Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)
So I have written quite a bit over the past few years (and summarized in the New Year's Day entry) about changing the structure of city government, mostly as it relates to City Council.
Last year was not a good year for DC Government• People involved in the 2010 Mayoral campaign for Vincent Gray pleaded guilty to campaign improprieties. There's a good chance that Mayor Gray will be charged as well. Plus there was the hiring of relatives of people who worked on the campaign--most have since resigned. And other wacked stuff.
• the shadow Mayoral campaign that went unreported to the Board of Election and Ethics was funded by Jeffrey Thompson, owner of Chartered Health, a big recipient of DC health care contracts. That business is now in receivership. He left his accounting firm, and he's likely to face felony charges. Although Chartered Health is now about to be bought by another health care firm.
• Former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. is in federal prison. And the people who allowed him to misuse their charities so that he could abscond with public funds pleaded guilty to various charges, but they weren't given jail time.
• Former Council Chair Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to fraud with regard to personal financial dealings and resigned his office. His brother pleaded guilty to similar charges on a different matter. It's hard to say if there will be further local charges with regard to misuse of campaign funds.
• Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) has been implicated in mis-dealings both with regard to regulation of the taxi industry, lottery contracting, as well as misuse of his position when he was a board member of WMATA to shape the results of who would win the right to develop Metro-owned land in his ward.
• Hundreds of millions of dollars of commercial property tax assessment reductions sparked a scandal in the Office of Tax and Revenue and brought renewed attention to the Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi....
• especially with regard to how the CFO office appears to have manipulated internal audit reports, keeping reports in draft to ward off release, and significantly editing final reports and
• allegations over misfeasance in awarding the contract to run the lottery made the New York Times last week ("Fired, but Firing Back, Over Dealings in Washington") although they've been part of local media coverage here for quite some time;
• the seeming conflict of interest of Councilmember Michael Brown (who was not re-elected) who works for a lobbying firm with active gaming clients and the push to allow Internet gaming in DC;
• not to mention various misuse of campaign funds by other Councilmembers(Councilwoman Alexander), various outlandish comments by Councilman Barry, and the high paying "side jobs" of certain Councilmembers; etc.
Right now, legislators are "part-time," but making full-time salaries, although a slight majority of Councilmembers don't have second jobs. Term limits were passed in 1994 but later rescinded by Council. Each ward--there are 8--has one representative, and there are 4 at-large members.
Suggesting a comprehensive agenda for changeI recognize that "process redesign" in and of itself probably isn't enough when the Growth Machine culture is pretty much focused on self-interest and not on democracy and civic interest.
A lot of the discussion about the failures of elected government in DC focus on the domination by local "Democrats" and how lack of "competition" with a second, viable party thereby diminishes the quality of governance here.
(People also mention not having higher offices to run for creates a worse environment for corruption. States like New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida, and Maryland demonstrate that even with the opportunity for higher office, corruption still can be a big problem.)
Many people think that the "solution" is electing "Republicans" necessarily. I don't, even though I am working on a post about what a conservative urban agenda might look like and there are examples of Republican mayors across the country who aren't tea partiers... E.g., I just don't think that the so-called local Republican agenda is pro-city enough for me, at least not yet, as it has been laid out by Republicans over the last 3 election cycles.
I don't think the issue per se is having a viable Republican Party as much as it is (1) having a viable Democratic Party--the local political party infrastructure isn't working very well, hasn't elected Committee members in 4 years, and the chair of the party was just appointed to fill the seat of a now vacant at-large position until the special election and (2) having viable second and third parties. With regard to the latter, this recent entry discusses locally-focused parties in Vancouver and Montreal ("Repositioning cities (at least on the coasts) for greater political prominence, and a city-first agenda") and note that it has been suggested that local parties form in Toronto, to deal with failures in local governance there. Maybe that's Republican and Statehood-Green, maybe it's something else...
The changes proposed below are designed to provide some "architecture" for the support of multiple parties in the city. Right now, the way that the government and election process is structured is designed to foster the continuation of DC as a one-party city.
1. Increase the number of wards.
2. Increase the number of councilmembers
3. Move the legislature to part-time service and reduced pay
4. Reduce the size of councilmember staff
5. Increase the research capacity of local government
6. Institute term limits for elected officials.
7. Change the date of the primary election to extend the electioneering period.
8. Institute ranked choice voting for local elected officials.
9. Institute additional campaign finance limits for local elections.
10. Create an elected public advocate/ombudsperson.
11. Reconstitute a school board with oversight over pre-K to 12 public education, traditional and charter schools.
12. Build civic capacity and infrastructure.
Council composition: making the DC Council a legislature means making it bigger
In discussing the status of DC Council with Peter Shapiro, former Councilmember in Prince George's County and with aspirations to be a DC Councilmember now that he lives in DC, he made the point that with regard to the desire for statehood, DC Council ought to be shifted more towards a "legislature," with higher aspirations, a greater concern for quality output, and more members.
