D.C. Dish

Crime and Punishment

December 1, 2011

A special "recall" election is not the only means by which an elected official can be expelled from office in the District.

If the official is jailed for a felony, he or she is removed by law. 

Note that the official must be jailed. An elected official convicted of a felony but not sent to prison is free to continue in his or her job.

It is easy to imagine a scenario where a Council member is convicted of a felony for defrauding the city of several hundred thousand dollars for the purpose of funding personal extravagances. And it is easy to imagine the same Council member cutting a deal with the Feds that does not require a prison sentence. Right, we can all imagine that. And much to any sane person’s horror, that Council member would be allowed to serve out his term and even seek reelection.

America!

On Wednesday the D.C. Council held a roundtable discussion on comprehensive ethics reform. Politicians, government officials, candidates, activists and others offered their opinions of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Establishment and Comprehensive Ethics Reform Amendment Act of 2011. Issues such as campaign contribution bundling, constituent services slush funds, a new ethics board, conflicts of interest, making the Council a full-time job and term limits were topics for debate. Amending the recall process is also under consideration, but at no point today did I hear anyone calling for a mechanism the Council could itself employ to remove a reprobate from office.

Plenty of legislative bodies have rules in place for expelling a member. Typically a super-majority is required. This is how it works in Washington State: "Each house may determine the rules of its own proceedings, punish for contempt and disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members elected, expel a member."

In Pennsylvania, "Both Houses of the General Assembly can expel a member with a two-thirds vote.  Anyone expelled for corruption can never run again for election to either house."

Did you get that? "Can never run again for election." Here in the District an official recalled by voters can be a candidate in the special election to fill the vacancy created by the recall. Say what? Round and round we go.

Ethics reform will not be comprehensive until the D.C. Council creates a mechanism for expelling members who break laws or bring shame on the institution and our city.

We can plug every loophole, require Council members to work fulltime, ban corporate money from campaigns and implement strong transparency policies to shed light on potential conflicts of interest, but some people will always game the system. Maybe if elected officials knew they could lose their coveted jobs they would think twice.

Laws governing citizen initiated recall efforts could use some reform, too.

In order to appear on the ballot to run as a Ward council member, candidates without a party affiliation must gather 500 signatures from registered voters. Democrats are required to collect 250 signatures; Republicans can qualify with as few as 14.

A Democrat running citywide needs 2,000 signatures, a Republican 296 and independents 3,000.

Removing an elected official from office requires many more signatures. A recall petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of voters citywide or in a ward.

Based on numbers available from the Board of Elections, in order to call a special election to remove an elected official from citywide office the signatures of 45,322 registered voters are required. Elected officials at the Ward level can be subject to recall with between 4,600 and 6,400 signatures.

These thresholds, in particular the citywide numbers, are absurdly high. They should be lowered.

It should be possible to initiate a citywide recall election with 20,000 signatures. For a bit of perspective consider this: 46,967 voters, only 10.3 percent of the electorate, participated in the April 2011 special election.

Ward officials should be subject to a recall election if 2,500 voters consent.

And, of course, the recalled official must be prohibited from being a candidate in the special election to fill the office from which he or she was removed. That's a no-brainer if there ever was one.

Chuck Thies hosts the "D.C. Politics" show Thursday mornings at 11:00 am on WPFW 89.3 FM, streaming online at wpfw.org.


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OccupyDC is pedestrian on Key Bridge

November 17, 2011

By 5:30 pm on Thursday, OccupyDC had been on the Key Bridge for nearly two hours when I came across a journalist I know.

"There's really nothing here to report," he said. "Nothing is happening. There’s no story."

One hundred seventy-five protesters lined the inbound sidewalk of the bridge. Another twenty-five had reached Virginia and gathered on the roadside a few yards from where Arlington County police attired in riot gear awaited them.

Police await Occupiers (Photo by: Chuck Thies) Police await Occupiers

Back in D.C. at Francis Scott Key Park there were more cops than protesters. At least two police boats bobbed in the chilly Potomac. The occasional helicopter buzzed overhead.

Occupiers arrive in Georgetown (Photo by: Chuck Thies) Occupiers arrive in Georgetown

I counted more than fifty police vehicles in the District and perhaps as many as one hundred cops.  In Virginia, no fewer than seventy-five law enforcement personnel stood ready. When I arrived in the Commonwealth a literal column of police were lined up in front of a "Welcome to Virginia" sign. Several carried tear gas launchers and what appeared to be rifles designed to fire rubber bullets.

A column of police await protesters in Virginia (Photo by: Chuck Thies) A column of police await protesters in Virginia

The somewhat-newsworthy item of the day was the level of coordination between District police and the Occupiers who led a march from McPherson Square to Georgetown. As police announced commands over a bullhorn, a couple dozen volunteer marshals donning orange ski caps guided the marchers into position.

