By MERRICK GARB & BRYAN WEAVER
For nearly two years now, elected officials in the District of Columbia have been embroiled in one ethical lapse after another. We’ve had fully loaded SUVs paid for by taxpayers, questionable hiring practices, suspect handling of Metro and lottery contracts, a Council chief of staff sent to prison for taking bribes from the taxi cab industry, one Council member indicted for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a youth sports league, and our Council chair indicted for mortgage fraud. And, of course, our mayor is facing questions about what he knew and when about a shadow campaign that illegally raised and spent more than half a million dollars on his 2010 election.
Each scandal has brought growing, unwanted attention from the national media spotlight.
Some, such as Washington Blade columnist Peter Rosenstein (“Scandals, low turnout in D.C.” April 12, 2012) argue that local reporters are focusing too much on the scandal du jour and not enough on the progress being made in the city.
There is no doubt that progress continues to be made each and every day in D.C. New environmental programs seem to be launching on almost a weekly basis; while the unemployment rate is still high, residents are getting back to work; our budget is balanced and our rainy-day fund is being restored.
However, simply because the trash is still getting picked up and a contract is signed for a streetcar vendor does not mean we as District residents should turn a blind eye to some very serious ethical lapses in the Wilson Building. One of the best ways to stop the ethical lapses and turn the media spotlight elsewhere is to remove the culture of pay-to-play politics from D.C. government.
Comprehensive ethics and campaign finance reform are paramount. A variety of legislation is pending before the Council covering everything from banning secondary jobs for Council members to better disclosure of campaign finances. The Council needs to carefully consider all of this legislation and set personal agendas and pocketbooks aside and approve much of this legislation for the betterment of the city.
In addition, a citizen-led initiative currently under review by the D.C. Board of Elections would, if approved, place an initiative on the November ballot that would ban direct corporate donations to campaigns. District residents would not be breaking new ground by approving this initiative. Currently, 21 other states ban direct corporate campaign contributions.
But more than anything, the residents of the District of Columbia must get involved. We can no longer sit on the sidelines of democracy in the District. Whether you’re a native Washingtonian or someone who has only moved here recently, we all call D.C. home now. We should all try to improve our city by paying attention to city politics even when scandals don’t fill up the front page, by registering to vote and by actually voting. If we vote for candidates who are transparent in both their professional and campaign dealings, we can steadily clean up this mess.
The District of Columbia is the nation’s capital and we should be seen as a model for high-functioning, thoughtful city government, not a model of corruption and greed.
Merrick Garb is a graduate student at the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at the Dupont Circle campus of Johns Hopkins University. Bryan Weaver is a community activist who lives in Ward One.