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Opinion: A Sly Ballot Question in D.C.

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Voters in D.C. began casting ballots for the 2012 General Election yesterday (if you want to vote before Election Day here are the details).

When you finish side one of your ballot, be sure to turn it over; you get extra credit for answering a few additional questions.

On the front of the ballot you will see candidates for U.S. president, the District’s non-voting seat in Congress, D.C. Council, Board of Education, Advisory Neighborhood Commission, shadow senator and shadow representative.

On side two of the ballot -- remember, flip it over -- you will find the Special Election to replace former D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown (he is now a convicted felon). Interim Chair Phil Mendelson is seeking to complete Brown’s term. Calvin Gurley, who has run unsuccessful long shot campaigns for a number of offices, is your other choice. This race actually belongs on the back side of the ballot. It is a fait accompli.

Also on the back side of the ballot are three charter amendments that belong front and center. Each is a product of “ethics reform” legislation that District politicians grappled with last year.

Unfortunately, the first of the three amendments belongs front and center because it is absurd.

In short, if passed into law the measure would empower the D.C. Council to expel one of its members for gross misconduct.

Sounds like a good idea, right? But here is the rub: A Council member could only be expelled by a 5/6ths super majority vote of his or her peers. That means 11 of 13 Council members would need to agree that someone from the tribe needs to get voted off the island.

If the Council was serious about reforming itself, it would have followed the example of other legislatures. In New York a lawmaker can be expelled by a simple majority of peers; in Arizona expulsion requires a two-thirds vote.

A two-thirds threshold would allow nine D.C. Council members to jettison a fellow.

The “Expulsion for Gross Misconduct” amendment is a smokescreen. Council members say it is evidence that they can police themselves. Hogwash. It will do little to deter politicians from going astray. Neither of the Council members forced from office by prosecutors this year (the aforementioned Brown and Harry Thomas, Jr.) would have lost a minute of sleep worrying that eleven of their colleagues could muster a collective spine.

Fortunately, the two other charter amendments are no-brainers. One pertains to the mayor, the other the Council.

If passed, the new laws would require the immediate removal from office of any mayor or councilmember convicted of a felony. Those same politicians would also be barred from ever holding office again.

You should feel good when you vote YES for the “Disqualification from Office for Felony Conviction” amendments.

I have no advice for what to do with the “Expulsion for Gross Misconduct” amendment. Instead of voting YES or NO, I will write-in a few words that cannot be printed in this column. Maybe that is why it is on the back side of the ballot.

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