to debate or even reject the bill.
“It’s troubling,” he said, regarding the need for a retroactive vote. “It makes it harder for the council to say ‘No.’ And that’s why we were struggling here,” he added.
During the hearing, council members questioned the use of funds for certain aspects of the program, including getting participants to and from jobs.
“What we have seen so far this year is they are defining the program and then trying to meet the cost to that,” Evans said. “By defining the program first and then looking at the law, we are forced with having to amend the law.”
But Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) questioned whether those calling for greater oversight were truly committed to helping the city’s poorest youths.
Legislators should be focused on getting kids off the streets, he said, rather than “asking the mayor, ‘Where are you’re getting the money?’ and ‘Did you talk to the Metro?’ and all this.”
Countered Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3): “Notions that we not worry so much about where the money is coming from or how the program is working . . . I find that actually kind of ridiculous.”
On another topic, Cheh on Tuesday proposed legislation to tighten the District’s definition of “assault of an officer.”
The bill would “more precisely define” the assault of an officer and make it easier for the Office of Police Complaints to issue recommendations to improve interaction between police and civilians.
The bill comes to the council in the wake of mass civil unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death on April 19 while in police custody.
“Although this bill has been in development prior to recent civil unrest, recent events highlight the need for these criminal justice reforms,” Cheh said in a news release. “There is great frustration with a justice system that is intended to protect our residents but which is perceived by many to be unfair.”
Cheh said that the misdemeanor offense is applied too broadly — to include protesters who stiffen to avoid being handcuffed or people who hold doors closed against officers trying to enter. The charge carries a penalty of up to six months.
Council members also proposed measures to limit predatory debt buying and to require more transparency from lobbyists.
They also voted to approve Bowser’s appointment of a prominent D.C. lobbyist and a top fundraiser for her successful mayoral campaign to head Events D.C., the city’s conventions and sports authority.
The lobbyist, Max Brown, was a member of the Bowser campaign finance committee — a fact that brought him criticism from several lawmakers earlier this year when he lobbied the council on behalf of a controversial health-care giant.
David Grosso (I-At Large) abstained from the vote; all others voted for the appointment.