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DC Council At-large Member Special Election Got Us Wondering, Why Can’t We Do Better?

Regular readers of our monthly commentaries no doubt noticed that, unlike council elections in years past, we offered no endorsement. That nobody has so far inquired of us why that was, we think it probably is a reflection of the astounding lack of interest that was evident by the paltry turnout –- of 505,698 registered voters only 57,041 bothered to cast a ballot. Well, those who didn’t vote can’t complain –- you get what you voted (or didn’t) vote for! But this commentator did vote.

As for the winner, Anita Bonds, who was voted into office by only approximately four percent of all eligible voters, all we can say is that she is so last century; there had to be other candidates who could appeal as being of the 21st century. Well, there was one who apparently did appeal to a more forward-looking segment of the electorate –- and we don’t necessarily mean the “millennials” exclusively: Elissa Silverman.

We, however, were dubious about her as a prospective member of the council. We thought her to be too much of a know-it-all; we were concerned that she would not be one that could help restore to the council the collegiality and civility among its members that it seems to have lost in recent years. We need this restored; we need them all to work as a team on behalf of the citizens. That doesn’t mean they all have to agree with each other or all vote in lockstep; it only means they have to act like mature adults and not like kindergarten brats when they think nobody is looking. But we are looking, not just when they behave badly on the dais but also when they are meeting in the back rooms.

But, getting back to our concern about Elissa Silverman, it wasn’t just this negative “vibe” about her, it was also brought on by two specific, reported responses she offered to interviewers. For example, in one interview she stated that she should not be held accountable for all the views held by her employer: “I was a reporter, and I reinvented myself, and I’ll reinvent myself again on the council” (emphasis supplied). This sure reminded this writer of “Etch A Sketch” Romney! Is that what we want from our council members? We think not.

Then there was the time she was being asked about finance and revenue matters that she categorically stated that DC residents don’t mind paying taxes, or words of similar import. Our take-away from that observation was that she would just be another one of those council members who never meet a dollar they can’t wait to spend. Again, we don’t need that either.

That brings us to another complaint about our council members and helps explain why there is so much antipathy about some of them. A perfect example which just played out during the 24-hour period that we were finalizing this issue was the bomblet dropped on May 8th by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham that they found a way to raise more dollars, presumably without raising taxes, by hiking the annual sidewalk café and patio fees by a staggering 40 percent –- with no apparent thought as to the unintended consequences of the fiscal hardship that would accrue to the mostly small, locally owned establishments that are lucky if they can realize a three-to-four percent profit margin. What this could mean, in addition to hardship for hard-working neighborhood business owners, is either higher prices to customers or even closing down, in either case, not a way to encourage vibrant neighborhoods where people actually want to live.

Well, the good news is that in just 24 hours both council members came to their senses and withdrew their proposal. Wouldn’t it have been better to consult in advance with business owners to at least find out how such a fee increase would affect them and gauge whether it was an idea worth pursuing before causing the turmoil that ensued?

There are even more complaints about the culture of the council that has encouraged many to step over the ethical line about which much has been written and need not be regurgitated here.

Also of concern to many citizens is the way some members have a penchant to get too deeply into the weeds of regulatory agency territory rather than maintaining appropriate transparency in their oversight and constituent servicing roles. The recent action by the new Board of Ethics and Government Accountability “admonishing” At-large Councilmember Vincent Orange for interfering with a city health inspector that was attempting to shut down a wholesale food establishment owned by one of Orange’s supporters due to serious –- as reported, actually disgusting — health violation. We think “admonishment” was much too lenient, but at least it is a start to send out a message to the politicians.