While more "unwieldy" than at present, with a larger number of representatives a much larger majority would be needed to pass legislation. As Washington Post journalist Mike DeBonis made the point in an article cited in this blog entry "The highly paid DC City Council and governance and voting systems," right now it's too easy to pass legislation, you only need 7 votes now, perhaps making the City Council a bit too "productive" in terms of generating a passel of new legislation in every Council session.
DC currently has 8 wards, and has had the same number since Home Rule was enacted. Each ward is supposed to have about 75,000 residents. Ward 1, the densest ward, is the smallest in size. If DC continues to grow, without any changes, the access to local elected officials will shrink somewhat as the size of the city grows without a concomitant increase in governance infrastructure.
Increase the number of wards and add councilmembers
Alternative 1: Increase the number of wards, from the current number of 8 to maybe 11. As the city increases in population, shrinking the population of wards by adding to the number will help keep wards more intimate and accessible. By having two councilmembers in each ward that would make 22 councilmembers + in this scenario, probably 8 at-large members, plus the Council Chair. 16 votes would be needed to pass legislation.
Don't increase the number of wards but add councilmembers
Alternative 2: Add one representative for each ward, so that one ward councilmember would be up in each election cycle. It would also provide more intra-ward competition amongst councilmembers, unlike the monopolies currently present. One additional at-large member could be added for each cycle as well.
This would make 16 ward members and 6 at-large members, if there are three at-large members elected in each election cycle, plus the Council Chair, elected city-wide. 12 votes would be needed to pass legislation, up from 7 now.
Alternative 3: 16 + 8 at-large members, plus the Council Chair, elected city-wide, if there are four at-large members elected in each election cycle. 13 votes would be needed to pass legislation.
More Councilmembers allows standing committees to be filled out, with a bit more specialization, and for the creation of additional committees as needed.
2 Council representatives in each ward would provide more intra-ward political competition unlike the way that a single Councilmember dominates a ward now. In combination with changes to campaign finance laws (see below), having two representatives in each ward would increase the opportunity for inter-party competition and success for non-Democratic Party candidates.
It's easier to make a bigger legislature part-time, which justifies cutting salaries
While it is true that if DC truly has aspirations for Statehood, it needs to take its Legislature seriously--the Council as it is set up is probably not "best practice," there is something to be said for not making it full-time, and in doing so, reducing the salaries from the current amount of $ to something like $75,000/year. Right now, according to this report, City Councils in Philadelphia and Other Major Cities, by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the DC City Council has the second highest salaries of any local body across the U.S.
That would allow for an increase in the number of Councilmembers without requiring significantly more money in salary.
Size of Council office staff
Adding Councilmembers means more staff and more space to house additional councilmembers and their offices. Both would increase costs.
However, DC Council has more staff--around 7 in addition to staff assigned to the support of standing committees but under the direction of Councilmembers and likely provided some support to the office--per Councilmember compared to surrounding jurisdictions, even though three (four, if you count Baltimore County) of those jurisdictions have significantly more population and land mass. The number of staff for DC Councilmembers is larger than the amount of staff allocated to State House and Senate offices in Maryland and Virginia (although maybe they need more staff than they have).
Although with a unitary government (the equivalent of state, county, and city in one jurisdiction) and expanded taxing authority, arguably the DC legislature has more responsibilities.
If the Council were increased in size, by cutting the size of staff compared to the current number, it would be possible to put somewhat of a brake on increased costs that would come from having more councilmembers and more staff.
Increasing the capacity of City Council to do substantive research and get independent analysis and advice
Although the Council needs to add a serious research unit and independent oversight to help improve the quality of the Council's output. I guess it has this kind of unit, but I can't say that I know much about it. Given how much I read reports and documents, it's fair to say that they aren't pumping out substantive work.
One way to add research heft to staff might be to have most staff (not the chief of staff) be half-time assigned to a Councilmember and half-time to a subject area, serving the entire Council.
Another example of adding to knowledge heft would be New York City's Independent Budget Office. The IBO is a publicly funded agency that provides nonpartisan information about New York City's budget to the public and their elected officials. IBO presents its budgetary reviews, economic forecasts, and policy analyses in the form of reports, testimony, memos, letters, and presentations."
