WASHINTON, DC - JUNE 13: Vincent B. Orange debates that he is the best man for the interim president pro-tempore position. D.C. Council members selected Phil Mendelson on Wednesday to be interim chairman, replacing Kwame R. Brown, who resigned last week before pleading guilty to bank fraud. They selected Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) to serve as interim president pro-tempore, A seat Vincent B. Orange (D) nominated himself for. (Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Another campaign season, another collection of D.C. Council candidates touting their ability to provide more affordable housing, reform education, create jobs and conquer income inequality. None of which, by the way, a single council member can possibly achieve.

What council members can do, however, is provide aggressive oversight of executive-branch operations to ensure that the programs and policies they have enacted and funded are working as intended. That’s the way to impose accountability, as well as discover and fix problems. That’s what the public wants.

On that score, the D.C. Council comes up short.

The council’s oversight role is limited mostly to public hearings, euphemistically labeled “roundtables.” That’s silly. Roundtables are academic discussions in which individuals get to debate and share views. Oversight investigations involve more than hearings and site visits. Their true value lies in their ability to publish findings and report to taxpayers on government performance.

An oversight failure case in point: the council’s Human Services Committee, chaired by Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

A Post report last month on conditions at the D.C. General emergency shelter found that staff members charged with protecting families often preyed upon them, that living conditions sickened residents and that the threat of violence created an environment of fear.

I asked Graham for his committee’s reports, including any findings and recommendations for addressing the problems. Graham replied by e-mail, “We have held several hearings on this. . . . A number of hours were spent on the topic. At least a good part of the Post findings was based on what we uncovered.”

That, of course, was not what was asked. In a follow-up e-mail, I sought examples of committee action that resulted from the “roundtables,” including findings and recommendations centered on the problem of women and girls being preyed upon at the shelter.

The committee’s reports? Graham said, “Unless there is a specific charge such as an investigation, reports are only filed with legislation.” He noted that he has introduced a resolution to close D.C. General and maintained that he has pursued the matter “with diligence.”

The council’s Committee on Economic Development, chaired by Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), offers another example.

Her committee oversees the city’s housing stock, including rental housing. The Post recently reported that the city-financed Park Southern housing project, indebted to taxpayers in the amount of $628,000, has been mismanaged and under investigation by city agencies and the Internal Revenue Service for “alleged malfeasance.”

Did Bowser, upon learning about the scandal, launch a committee probe into possible waste and abuse in rental housing?

No. She instead tried to arrange a behind-the-scenes session with city housing officials and the very Park Southern managers who have been accused of mismanagement. City officials wisely refused.

Bowser said she’s opposed to conducting a public hearing on the issue, and the two managers, both Bowser supporters, deny any wrongdoing.

A watchdog with closed eyes. Go figure.

Then there’s the council’s Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, chaired by Vincent Orange (D-At Large).

Last week, the Associated Press reported that federal investigators have been looking for fraud in a D.C. government program designed to give local contractors a portion of major construction projects. The investigation, reportedly being conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is “examining partnerships between local companies and outside firms that won multimillion-dollar contracts” from the D.C. government, according to AP. Apparently, the feds are concerned that money is ending up in the pockets of unscrupulous local business folks who game the system by helping big contractors accrue local “preference points,” then receive kickbacks despite doing little or no work.

The investigation, according to AP, began more than a year ago when feds contacted workers in the city’s Department of Small and Local Business Development about suspicious joint ventures. Earlier this year, that office reportedly was served with grand jury subpoenas. City workers allegedly have pointed the feds in the direction of other suspicious joint ventures.

All this unfolded under the nose of Orange and his committee, which is charged with riding herd on such projects.

I asked Orange by e-mail if he was aware of the probe and its scope, and if he had been contacted by the feds.

Orange didn’t respond to my request, but his chief of staff, James D. Brown, supplied copies of press releases that Orange issued in July and December criticizing city agencies for failing to meet spending goals on D.C. small businesses. Those concerns, however, were unrelated to my query regarding the federal investigation.

Committee members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large) were e-mailed the same question.

Cheh replied: “No one has contacted me and this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Grosso wrote: “I first heard of the investigation when I read about it in today’s AP article.”

To his credit, Grosso has expressed concern about the contract and procurement process and the Certified Business Enterprise program through which small businesses are made eligible to get in on city-certified contracts.

Council candidates, save the miracle worker claims. Give me a council member who knows how — and wants — to exercise the powers of oversight.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.