Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 05/26/10

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCWashington.com

    Last week, the 13 members of the D.C. Council gathered around a conference table to hash out differences over the city's next budget and a looming $500 million shortfall.

    Jobs, government programs and potential new taxes and fees were all on the table.

    Council Chairman Vincent Gray won praise in some places for allowing a lone television camera to broadcast the hours-long meeting on cable TV channel 13. The effort was billed as a new, open approach, allowing any citizen to listen to the meeting.

    And it was a far cry from previous years when the meetings were held in secret.

    Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser called the setup "a great leap forward." But hold your applause, please.

    While reporters who regularly cover city government were allowed to take peaks in the room to gage the process, they weren't allowed to remain in the room. And no camera or recording device was allowed except for that of the government channel.

    People watching on TV got a solitary shot of whatever the cable person decided to shoot, which was usually Chairman Gray or someone responding to him.

    What reporters -- and the people -- missed might have been significant.

    But we won't know.

    Those watching on TV could neither hear everything nor see everything going on in the room. There were side conversations among council members and staff. Knowing glances or grimaces gave those in the room an idea of how people were reacting to proposed cuts or other changes. But you didn't see that on TV.

    You didn't see staff aides whispering in the ears of council members, or guiding them to this or that document.

    In other words, you didn't really see or hear the meeting. You just got the headlines.

    The budget is so challenging this year that there were some discussions of maybe postponing the vote scheduled for today.

    But that doesn't excuse the secrecy of this semi-public meeting. Even the hallway outside of the conference room was closed to the public. There were two and sometimes three armed police officers standing guard. No member of the public was allowed to be outside the conference room, and that included activists who were there to lobby council members for this or that program.

    Members of the public were shuttled off to a meeting room on a different floor, making it impossible for them to see who was going in or out of the room. They might as well have been watching from Blue Plains.

    Chairman Gray's staff said the restriction was just to keep noise down in the hallway. The staffers say the noise bothers the elected council members.

    Well, the Notebook is more bothered by an inconsistent, anti-public-disclosure use of police to cordon off the public from such discussions.

    Better that the council members go back to the old way of meeting in secret and making secret deals. It would be more honest.

    Their halfhearted public disclosure of crucial budget negotiations is just that: halfhearted.

    • Nickel-and-dimed.

    There isn't enough space to list all the fees and fines being jacked up to help balance the budget. Safe to say, you'll be hit by probably more than one of them.(For example, the residential parking fee goes from $15 to $25 per year.)

    The council is stitching together the 2011 budget in part by taking $165 million out of savings. That's not going over too well with Wall Street. The city's reserves have fallen from nearly $1.5 billion to just about $860 million over the past few years. 

    Some people are suggesting that by drawing on savings, the city risks a return of the federal financial control board that took over the city government in the late 1990s.

    Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans is basically jumping up and down and waving his arms in a futile argument to warn the council that it needs to cut more rather than depend on short-term, one-time savings.

    And the long list of fee increases won't cut it, he said. "We can't keep nickel-and-diming the taxpayers," he said. But it's an election year, and true cuts may be too much to ask.

    Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells has said that the city will be laying off more employees as tax revenues stay depressed. But no one wants to hear that, at least not until after the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

    • First place.

    Former Ward 5 Council member Vincent Orange should get some kind of award for the quick appearance of his campaign posters. Orange is running for council chairman. His principal opponent is at-large Council member Kwame Brown, whose posters are showing up pretty quickly, too. We still believe this could be a very entertaining campaign.

    • Will he, or won’t he?

    You may have forgotten, but wealthy developer R. Donohue Peebles is still -- still -- weighing a race for mayor. He's missed several self-imposed deadlines to declare his intentions. He's given some speeches, and he's got a pretty good campaign narrative down pat. He just has to decide whether he's ever going to give the speech as a candidate.