Big Day for Cheh

Councilmember introduces several key bills

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    D.C. Council
    Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh

    Ward 3’s Mary Cheh is the face to watch during the new session of the D.C. Council.

    Cheh put her career on the line by endorsing Vincent Gray for mayor last summer over Adrian Fenty -- who went on to win nearly 80 person of the ward’s Democratic vote. The dissatisfaction with Cheh’s embrace of Gray was so strong that for a while, it looked like Cheh could actually lose to Republican David Hedgepeth.

    But the gamble paid off. With Gray now mayor, Cheh has been rewarded by his ally Kwame Brown with the ceremonial number-two slot on the panel -- ousting Fenty loyalist Jack Evans -- and is emerging as the leading figure on the Council’s ruling progressive bloc.

    Cheh had a busy Tuesday, introducing several high-profile bills. The first, the Winter Sidewalk Safety Amendment Act of 2011, would allow the imposition of fines of $25 on residents and $250 on businesses that do not clear their sidewalks within eight hours of the end of a snowfall.

    It’s a practical measure, and hardly unheard of -- Alexandria and Frederick have similar laws, as do other large cities like New York -- but it is hard to see how a government can compel private citizens to perform labor on public property. That sounds like involuntary servitude. Still, the measure will probably pass easily.

    Cheh’s other big new bill, the Delinquent Debt Recovery Act of 2011, will be more controversial. It would create a “Central Collections Unit” -- not a “24”-like secret agency, but a single District government debt collection office. “Agencies should be focused on their core competencies -- ensuring compliance and providing public services,” Cheh said. “They simply are not equipped to spend energy and resources hunting down delinquent debts.”

    The CCU proposal makes sense. The District is anticipating a budget deficit of nearly a half-billion dollars in the next fiscal year. The $300 million the city is owed in unpaid parking and traffic tickets would cover more than half of the gap. Of course, even CCU would not be able to get back most of the money, but a specialized unit focusing entirely on debt collection would be better than the current norm: occasional “amnesties” that bring in just a tiny share of what’s due. (The D.C. DMV is mulling a ticket amnesty that it predicts would bring in $6 million, or a whopping 2 percent of what is owed.)

    “We have left millions of dollars on the table,” Cheh said. “While debt-amnesty programs may address our current budget woes, they do not address the larger structural problem.”

    Cheh also introduced the Reliable Electric Service Amendment Act of 2011, which “would establish reliability performance standards and authorize the Public Service Commission, the entity responsible for overseeing the electrical grid in D.C., to impose penalties on utilities that do not meet those standards,” and the Distributed Generation Amendment Act of 2011, which “would reduce the load on the District’s distribution grid by increasing the amount of solar energy used in D.C.”  

    Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC