D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has proposed diluting the role of the city’s elected attorney general by consolidating power to review city laws, land deals and other legal business with attorneys on her staff, the attorney general said Friday.
The move calls into question whether the District’s first elected attorney general will be able to carry out the job envisioned in 2010, when 76 percent of D.C. voters chose to directly elect a chief attorney “responsible for upholding the public interest.”
Karl A. Racine, who won the inaugural job last fall, blasted the proposal by Bowser (D) as a power grab that would gut his ability to act independently, as well as fulfill his campaign platform to act more aggressively as a watchdog.
“The proposed legislation has the effect of having an elected attorney general not be independent, and it transfers the most critical areas in which the public wants an independent attorney general — checks and balances — transfers that to the mayor’s office,” Racine said Friday.
Racine said the mayor wants to impose a system more like the federal government than most states, despite her support for D.C statehood. The U.S. attorney general reports to the president, and 43 states elect an attorney general who can disagree with the chief executive.
“We get all properly incensed at Congress for disregarding the will of the people,” Racine said. “This is a complete, complete disregarding of the will of the people.”
Bowser spokesman Michael Czin downplayed Racine’s concerns.
“The Mayor’s office works closely with the Attorney General and his team on a daily basis to best serve the residents of the District,” Czin said in an e-mail.
Bowser’s proposal was included in a 74-page bill transmitted to the D.C. Council on Thursday evening that would make hundreds of technical and procedural changes to city laws to allow her to carry out her $12.9 billion budget plan more smoothly.
The bill would give Bowser authority to decide who conducts legal reviews of new city laws, regulations and contracts. The bill suggests, though, that such analysis is the responsibility of the mayor’s legal counsel and adds that “the Attorney General may also provide such reviews at the request of the mayor.”
Those duties were performed for decades by the attorney general when that position was appointed by the mayor. The D.C. Council seemed to keep those responsibilities under the newly elected attorney general’s purview under a bill passed last year.
But the council left many details up in the air. It also approved a request by then-mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to allow what was characterized as a “small office” of legal counsel in the mayor’s office.
Under Bowser’s proposal, the role of that legal counsel would expand beyond providing advice on drafting laws, regulations and contracts. It also would sign off on controversial decisions such as those involving land use, sale of public land and development deals that could involve tax abatements.
Tuohey said his staff would take the lead on reviewing city laws and contracts.
“When asked to do it, we will do it,” Tuohey said. “Where it’s appropriate and in the best interest of the District to consult with [the attorney general’s office], we will. We will see to it that the best advice is brought to bear on these issues.”
More broadly, Racine said the mayor’s legislation would also undercut his ability to act independently on behalf of District residents as intended under the ballot measure that created the position. The legislation says that “in all law business” the city and the attorney general operate as “client to attorney.”
Czin, Bowser’s spokesman, said, “We are implementing both the letter and spirit of the law.”
Bowser’s budget does not fund Racine’s request to set aside $20 million annually from legal settlements to launch a new consumer-protection effort.
Walter Smith, head of D.C. Appleseed, which supported creating an independent attorney general, said that based on an initial reading of Bowser’s proposal, he did not think it intended to or would subvert the 2010 ballot measure.
“The law remains that when the attorney general issues a formal opinion, that will remain binding on the District government,” he said. Of tension between the mayor’s office and the attorney general on the details, Smith said, “It’s tricky.”
“We’re working through a whole new process,” he said.
The conflict now goes to the council, where Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has championed a highly independent attorney general. Mendelson was on the losing end of a 7 to 6 vote last year that kept the Office of Legal Counsel under the mayor.
Mendelson said Friday that he had not yet reviewed the mayor’s proposal but warned that “it should not be the mayor’s goal to undermine the referendum.”
The emerging conflict Friday highlighted the potential importance of the April 28 special election to fill two vacant council seats. Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and LaRuby May in Ward 8, both strong Bowser allies, won recent straw polls. Either could be a deciding vote on the budget this summer.