THE D.C. COUNCIL, set this week to pick interim leadership, hopes to turn the page on a scandal-riven year in which two members were forced to resign. But it will take a lot more than shuffling a few chairs to convince the public that the council has actually changed. If lawmakers are serious about ushering in a new day, they will have to tangibly change their ways.
More powerful than electing a new chairman or naming a different president pro tem would be the elimination of long-held policies and practices that feed the council’s sense of entitlement. Take, for example, the gravy train of free tickets to the city’s major sporting events. Perhaps there once was an argument, given the city’s investment in Nationals Park and the Verizon Center, for team owners to provide this courtesy to D.C. officials. But suspect use of these tickets (who really thinks underprivileged kids got to see the Washington Capitals battle the New York Rangers?) and the constant bickering over seats mandates the elimination of this practice. Since the city can’t sell these negotiated perks, it should instead tell Ted Leonsis, of the Wizards and the Capitals, and Ted Lerner, of the Nationals, to use the city’s free tickets for charitable purposes that could be publicized.
Another perk that needs to go is the constituent service accounts that allow council members to raise monies — mostly from businesses seeking to curry favor — for their own use. Ostensibly the funds are supposed to help residents with things like funeral expenses and electric bills, but past studies have shown the people most helped are the politicians themselves. If council members can’t quite bring themselves to get rid of these slush funds, they should implement real-time reporting — on public Web sites — of contributions and expenditures. Likewise, the financial disclosure statements of council members should be posted and regularly updated on their Web sites.
The council could do other things to instill public confidence. It could stop exempting itself from open-meetings laws. It could curb the pernicious practice of council members approving contracts or, at the very least, prohibit private meetings with would-be contractors.
The chances of the council mustering enough votes to implement these common-sense reforms are probably slim: Witness the failure during last year’s overhaul of the ethics law to eliminate the constituent service accounts. But nothing is stopping an individual council member from saying no to free tickets, or yes to fuller disclosure. Doing the right thing doesn’t always take a majority.