Opinion: Phil Mendelson – New Sheriff in Town?

In June, Phil Mendelson was selected by his peers to chair the D.C. Council. The temporary appointment was necessary because then-Chairman Kwame Brown resigned. Brown had other things to do, like plead guilty to felony bank fraud and campaign finance misdemeanor charges.

As interim chairman, Mendelson went about his work quietly. He made no dramatic changes to the way the Council did business. He also breezed through the special election to fill Brown’s term through 2014.

Now the real work begins.

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The Council was in a state of chaos during the first half of 2012. Scandals, guilty pleas, resignations…

Even before law enforcement stepped in, Brown’s tenure was a slow moving train wreck. He consolidated power and handed out assignments with little rhyme or reason beyond what suited his political agenda du jour.

Mendelson has quite a mess to mop up. Reorganizing the Council will not be easy.

If the newly elected Chair is serious about showing his colleagues --and more importantly District residents-- that he intends to get tough and demand excellence, he should begin by assigning leadership positions based on competence.

First and foremost is the matter of an Education Committee. For more than five years the committee has been under the direct control of the Chair. It is time to create an Education Committee chaired by a Council member with a track record of dogged oversight and legislative ingenuity.

Next is the Committee on Economic Development. Michael Brown currently leads that committee, but after being defeated on Tuesday he has fewer than two months left in office.

And then there is the Committee on the Judiciary, which Mendelson currently directs.

Let the game of musical chairs commence.

Mendelson has great sway over what the final product will look like. He is under no obligation to bestow upon each member a chairmanship. Indeed, when he arrived to the Council in 1999, rookies were not given leadership posts. After two years on the job a member might be awarded a sub-committee.

So what should Mendelson do?

He would be wise to limit the number of committees. Combine existing legislative and oversight responsibilities, clip the wings of a few members and toss the seniority system out the window.

Evaluate Council members based on performance. Slackers and less-ethical members do not deserve the power or prestige associated with chairing a plum committee.

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