Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 11/23/11

D.C. Council member introduces ethics bill

As Thanksgiving was arriving this week, Ward 4 D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser was serving up some substantial ethics reforms that her colleagues will now taste and chew over for weeks.

We hope what’s left after it’s been picked at will be a strong ethics bill that’s woefully needed.

“The bill responds specifically to recent ethical lapses,” Bowser told the Notebook on Monday, “by subjecting elected officials to strict penalties, criminal and civil; to enhanced disclosure of potential conflicts of interest; and to limits on the use of constituent services funds.”

She said the new enforcement system would “sheriff any future misdeeds. It's a serious effort to restore the public's trust in its representatives." (That’s all well said, we thought, although it may be the first time we’ve ever seen “sheriff” used as a verb.)

One key reform would create a new, three-member ethics panel with teeth. It would be able to subpoena witnesses and information and assess fines of up to $5,000 for each violation. It would be funded and truly staffed. It would be independent. It would oversee the mayor, the council, advisory neighborhood commissioners and top government officials.

In serious cases, council members would be removed from any committee chairmanships and could be barred from voting in committees.

A second reform would slash constituent services funds -- slush funds -- from $80,000 to the original amount of $40,000. Your Notebook was in the council chamber a while back when the council giddily -- and that’s the only word that fits -- raised the limit to $80,000.

The money is supposed to be used for true constituent emergencies or community events, but there’s little accountability.

Other changes would limit contributions to popular “defense funds” that now are shielded from public view. (Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas is currently repaying $300,000 to the city; it’s not clear to the Notebook how Thomas is repaying the funds, and current law doesn’t require disclosure of whether those funds are coming from a defense fund or some other source.)

Lawyers hired to represent any official would not be able to charge discounted rates. Inaugural and “transition” committees -- overt versions of slush funds -- would have, for the first time, stringent limits and reporting requirements.

(For example, Council Chairman Kwame Brown briefly publicized his transition expenditures and then withdrew them from public view. When your Notebook, independent analyst/political adviser Chuck Thies and others asked recently to see the documents, Brown declined. He said they had already been made public.)

The proposal by Bowser, which synthesized about 10 different bills into one, would not ban outside employment or prohibit contributions from lobbyists.

As we wrote in The Washington Post recently, we believe “disclose, disclose, disclose” is the best approach in a democratic form of government. With enough disclosure, the people can decide whether to re-elect someone and the ethics committee can decide whether a misbehaving official should be fined and/or prosecuted.

Let’s have a heaping helping of ethics for Thanksgiving that we can all be thankful about.

• Let ‘em hear you.

So, you want to have your say on the ethics package?

Bowser has scheduled a hearing on her comprehensive bill for Nov. 30 at 11 a.m. in the council chamber.

Let’s have a good turnout, folks. But, please, everyone keep to the three-minute rule. Know what you’re going to say, say it, and then make room for the next person. We’ll all be thankful for that, too.

• YouTube mayor.

Surely it’s the end of social media as we know it. Mayor Vincent Gray is starting to put some of his speeches and other events on YouTube. He apparently thinks citizens don’t get enough of him on Channel 16.

“In the media age,” the mayor said in his release, “it is important to be as accessible as possible to the public.”

We admit to looking at all sorts of funny and weird stuff on YouTube, but we never thought of it as a C-SPAN kind of operation.

• Rehab and history.

There’s so much going on in the world of renovation and historic preservation that we’re just going to summarize a few things of interest:

  • Wonders of wonders. The city’s Historic Preservation Review Board has declared the “Wonder Bread Factory” (7th and S streets NW) an individual landmark. The proposal was made by the D.C. Preservation League and developer Doug Jemal’s company. Take a ride by the site. The extraordinary brickwork alone is worth saving. The original building dates to 1913.
  • Old Post Office Building. The towering structure at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW has one of the best views of downtown Washington you can get, especially since the Washington Monument is closed. But plans by the federal General Services Administration to revamp the building (again) have been delayed until next year. The site has drawn interest from several folks, including Hilton Worldwide and Ivana Trump.
  • Cardozo and Dunbar. Two of the city’s storied high schools are finally on the list. Cardozo, which sits atop 13th and Clifton streets NW, is getting a $100 million makeover. It has one of the best panoramic views of Washington, and its faculty wants it to be one of the best schools in the city. Meanwhile, the hideous Dunbar building at 3rd Street and New Jersey Avenue NW will be torn down. Dunbar used to have a classic school building until a 1960s Brutalist monstrosity was built in its place. The new new Dunbar will be a modern glass structure that will make the students proud.
  • Carnegie Library. The long-suffering Carnegie is a spectacular building that sits on a plot of land right in front of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. But the Carnegie has suffered because the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., couldn’t afford to turn it into something. Now DC Events, the city’s sports and convention management team, is taking over the building. There is hope that the classic library will become a restaurant and gathering place, in addition to the home to historic treasures that are now there and unseen.

If we get even a little of all this done, we can all be thankful for more than one turkey-filled day.

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