Category Archives: Government–District of Columbia

A charter amendment to amend the charter

On this blog, I have criticized two amendments to the Home Rule Charter of the District of Columbia, one providing for election of the attorney general and another for expulsion of the mayor and members of the council.

The approval of both amendments by popular vote seems to result from D.C. voters’ rush to embrace anything that sounds like reform. Furthermore, it seems that many voters don’t know or think about proposed charter amendments until election day and vote “yes” or “no” without having any informed consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of the proposal in question. (I am guilty of this also.)

I don’t see much opportunity for informed deliberation on charter amendments when they are put on the ballot. Note that the U.S. Constitution is amended not by popular vote but through a process that provides many opportunities for deliberation in state legislatures and in Congress.

A way to improve the process for D.C. charter amendments could be to replace approval by popular election with approval by a supermajority (2/3 or 3/4) of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. (This would, I think, require amending the charter by popular vote!) ANC meetings would thus provide a formal opportunity for citizens to learn about proposed amendments and to hear and discuss diverse views of them. Involving the ANCs in this way would ensure that approval or rejection of a charter amendment is the result of an informed, moderated discussion rather than a reaction to a scandal or a rush to promote change under the illusion of a more ethical and responsive government.

Would you have voted for John Ashcroft?

Attorneys General: Elected vs. Appointed

I recently replied to a tweet about D.C.’s electing an attorney general by contending that election entails almost as many pitfalls as appointment does. Someone from the District of Columbia then asked me to explain my point, and I promised that I would do so. The result is this paper (PDF) about the advantages and disadvantages of electing or appointing an attorney general. Although I strongly favor the Federal nomination-confirmation method of selecting executive-branch officers, my paper does not argue strongly in favor of appointment because I did not find any compelling reasons to prefer one over the other. Instead, I present my best and worst reasons to appoint or elect an attorney general as follows.

Best Reason Worst Reason
Appoint Deliberative selection process, though often influenced by politics Turnover, especially because of reassignments to other positions
Elect Stability, though not guaranteed Influence of campaign contributions

To expound on the matter of stability, I had wanted to compare average tenures of attorneys general in select appointment states to the averages in comparable election states, but the data required was not readily available. Neither Wyoming nor New Hampshire, both appointment states, list past attorneys general on their websites, although New Jersey does. A resource that might have this data is Powers And Duties Of The Attorneys General, 3rd ed. (Emily Myers, Editor), published by the National Association of Attorneys General.

The Elusive Legislative Calendar

Are you a civically-engaged D.C. resident who learns about council hearings only after they have been held? Then I have some good news. The D.C. Council is working to improve the way it disseminates public notices of hearings and other legislative activities, according to an e-mail that I received from Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

At Mendelson’s request, improvements to the website are already being made. I can now go to http://dccouncil.us/calendar and view the legislative calendar for all committees in chronological order. Prior to this, I had to view a separate calendar for each committee.

Furthermore, in response to a suggestion that I made, Mendelson also plans to direct the Council’s technology office to consider e-mail services (such as Constant Contact) for disseminating notices. (The legislative calendar has been available by e-mail, but you had to request it from the right person.)

I hope that these improvements lead to more participation by individual citizens and better-informed deliberation in the legislative process.

Expulsion of Due Process

On November 6 voters in the District of Columbia will have an opportunity to vote on ethics laws that, if passed, would be included as amendments to the Home Rule Charter. Proposed Charter Amendment V provides for the expulsion of councilmembers for gross misconduct. The legislative text from the D.C. Register is the following.

By a 5/6 vote of its members, the Council may adopt a resolution of expulsion if it finds, based on substantial evidence, that a member of the Council took an action that amounts to a gross failure to meet the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. Expulsion is the most severe punitive action, serving as a penalty imposed for egregious wrongdoing. Expulsion results in the removal of the member. Expulsion should be used in cases in which the Council determines that the violation of law committed by a member is of the most serious nature, including those violations that substantially threaten the public trust. To protect the exercise of official member duties and the overriding principle of freedom of speech, the Council shall not impose expulsion on any member for the exercise of his or her First Amendment right, no matter how distasteful the expression of that right was to the Council and the District, or in the official exercise of his or her office.
The Council shall include in its Rules of Organization procedures for investigation, and consideration of, the expulsion of a member.

