Wash Post: DC Council Session Ends with Budget Bill Approval

D.C. Council ends Vincent Gray era and the year with a flourish

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 10:15 PM

The D.C. Council adjourned for the year Tuesday, capping Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray’s term as chairman and ending a period that saw passage of some of the most ambitious legislation since the city gained home rule.

After approving a flurry of bills – including a measure that would require homeless families to demonstrate their ties to the District before receiving shelter – the council went on recess until next month.

During the 18th session since home rule took effect in 1973, the council legalized same-sex marriage and medical marijuana, rewrote gun-control laws, imposed a 5-cent tax on plastic bags to advance the cleanup of the Anacostia River, and adopted standards for healthier school lunches.

After the session ended, Gray ceremoniously passed the gavel to his successor, D.C. Council Chairman-elect Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). Brown, on the behalf of the council, gave Gray an Apple iPad and wished him well as the next mayor.

"I will put this legislative body up against any," said Gray, who received an extended standing ovation. "I look forward to working with all of you in this next life."

The just-concluded council session will be known as one in which members appeared to find legislative confidence in the aftermath of the financial control board. The council embraced an activist agenda and exerted more control over city government, increasing oversight of the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

"The legislature has strengthened," said council member Phil Mendelson (D- At Large). "Our response during the Fenty administration was to pass laws and impose new requirements on budgeting, financial planning and policy analysis."

Gray, who became emotional in an interview, said he is most proud of the council’s high ratings in recent public opinion polls and a collaborative spirit that led to significant pieces of legislation during his four years as council chairman, including mayoral control of schools and the expansion of pre-kindergarten.

Looking forward, many observers expect Brown, 40, will have a management style different from that of the 68-year-old Gray. But with the council gaining only one new member – a vacancy to be filled temporarily by the D.C. Democratic State Committee – few expect its approach to change dramatically.

Some observers say the council’s efforts to distinguish itself may have contributed to what some members described as unprecedented hostility between the legislative and executive branches. The council initiated a spate of investigations into Fenty’s administration, which to date have failed to turn up conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.

"It was just a very contentious relationship . . . and I think it will overshadow a lot of the good things being done," council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said.

The council was tested by several ethical controversies, including an investigation into whether council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) misused earmarks and questions about whether council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) properly accounted for money he raised for his nonprofit group Team Thomas.

Last year, the FBI also raided the John A. Wilson Building as part of a probe into allegations that the former chief of staff of council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) accepted bribes.

Despite the investigations, council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said Gray will probably be remembered as "one of the best chairs the District has ever had."

"This council has performed exceedingly well," said Wells, who remarked on the frequency of oversight hearings and the rapid pace with which the council approved legislation.

Despite the national economic downturn, the council also enjoyed relative prosperity compared with many of its counterparts in the D.C. suburbs.

When Gray became chairman in 2007, the city had a $5.5 billion general fund budget. The fund has grown to about $6.7 billion, according to budget officials. During the same period, the city’s reserve funds dropped from about $1.5 billion in fiscal 2007 to an estimated $655 million this year, far less than what officials say is needed for an emergency.

The city faces a $440 million budget shortfall next year, prompting many members to predict the next council will be consumed by a debate over taxes and spending. And with the Republicans set to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives, council members said the era of approving bold legislation has passed.

"I think that progress at times requires a moment of reflection and a moment of shoring up victories as opposed to the constant trajectory, which is financially unstable," said council member David A. Catania (I-At large).

On Tuesday, the council voted to make the city’s open meetings law apply to more government bodies but also voted to exempt council committee meetings.

Members also supported a 10-year extension of the city’s rent control laws, enacted a bill limiting city agencies’ ability to inquire about a possible criminal record on a job application, and approved a tax break for a proposed hotel in Adams Morgan.

In another move, the council backed off plans to gradually eliminate welfare benefits for those on the rolls of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program at least five years. Instead, the council agreed to cut payments to long-term recipients by 20 percent after five years but to drop from the program only those who fail to participate in job- training and job-placement programs.

The fiercest debate centered on a proposal by Wells to impose proof-of-residency requirements for homeless families seeking shelter in the District. The discussion sparked an argument about whether Jesus was homeless, as Thomas suggested, or was born in a manger in Bethlehem for other reasons, as Evans contended.

During an unusually personal debate, Graham, Thomas, Mendelson and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) invoked the cold weather, religion and the Christmas season in an unsuccessful effort to derail the measure.

The debate over homeless shelters and welfare benefits may foreshadow how the next council session will differ from the one that just ended.

"It’s not going to be easy for any of us," Brown said to Gray after he received the gavel. "Working together, we will get through these times."

Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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