IF THERE WAS one area on the D.C. Council where things seemed headed in the right direction, it was the critical issue of transportation. In six months as chair of the transportation committee, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) contributed to improving bus service in underserved parts of the city, gave the District new credibility as its representative to the Metro board and showed real spine in undertaking an investigation into use of city-owned vehicles. His reward — correction, make that his comeuppance — was to be summarily stripped of the chairmanship of the transportation committee by council colleagues too gutless to stand up to the petty politics of Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D).
In a 12 to 1 vote with Mr. Wells dissenting, the council Tuesday went along with Mr. Brown’s reshuffling of council committees. Mr. Wells was relegated to the less prestigious committee on parks and recreation. Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Mr. Brown’s enabling loyalist, was named chair of a transportation committee made even more powerful with the addition of environmental issues.
Under the reorganization, Mr. Brown keeps under his purview such powerful agencies as the public schools, the deputy mayor of planning and economic development and the city’s real estate and construction services agency. Given that Mr. Brown is under federal investigation for the possible mishandling of hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign funds, that prospect ought to alarm every District taxpayer, even if it doesn’t worry council members.
Mr. Brown’s explanation for the unprecedented shake-up — to “effectively consolidate areas of similar interest” — is belied by the inanity of Metro issues being diverted from the transportation committee to the government operations committee now headed by Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). Ms. Bowser also goes on the Metro board; apparently Ms. Cheh turned down Mr. Brown’s offer to take on that assignment.
Mr. Brown told reporters he thought Mr. Wells had done a “fabulous job” on transportation and that his investigation of city-leased SUVs — sparked by Mr. Brown’s embarrassing pursuit of a fully loaded Lincoln — was “phenomenal.” Mr. Wells delivered a report that was highly critical of the chairman’s actions, but Mr. Brown denied his move against Mr. Wells was in any way retaliation.
District residents, though, should be wondering why Mr. Brown chose Mr. Wells, of all people, to be displaced. Mr. Wells is hardworking, popular with his constituents and — unlike many of his council colleagues, including Mr. Brown — free of ethical taint. They should worry about lost momentum on transportation issues and the message that sends to the city’s regional Metro partners. And they should ask why it is that none of the council’s other members could summon the gumption to, at the very least, question the sense of this misguided decision.