On the bridge, police were stationed in small groups at fifty-yard intervals. The orange cap marshals were similarly deployed but closer together and in pairs or alone.

Economic emergency (Photo by: Chuck Thies) Economic emergency

Concerns that the Occupiers would block rush hour traffic were for naught.

Much ado about nothing, unless you are practicing for a half-time show at the Superbowl.

In my opinion, the so-called 99% as they were represented in D.C. today are timid.

Not one person with whom I spoke was able to tell me what the Occupiers accomplished or even set out to prove.

Perhaps the problem is that the Occupiers don’t have a leader and, as such, appear at times to be an aimless crowd. 

Frustrated? Yes. Upset? Yes. Effective? To date, no.


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Where are the snollygosters?

November 9, 2011

Snollygoster \snä-lē- gäs-tər\ : a politician who will go to any lengths to win public office, regardless of party affiliation or platform.

~

The indefatigable Ron Moten, co-founder of Peaceaholics and high-profile supporter of Adrian Fenty, is turning heads. His decision to run as a Republican against Ward Seven Councilmember Yvette Alexander is by far the most interesting development of the 2012 campaign season. Whether Moten can convince voters to cross party lines is an open question, but at least he is not afraid to engender criticism and shake things up.

Elsewhere, D.C. Councilmembers seeking reelection probably aren't losing much sleep.

Ward Two Councilmember Jack Evans found out yesterday that his lone opponent, Fiona Greig, threw in the towel. In her exit statement Greig said she "wasn't ready to mount the kind of campaign it would take to win."

No kidding.

Anyone seeking to dislodge an incumbent should expect a bruise or two. If you want to change things, if you are positioning yourself as the one to kick the bums out, expect the bums to kick back.

Politics is a tough business. Campaigning requires a thick skin and the ability to pick your posterior off the mat to face another round.

Reality check: look at what Barack Obama had to endure on the campaign trail.

In addition to Evans and Alexander, four other incumbent Councilmembers face reelection next year: Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Marion Barry (Ward 8), and At-Large Councilmembers Michael Brown (I) and Vincent Orange (D).

None has yet to be tested by an opponent.

In what could be a marquee rematch, former interim appointed At-Large Councilmember Sekou Biddle is challenging the candidate who defeated him earlier this year, Vincent Orange. With less than five months until the Democratic Primary, Biddle is going to need to land some heavy blows on Orange. That could be difficult, though, because at his campaign announcement Biddle was the one taking the hits. Inexplicably, to manage his Democratic campaign Biddle hired an operative who formerly worked for the D.C. Republican Party, currently lives in West Virginia and was once detained for carrying a handgun into a District building.

Notwithstanding his puzzling personnel decision, Biddle deserves props. He is throwing himself back into the lion's den despite a bruising journey on the campaign trail that ended in a third place finish a mere half year ago. And who knows, maybe hiring a campaign manager who packs heat is a snollygoster move. I will certainly think twice before upbraiding Biddle.

In Ward 4, Muriel Bowser's biggest obstacle to reelection might be running against her almost-namesake, Renee Bowser (no relation). Perhaps one of the Bowsers should consult with At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who had to deal with a challenge from fake-Michael Brown in 2010. 

Also running in Ward 4 is Max Skolnik, a progressive upstart. Skolnik recently testified at an ethics reform hearing chaired by Muriel Bowser. The setting was an ideal opportunity for Skolnik to slam his opponent on live television. Instead, he talked in general terms about campaign finance reform and limiting the influence of money in politics. Without a doubt, ethics is an important topic, but leave the technical stuff to the wonks. Candidates must go for the throat when given a chance.

In Ward 8, insurgent candidate Darrell Gaston is busy taking on Jacque Patterson, a possible candidate who has yet to formally enter the race. Gaston's tactic plays into the hands of the incumbent and diminishes his own credibility. I mean, really, if you cannot come up with ways to attack Marion Barry what kind of campaign are you running?

Independent At-Large candidate David Grosso is trying his luck versus the real Michael Brown. That is all I can tell you about Grosso, because he has yet to make news.

If you know any snollygosters send them my way. Moten needs the company and I need more interesting candidates to write about.

Chuck Thies hosts the "D.C. Politics" show Thursday mornings at 11:00 am on WPFW 89.3 FM, streaming online at wpfw.org

Note: There are candidates seeking office in 2012 who were not mentioned in this article. They are: Baruti Jahi, Calvin H. Gurley, Keith Jarrell, Judi Jones, Lydia I. Little (Ward 4); William “Rev. Bill” Bennett, Tom Brown, Kevin B. Chavous, Dorothy Douglas (Ward 7); Gary R. Feenster, Angela White Narain, Sandra “S.S.” Seegars (Ward 8). 


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