D.C. Council member Tommy Wells is now taking aim at his fellow members' specialized "constituent services funds," but he's like to face a tough fight with his colleagues.
Council members raise their constituent service funds from private donors, and the money is supposed to go to residents in need. But after a series of controversies involving the funds, Wells is calling for their elimination.
In theory, says Wells, constituent service funds are a great way to help residents in a bind: a check here for a resident whose power has been shut off, a check there to help cover costly funeral arrangements -- all of it paid for with private donations, not taxpayer money.
"But frankly, in practice, the way the constituent funds have operated, it's undermined the confidence that we are being above-board and not influence peddling," says Wells.
The funds have been an ongoing source of controversy this year. Council member Yvette Alexander was fined for using her constituent service fund to pay for a campaign-related robo-call. Council member Jack Evans was criticized for spending nearly $140,000 from his fund on professional sports tickets over the past decade.
When the advocacy group DC for Democracy crunched the numbers from 2010, it found that only $1 out of every $8 raised for constituent services funds was actually spent on constituent needs like rental assistance or utility bills. Instead, most of the money was spent on catering, office supplies, sports tickets, and council breakfasts. In other cases, the funds were directed to local community groups.
Wells understands why the funds are popular with his colleagues. "It's a way to get folks, other than through taxes, to donate money to help," he says. "But certainly, the way they have been used ... I would support eliminating the constituent services funds, just to remove that issue."
Wells is the first council member to call for an outright elimination of the constituent services funds model.
The ethics reform bill the council is currently considering would slash the maximum annual amount of constituent services funds in half, from $80,000 to $40,000. The reduction has been heavily opposed by some council members, including Yvette Alexander, who says the fund helps many of the needy residents in her ward.
"It goes beyond the scope of rental assistance, utility assistance. You support a lot community efforts out there," Alexander says. "A lot of our associations don't have the funding they need. So I am definitely going to fight tooth and nail to keep the $80,000 base."
Asked her opinion of a council member that would eliminate the funds altogether, Alexander doesn't pull any punches. "I would say they are definitely not a ward representative," she says. "And they definitely don’t meet the need of the constituents that they serve."
But Wells, who represents Ward 6, says eliminating the funds will remove the issue, and show the council is serious about good government.