If you are a D.C. resident, then I urge you to reject Proposed Charter Amendment V for the following reasons.
1. The legislative text contains vague criteria for expulsion.
2. It does not guarantee due process of law.
3. Because of its political nature, a legislature should never have the authority to remove one of its own members.

Charter Amendment V is a dangerous proposition and must therefore be rejected.

Merit Pay for the D.C. Council


A salary plan that is based on teacher pay, the minimum wage, and the unemployment rate is proposed for the Council of the District of Columbia. Under the plan, higher salaries result from raising teacher pay or the minimum wage or from lower unemployment rates. The plan could be adapted to almost any full-time state legislature. The full proposal is posted on this site in a PDF file.

The governments of the District of Columbia and many states have been imposing merit pay on teachers, so it seems fair to turn the tables on our legislators and subject them to a merit pay plan. I am proposing a plan for the Council of the District of Columbia that is based on teacher salaries, the minimum wage, and the unemployment rate. This plan forces the Council to live with what they legislate, provides an incentive to improve the welfare of workers, and ensures that D.C. residents get something in return for money spent on council salaries.

My plan consists of two components, a base salary and a bonus. The base equals the annual equivalent of the minimum wage plus the salary of public-school teachers with only a bachelor’s degree and no experience. With current figures, the base salary would be 8.25 x 52 x 40 + 49,085 = 66,245. The bonus is determined by the unemployment rate so that lower unemployment rates bring higher bonuses. I recommend a bonus cap of 55,000 because this amount added to the base salary is 121,000, which is close to current Council salaries.

The bonus amount for the next fiscal year is calculated by multiplying the cap by a factor whose value ranges between 0 and 1. This factor, call it p, is calculated by applying a formula (specified in the full proposal) to the unemployment rate from a specified period of time. If unemployment decreases from the previous year, the factor increases, and thus the bonus increases. Likewise, if unemployment increases, the bonus decreases. The salary is calculated by multiplying the bonus cap times the factor and adding that product to the base, that is, salary = 66245 + 55000 x p.

An Elected Board for WMATA

This is a letter that I sent to D.C. Councilmembers Mary Cheh (Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) about electing D.C. representatives to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board.

At past WMATA hearings on proposed service cuts and fare increases, I have demanded an elected board that consists of riders who are elected by riders.

Dear Ms. Cheh:

Everyday, five Metro stations and least twelve Metrobus routes are used to take Ward 3 residents to their work or leisure destinations. I am sure that you are aware of the safety and budget problems that WMATA has had over the last few years. Considering the people who have sat on the board, I am not surprised that these problems persist.

The WMATA board has failed to formulate a dedicated funding plan and solve other long-standing problems because its members do not have to live with the consequences of their failures. They do not know what it’s like to take two buses to work, often waiting 20-30 minutes for the second bus, or how it feels to walk up a long escalator that is not running. Furthermore, I doubt that any of the board members is feeling the impact of the recent fare increases as much as the working poor are.

Before the recent turnover on the board, only one of the four board members from the District of Columbia rode Metrobus or Metrorail, according to a February 22, 2009, article in The Washington Post. The other three–Jim Graham, Michael Brown, and Neil Albert–refused to use the transit system. Brown also regularly missed meetings, according to the Washington Examiner. Graham, Albert, and Brown have left the board, but their replacements were selected in the same manner–by appointment.

Recently, D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown abused the appointment privilege by removing Tommy Wells, a dedicated user of public transportation, from the board.

The failure of the WMATA board to solve long-standing problems and its vulnerability to political abuses illustrate why its members should be elected rather than appointed. Bus and subway riders, not SUV drivers, should decide who sits on the board, and it should consist of riders who are elected by riders. District residents, preferably Metro riders exclusively, should have the opportunity elect their representatives to the WMATA board.