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Sherwood's Notebook: Let's Try "Ethics" Autonomy

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    A Capitol Hill police officer talks to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray before he was arrested during a protest on Capitol Hill of the restrictions placed on the district as part of the federal budget deal on Monday, April 11, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

    Many of the city’s political leaders piled out of the John A. Wilson Building on Monday to celebrate a crumb of recognition from President Barack Obama.

    The president, who mostly prefers eating in our restaurants to paying real attention to city matters, included a modest statement about D.C. in his budget proposals.

    He said he agrees that the city should have “budget autonomy” to spend its tax revenues without the sluggish approval of Congress every year. It’s a big goal of the District because the city’s budget gets mired in and held up by congressional turf battles that have nothing to do with the District.

    D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton praised the president’s move, saying she had asked him for support during a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday concert at the Kennedy Center.

    City leaders were so busy praising the president’s budget language that no one pointed out that the proposal isn’t actually in the budget itself. The president was merely declaring that he would work with Congress in the future to “pass legislation” on autonomy.

    There’s no fundamental reason to deny the city its right to spend local tax dollars as its leaders see fit. But the politics of scandal could get in the way.

    Some members of Congress -- Republican and Democrat -- may be reluctant to grant any budget freedom until the ethics air clears a bit more.

    The city was already embarrassed this year when former Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr. resigned and pleaded guilty to two felony corruption charges. He’ll be sentenced May 3 -- likely to prison -- just as the Congress is getting down to business on the budget.

    Worse, there are the ongoing federal criminal investigations into campaigns run by Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Both probes have been going on for months, and both have the potential to severely embarrass the city’s political leadership.

    Mayor told us Monday that it would be unfair to continue denying District citizens the right to control their own fiscal affairs. We asked him if the scandal stuff would dampen congressional enthusiasm.

    “I really don’t know,” the mayor replied. “I think that we’ve demonstrated that this city is moving forward. We’ve balanced our budget in ways so many other states have not. I think we’ve proven ourselves to run a government.”

    Gray has made inroads to Republicans who control the House, but the shadow of scandal can snuff out even the best of intentions.

    “We finally have a White House that’s taking somewhat of an interest in supporting our efforts to get budget autonomy, which is important,” said D.C. Council Finance Chair Jack Evans. But he acknowledged that the air of scandal “certainly won’t help.”

    The District wants to press for budget autonomy, statehood and other political rights enjoyed by the states. And, as we have often written, it is admittedly unfair to hold scandal against the District. If scandal were the issue, Maryland would have lost its rights with the conviction of former Gov. Marvin Mandel. The same could be said for many other states.

    The city is at a disadvantage of its own making.

    It has a new ethics law and -- soon, we hope -- a new ethics panel in place to investigate and punish wrongdoing. The city’s established offices of the D.C. auditor, attorney general and inspector general also could toughen their staffs and their approach to ethics.

    We do give credit to former Attorney General Peter Nickels and current AG Irving Nathan for pursuing the Harry Thomas Jr. scandal. Their work laid the foundation for the criminal charges brought by U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen.

    But there is nothing like the fresh air of “ethics autonomy” -- real ethics reform and enforcement -- to clear the air over both the Wilson Building and Capitol Hill, where Congress is watching.

    • One City.

    One big bill. The preliminary bill for the mayor’s One City Summit last Saturday tops $600,000. About 1,700 people participated at the Washington Convention Center. Others participated online. Those who attended got the added advantage of a free lunch and the chance to talk directly with members of the mayor’s staff and cabinet as well as some council members.

    But the Notebook and others still wonder, what was the true benefit? A few people called the $600,000-plus event little more than a “feel good” exercise.

    As we’ve pointed out before, the mayor just four days earlier had given a 58-minute State of the District address in which he laid out his priorities for the coming year. Wouldn’t that speech have more naturally followed the big citizen confab last Saturday?

    • Batter up?

    We just want to mention that the Washington Nationals begin spring training this weekend in Florida. But the ball club already is urging local folks here to buy tickets to the May home series with the Philadelphia Phillies.

    It’s a “Take Back the Park” campaign. The Nats are trying to minimize any repeat of previous games when Phillies fans overwhelmed the ballpark here. For now, the team is selling only to local D.C. area addresses.

    Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has groused his opposition in a letter to Nats owner Ted Lerner. But you can be a home team booster by joining in.