August 4, 2011 | by Peter Rosenstein
Make Council member a full-time job

The lack of ethical behavior on the part of some D.C. City Council members cries out for its members to clean up their act and enact a serious ethics law.

There has always been the hint of inappropriateness with their Constituent Service Funds, so it’s time to abolish them. Instead of doling out unregulated cash from what are in essence slush funds, Council members should be able to share information with constituents on where they can go to get help — whether it’s a city agency, non-profit or local faith-based organization.

The District has limited options to rid itself of politicians charged with a crime but not convicted. In the case of Council member Harry Thomas, Jr. we are in the same position as the Prince George’s County Council was with Leslie Johnson. Until she was convicted of a felony they couldn’t force her resignation. They did what our Council has done to Thomas, namely stripping him of his committee chairmanship and marginalizing him. Unfortunately that hurts the people he represents so you would think he would step aside in their interest. But since that can’t be forced, it could take the people of Ward 5 rising up against him. Some other Council members are under a cloud as well, which makes it difficult for them to speak out against Thomas.

It’s time we rethink the job of Council member and make it a full-time position. Council members work hard and have the responsibility of both city and state legislators in one office. Those doing their jobs well work many hours and are responsive to their constituents. But there have always been conflicts of interest with their second jobs. Some work for consulting firms or law firms whose clients have interests in the District. They may be as honest as the day is long but those conflicts are there, even if only in appearance.

For full-time service we could raise the salary to $150,000 and be assured that many highly qualified people would run for the job. They may not want to stay for 20 years if they feel they need more money for their families but that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It would truly be public service.

The ethics issues are getting in the way of highlighting some of the positive things that the Council and the administration are accomplishing. The outstanding issues with the mayor’s campaign aren’t helping the situation either. Some of our local newspapers and columnists find it more interesting to report on the ethics problems than on the work that is being done. I am not blaming them for the problems or making excuses for anyone, but more balanced reporting and editorials, highlighting both the good and the bad, would be helpful for residents.

Mayor Gray released a report on the first 200 days of his administration and there are some really positive things happening. Many have been glossed over as not headline worthy or relegated to the inside pages while ethical lapses are on page one. Maybe they could share page one. Noteworthy accomplishments include a Republican congressional

committee chair saying he wants to work with Mayor Gray to move forward on additional budget autonomy for the District.

Then there is the smooth operation of the 14,000-strong summer youth employment program; the Ward 8 citizen summit that attracted more than 600 attendees; the continued forward movement on education reform that now includes working with charter schools, which serve 39 percent of the District’s children; and breaking ground on City Center with potentially 1,350 temporary construction jobs and 3,500 permanent jobs. Add to that securing Grad School USA as a permanent tenant at The Wharf in Southwest, the new HIV/AIDS Commission, and submitting and passing a fiscally and structurally sound and balanced budget. Not too shabby for the first six months.

The administration and the Council have shown a renewed focus on hate crimes and domestic violence issues, and have begun to insist that the police chief work with the LGBT community.

Ethics violators, wherever and whoever they are, must feel the bright light of public scrutiny and crimes must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But at the same time, the work of government goes on and we must report on the issues facing all communities, and on administration and Council successes in dealing with them, by shining that same bright light there.

2 Comments
  • I disagree with raising the salary. If you look at cities across the county, our councilmembers are paid well for being allowed to hold a second job (no where is the Council position described as part-time, instead the law states that only the Chair may not hold outside employment). Council members in Honolulu make under 50k a year for a much larger city as do Councilmember in other large cities. The Chair, and many members, have managed to scrape by on a salary that is twice the Washington Area Medium Income and three times the District’s Medium income. If we raise the Council, the Mayor will want a raise then all of his subordinates, I agree with the rest of the article otherwise. It would also weed out people who do not want to make public service their first priority.

  • I’ve been saying for years that our council members should be forbidden from holding other paid employment while they serve on the council. No matter the job, there is always the possibility of a conflict of interest, as the council debates and votes on legislation which affects every facet of the city. In smaller cities and communities where public servants are paid a modest or token salary, and where they may spend a relatively few hours a week on council business, it makes sense for them to continue other employment. But not here, not with the rather generous salaries we pay them. And a good big-city council member already puts in more than a 40-hour work week doing council business, meeting with constituents, etc. They don’t need to spend time on outside employment, especially when the possible or perceived conflict of interest doesn’t pass the smell test.

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