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City Council Takes Off for Summer Break Leaving Us Dangling

Where to start? We suppose the obvious would be the Council’s “living wage” bill. While the intentions are good, there is much that might not be good. But this is a subject that requires a commentary of its own.

Next we have to wonder about the sudden move — by an eight to five vote — to, in effect, cancel next year’s long-awaited opportunity to actually vote for who should be the District’s Attorney General, hitherto a mayoral appointment. A referendum nearly three years ago, clearly showed that a substantial majority — 76 percent (!) — of voters wish to elect the AG, and the Council initiated the process with enabling legislation that set the stage for next year’s addition to the ballot.

Now, just the night before we sat down to prepare this commentary, the Council reversed itself and voted to postpone the electing of the AG until 2018! No hearings, nothing, just canceling the deal. According to the next day’s report in the Washington Post, the rationale expressed by of some council members was “the lack of candidates, the argument over the scope of the office and the general ongoing uncertainty.” This last one is truly odd. As the Post’s Mike DeBonis somewhat sarcastically –- but with good reason —  opined in his “District of DePonis” column, “Of course, the lack of candidates is due to the general ongoing uncertainty which is due in turn to the Council arguing over the scope of the office and voting to delay the election.”

But why this hysteria over lack of candidate at this early date? After all, the Council just now has pushed the 2014 primary forward from April to June next year; there is no reason to believe that between now and when the primary campaign season heats up there won’t be viable candidates. Why should we think that just because the mayoral primary race is underway at this much too early time, that should be the way to go for attorney general candidates?

And, as for the contretemps over the scope of the AG’s authority, we think it is disgraceful that after more than two years knowing this was going to happen that neither the lead council members nor the mayor have yet to agree. The big hang-up seems to revolve around the question of how can the AG, who is the prosecutor on behalf of the citizens also be counsel to the office of the mayor at the same time? We hardly think this should be something that can’t be resolved, especially since there is a perfectly sensible way to get around this otherwise potential conflict of interest: Do as they do elsewhere. For example, in New York City, while there is no AG (that’s a state position) there are five district attorneys –- one for each borough –- and a corporation counsel whose office advises the mayor and executive branch agencies. So, why not here? Simple and straight-forward separation between prosecutor and municipal legal counsel. Just do it!

Moving on from the serious to the petty, the Council has indicated its desire to ban outdoor smoking within 25 feet of city-owned parks, recreation and community centers, trails (more on that later), and bus stops –- though it’s not clear if those are just Metro stops or also include the places where tourist busses or the independent long-distance busses pick up passengers. For persons out on sidewalks along busy streets, we hardly think a few errant whiffs of cigarette smoke is something to be concerned about; if the Council really wants to protect pedestrians from the harmful carcinogens that permeate our streets, then they should ban all vehicles powered by fossil fuels (except, possibly, natural gas). We assume they won’t give that a try since they know they will be hooted off the dais.

And, what’s meant by trails? We think of trails as hiking trails winding through sylvan park-like settings. If that’s what is covered, then if trails are winding through city-owned parks those are covered by the park clause; but what about bike trails which in many places –- if not most – are more like narrow streets than pastoral walking trails?

Finally, what about concern for the health and safety of pedestrians on all sidewalks everywhere? Having voted to penalize operators of motor vehicles for failing to yield to cyclists, why was there no provision for penalizing cyclists for failing to yield to pedestrians both on sidewalks and in crosswalks in the streets? Do the council members share the view of some that because bicycle collisions with pedestrians hardly ever are reported while motor vehicle and bicycle collisions are regularly reported, therefore the former almost never happen? If that is their thinking (kind of like the falling tree in the forest where nobody was there to witness it conumdrum), we posit that they should keep in mind that it is collisions with motor vehicles that routinely involve the police who then write up reports; when was the last time anyone saw an MPD officer taking a report of a bicycle-pedestrian collision incident?