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DC Bureaucrats’ Penchant for Regulating Seems Never-ending Even When Pointless

We recently received a copy of an email sent last month by a DC resident to the director of the District’s health department, Dr. LaQuandra S. Nesbitt, which read, in part, as follows:

“My neighborhood of Columbia Heights is requesting that you and your office conduct an investigation into who created the ‘dogs on the patio’ crisis disrupting many of our lives. This old, arbitrary regulation has been on the books for many years [notwithstanding that] for at least 32 years, DC residents have enjoyed taking their dogs to the patio[s]. So, what happened?  Who caused this crisis?

 “Please take action. Maybe we need to examine enforcement and implementation first, NOW. This is ridiculous!”

Indeed this is. Washington, DC is supposedly a world-class city; world-class cities do not treat canine companions (as they are known in progressive places like San Francisco) as dirty, disease-ridden pariahs. But, apparently, all of a sudden — completely without warning — one day out of the blue: A Big Enforcement Crackdown!

As the Washington Post reported on October 3rd, that afternoon the DC Council “unanimously decided to end a ban prohibiting canines from bar and restaurant patios.” The report further continued,

“For years, the ban went unenforced, and a host of dog-friendly bars and restaurants thrived in the increasingly young and affluent city.

“But the health department began enforcing the ban in September, telling the owner at Midlands, a beer garden in Parkview, and Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights that the pups on their patios had to go.”

We congratulate Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, who chairs the Council’s committee charged with oversight of the District’s health department’s policies and operations, for having so speedily introducing legislation –- and for the Council’s swift action — to overturn that idiotically pointless enforcement. Now, and without any doubts, owners of food establishments will be free to decide for themselves how to meet the desires of their patrons.

Referring to what Gray characterized as “regulatory overreach” as the Post wrote, he “said the health department should devote its resources to serious ‘health equity challenges,’ including its deeply troubled public hospital and widespread opioid crisis.”

Once again, the Council had to admonish the Mayor to see to it that her government’s focus and spending priorities need to be on genuinely important stuff and not time- and money-wasting regulatory harassment like the chicken coop craziness about which we commented on in his space back in May.

That’s when we wrote that Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh may have said it best, as reported by the Post: “’It’s just so absurd that it almost makes your jaw drop,’ . . . expressing astonishment that large sections of Bowser’s 2018 Budget Support Act were devoted to what she considered quixotic animal regulations.”

It’s almost as if Councilmember Cheh was anticipating that the Mayor, even though she backed down on the backyard chickens (though we are not sure about her threat at the same time to require that house cats be licensed), was likely to forget that lesson learned — and seemingly unlearned — that it would be necessary for yet another public reprimand, this time by Councilmember Gray who virtually echoed Councilmember Cheh’s very words.

And, again, the Mayor got the message. But for how long? What is needed is for her to call her department and agency heads together and deliver a stern warning to back off the myriad petty proddings of individuals and small business people and concentrate on preventing truly potentially serious circumvention of reasonable rules to ensure the health and safety of the public at large.

And other council members have also been focusing on departmental and agency enforcement activities and whether or not they have their priorities in the right place. For example, as we noted in our April commentary, we were impressed with a comment that At-Large Councilmember Robert C. White, Jr. included in his constituent e-newsletter regarding the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at the time:

“I was particularly concerned about substandard inspections of rental properties without any enforcement, and illegal construction that contributes to shoddy home redevelopments and damage to neighboring properties. I was not convinced that DCRA fully recognizes the magnitude of illegal construction or how it affects residents. I also explained how DCRA needs to step up their enforcement on vacant and blighted properties, which impact neighborhoods that are struggling to turn the corner. I was clear that I will continue to examine their performance on these fronts.”

We are hopeful that with council members like these — and others not given credit here due to lack of space — the Council will focus even more intently on the concerns expressed here.

[Note: On the day following publication of this commentary, a piece by Mark Lee, who writes on issues facing the small business sector for the Washington Blade, addressed the same issue as we have done above. We commend his contribution to the discussion, aptly titled “Dogs teach D.C. Council, city regulators a new trick.” Among other things, he recounts just how it was that some out-of-control (our words, though we are certain Mark Lee will echo us) bureaucrat in the District’s health department sicced (as in dogs) an especially aggressive inspector to go charging into some Bloomingdale café patios for a starter.]