September 10, 2012 | by John Klenert
Time to change city gov’t? You bet!

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”

Back on Christmas Eve, 1973, the residents of the District of Columbia were granted limited self-determination under a bill entitled the D.C. Home Rule Act. It set up the structure under which the city government operates today: an elected mayor and 13-member City Council. Prior to this, the city was controlled in various fashions by both House and Senate D.C. Committees and then in 1967 by a mayor commissioner and nine-member Council appointed by the president of the United States.

All forms of local, state and federal governments constantly reform or adjust themselves to current conditions. We very seriously need to determine if our current form of city government is due for a major renovation or simply needs some minor tune ups. Either way, our LGBT community has both a right and an obligation to participate in the discussions that desperately need to take place. What follows are simply some ideas that have been proposed around town. You choose to agree/disagree and/or add your own voices to the future.

LEGISLATIVE BRANCH

Our city now has more people than Wyoming and is close in population to Vermont.  The Wyoming bicameral legislature has 30 senators and 60 representatives. Vermont has 30 senators also and 150 representatives. Powers definitely spread out among many people. Ours are concentrated in only 13 elected legislators with our city budget exceeding the two states.

Should our eight Wards be represented by more than one person? Would two or three or four from each Ward be better for the city? Should the number of At-Large council members be increased to eight or 10 or even set up as an “upper house” making D.C. a bicameral legislature?

EXECUTIVE BRANCH

Is there a need for an elected vice mayor who would become mayor if that office becomes vacant due to death or resignation? This creation would thus eliminate taking the Council chair as a replacement and the need for costly special elections and the musical chairs that we are now in the midst of. If there is to be a vice mayor, should this person run as a part of the mayor’s team or as an independently elected official?

JUDICIARY BRANCH

Right now, this all-important third leg of a democracy is for all practical purposes non-existent for the people of the District of Columbia although we will soon begin to elect our attorney general with limited local responsibilities. Each of our judges is named by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Presently, our own Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton does have some nominating privileges but this can be revoked in the blink of an eye. Some of the ideas being talked about include the president simply accepting judicial nominations from both the mayor and the City Council and submitted for Senate approval. Other recommendations have the president and the Senate removed from the process entirely. All judges would be nominated by the mayor and approved by a super majority of the Council. Others suggest that regardless of the nomination method, that every judge either serve for only seven or 10 years before being subject to a vote of confidence by the D.C. electorate and, if successful, continue for one additional term.

ADDITIONAL ELECTED OFFICES

One of the biggest complaints often heard is the lack of elected positions. Wyoming elects its secretary of state, state auditor and state superintendent. Vermont elects its secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor also. So besides increasing the number of people on the D.C. City Council, should we also elect our own secretary of the District, city comptroller and members of various other boards?

INCREASED VOTING PARTICIPATION METHODS

Again, several ideas have been tossed about for years, foremost has been term limits for all Council members and the mayor. Should everyone be limited to two or three terms but allow them to run for different offices? For example, Ward One Council member serves no more than 12 years but is free to run for At-Large Council slots.

Regardless of the term limits, questions and proposals, should future Council members drop the facade of being part-time city employees and accept their elected jobs as full-time employees?  Right now, only the mayor and the City Council chair have this requirement.

Should there be primary runoffs of the top two winners instead of the current winner take all approach? Should voters self identified as independents be allowed to vote in all primary elections? Should non-D.C. citizens but residing here be able to vote in our elections? (In Rehoboth Beach, non-resident property owners can vote and run in city elections.)

Should the ANCs be abolished or given additional responsibilities or should individual towns be established within each of the eight Wards each having a small town council/town manager model?

FEDERAL ISSUES

It is still a national embarrassment that more than 600,000 citizens are denied a real voice in the national legislature. Certainly legal minds can create a way to end this disgrace and meet constitutional approval avoiding Scalian thunderbolts. In the meantime, should D.C. request two delegates to the U.S. House as well as one to the U.S. Senate? In the latter, he/she would be able to sit on a committee and vote as in the U.S. House.

Should the president and the mayor share control over the D.C. National Guard instead of the president’s sole control he has today?

Should Congress have simply 30 calendar days to review our legislation instead of the 30 days in session method?

Should all federal lands outside the monument core and the National Zoo be handed over to the District of Columbia?

Should our local budgets supported by locally collected taxes be spent freely without federal approval as is being proposed now within the U.S. House?

Should that sacred cow limiting the heights of our buildings be slaughtered?

If we are continued to be denied congressional representation, should we refuse to render verdicts if seated on federal juries since we had no say in passage of any federal laws?

We should not forget that the people of the District of Columbia also have no participation in the ratification of constitutional amendments. While it has been several years since one has been sent to the states, there must be consideration to our being recognized as part of the process.

How do we get together to discuss and recommend any changes to the current Home Rule Act? Ward meetings chaired by Eleanor Holmes Norton, Alice Rivlin and Tony Williams?  I do not have answers but implore my fellow citizens to demand changes. Better they come from us rather than imposed by any of the 535 pseudo-mayors that inhabit the U.S. Capitol.

John Klenert is a longtime D.C. resident, former member of DC Vote’s board of directors and part of the DC 41 arrested for DC voting rights advocacy.

1 Comment
  • Others suggest that regardless of the nomination method, that every judge either serve for only seven or 10 years before being subject to a vote of confidence by the D.C. electorate and, if successful, continue for one additional term.

    Why? Consider how that has worked out in Iowa. If the judicial branch is to exercise its duty to be an effective counterweight to the majoritarian branches of government, it should not be the third majoritarian branch.

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