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Judge Orders City to Respond to Citizens’ Complaint That Library System Flouted the Law

By Anthony L. Harvey

The spectacle of DC’s local government engaging in litigious warfare with its own citizens is sadly playing out in yet another chapter of the ongoing saga of the Benning Road Branch Library litigants versus the powers of the District’s Office of the Attorney General and the DC Public Library (DCPL) in the chambers of DC Superior Court.

The case is known in legal nomenclature as Rick Tingling Clemons, et al. versus the District of Columbia. (The et al refers to the seven other named plaintiffs.) The case focuses on the long-closed — now over three years — Benning library building and the library system’s plans for razing the building and considering the movement of its facilitates to an adjacent shopping center, and the long-standing failure of the system to provide interim library services until very recently and under court order.

The plaintiffs have also alleged a failure on the part of the District to meaningfully engage the community in planning for new and expanded library services, and to notify the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) of its plans and actions, as well as a failure to explicitly respond to the ANC’s expressed concerns and recommendations.

The plaintiffs failed in their efforts to secure an injunction to prevent the library building’s razing, and that issue is now moot before the Court. Not moot, however, is the plaintiff’s pleading for protection of the very prominent and advantageous site — the land itself — where the library building once stood.

And in a rare victory for the plaintiffs, Judge Judith E. Retchin ordered the District to respond to their complaint regarding the city’s alleged failure to follow statutory requirements to notify and respond to the ANC on these library and library building matters and to “take any steps necessary to ensure continuous community input in the disposition of any real property. . . .”

Judge Retchin’s December 20, 2007, 17-page order gave the District government a month, until January 21, 2008, to file a written response. This was done on January 18, 2008. In an 11-page document, more than half of which consists of the repetition of stock legal phrases, such as, “The allegations . . . are conclusions of law or of the pleader to which no response is required,” or phrases denoting the dismissals of other of the plaintiff’s complaints or of the names of individuals removed as defendants.

When finally addressing the matters at hand to which Judge Retchin ordered the response, the Attorney General simply pleads the classic legal defenses of local government: “Relief Sought Not Warranted”; “Sovereign Immunity”; “Reasonable Action Within Scope of Employment”; “Lawful Actions Within Scope of Employment”; “Action and Interpretations in Accord With Law” “Actions Within Scope of Employment Undertaken in Reasonable Good Faith.”

The filing concludes with the bald assertion that “Defendant acted at all relevant times in this matter consistently with all applicable laws, rules, regulations, constitutional provisions and standards of care.” Some observers are viewing this as an example of the old saw that if you can’t argue the facts, then argue the law.

Judge Retchin’s December 2007 instructions further ordered a continuation of the December 21, 2007 scheduling conference to February 15, 2008, to be held in DC Superior Courtroom 316.