The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mayor Bowser should get rid of her constituent services fund

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on July 17. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

AS MAYOR of the District of Columbia, Muriel E. Bowser (D) has myriad means to help citizens. A $13 billion budget. More than 80 agencies, including one specifically devoted to community relations and services. The power of her personality, and the influence of the city's top office. So why exactly does Ms. Bowser have a constituent services fund? And why did she see the need to use the recent celebration of her 43rd birthday to rake in more contributions to an account already overflowing with money?

The answer, as those familiar with this quirk of D.C. politics know, is that despite the name, the accounts have very little to do with helping constituents and everything to do with advancing the political interests of elected officeholders. Constituent services funds, which are maintained by D.C. Council members as well as the mayor, are little more than private slush funds. The same donors who make campaign contributions, including those seeking to do business with the city, give to these accounts and are not constrained by rules limiting giving to election years. The money is supposed to benefit residents who, say, can’t afford burial costs or need to pay a power bill (and there have been such expenditures). But use of the funds has also included sports tickets, holiday office parties and political gatherings masquerading as community events.

Ms. Bowser knows all this — as evidenced by her efforts when she was on the D.C. Council to curtail the accounts. We are glad she was successful in 2011 in imposing some limits on the amount of money that could be raised annually as well as on how it could be used. But it is disappointing that she, as mayor, is not setting a better ethical example. Her Thursday birthday party at a Northeast restaurant solicited donations (suggested $25 but regulations allow up to $500) to her mayoral constituent fund, which, as the City Paper reported, has grown to $109,627.15 with contributions left over from her inaugural committee. That there were no expenditures in the first six months of her term undercuts the argument that the money is needed to address constituent needs. Perhaps there will be more needy residents when Ms. Bowser is next up for election.

The mayor’s actions are all legal and in keeping with that of previous mayors. But they stand in poor contrast to those of four D.C. Council members — David Grosso (I-At Large), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) — who have opted not to establish constituent services funds because they see them as ethically suspect. Guess what: They all told us they have been able to assist constituents without the funds by connecting them with the proper city agency or leveraging private or nonprofit community partners. It’s an example that Ms. Bowser, with many more resources at her disposal, ought to follow.

Read more about this topic:

Colbert I. King: Ethics reform the D.C. Council needs

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