Arguably the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a unit of the national advocacy group Center on Budget and Policy Priorities does this, but they are more of a low income issues advocacy group--though I don't argue about the quality of their work.
The DC Appleseed Center does some of this kind of work too, but they are more or less a vassal of the Growth Machine, so they don't push for the hardest but best choices (e.g., like my ideas about merging a DC Community College with Montgomery College and/or PG County Community College, or shifting the local 4 year and graduate university to a relationship more comparable to SUNY's statutory colleges).
Many state governments have municipal and legislative service units, such as the Municipal Research and Legislative Services Center of Washington State. We need access to something like this in DC. (Had I ever revitalized the Citizens Planning Coalition into a kind of action-research-policy organization, it would have had a function like this.)
DC citizens passed through referendum, term limits of two terms for Councilmembers and the Mayor, in 1994. When the term limits were about to kick in and term out various Councilmembers, the City Council overturned the results. (I really should sit down and read the Home Rule Charter to see how they could do this legally.)
While term limits are typically pushed by conservative political organizations looking to minimize the power of progressive politics, as is argued by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, in "Taking on term limits," the reality is that political inertia is harmful to the health of the polity, even if some institutional memory is lost as elected officials are forced to step down, and this can strengthen the power of interest groups and staff at the expense of the public.
Still the state of representation on DC City Council is proof that terms limits are probably a good thing. I'd recommend a maximum of three terms for Councilmembers, maybe 4-5 terms max for a combination of Councilmember plus Council Chair, and two terms for Mayor and Attorney General (effective with the 2014 Election the AG position, which in DC is not responsible for prosecuting criminal acts, will be popularly elected).
Timing of the primary election
Having too early of a primary, in a setting where most of the potential candidates are from one party, minimizes the time that candidates have to campaign, which privileges incumbents, who have greater name recognition.
DC used to have its primary in September, which was ruled to be out of compliance with federal laws designed to ensure that military personnel have the ability to vote in their home states, by ensuring that primary elections are held no later than 80 days before the general election.
But while the "Sense of the Council Primary Election Timing Resolution of 2010" stated that the DC Primary Election should be held no later than the first week of August, final legislation moved the primary to April, which shortened by 5 months the period for electioneering compared to the previous date in September, and shortened by roughly 4 months the maximum period that could have been provided, according to the 2010 Act.
I would argue for the first Tuesday in August, which complies with federal law and provides the maximal time for campaigning. (Although August is a bad time for election turnout, but then, primaries are for the most motivated anyway.)
Another way to increase the ability to mix up voting is to have ranked choice voting. It's more complicated, but it allows people to indicate first, second, third, etc. choices, and as candidates are eliminated, a more diverse set of candidates can be elected--note that it's possible, not probable.
Peirce County, Washington used ranked choice voting for a couple of elections, but it was repealed in 2009. This diagram is from the Tacoma News-Tribune circa 2008 and is used with permission. San Francisco started using ranked choice for local elections in 2005.
DC is most likely to elect Democrats to elected office, but the fact is that the candidates vary considerably in terms of their progressiveness, ethicsness, raceness, etc.
So the ability to rank candidates would help more progressive candidates get elected when a typical election has multiple "good" candidates running and just one "bad" candidate, and the bad candidate has a built in advantage because his/her supporters don't split their votes.
Limiting the amount of money spent on Council campaigning
Election finance reform is necessary to ensure that the changes above, other than term limits, would work to increase the diversity of elected officials within the city.
Money and access to it is the great unequalizer. Second and third parties typically find it much more difficult to raise funds than the party in power.
So while I don't believe in "starving the beast" of government necessarily, I do believe in more severe limits on campaign financing. (And I really envy the British and their 4 to 6 week campaign period for national elections.)
Until around 2006, DC's ward electioneering was pretty simple and not too expensive, even if only Democrats were getting elected. But with the election of Adrian Fenty to Mayor and Vincent Gray to Council Chair, their Ward seats came up for special election.
Both Fenty and Gray used this opportunity to build their campaign machine and extend its reach to wards. Donations were extracted by the respective campaign machinery for use by the annointed candidates (Muriel Bowser in Ward 4 and Yvette Alexander in Ward 7), who ended up raising much more money for their special election races than had previously been raised for ward-based campaigns.
If you want to make it possible for second party candidates to win at the ward level, there are going to have to be serious restrictions on the amount of money spent in ward-level campaigns. I don't have specific recommendations, just note that it needs to happen.
Building and extending ethics infrastructure
I haven't thought this through enough, but the way that things "work" in DC is piss-poor. Also see "The system of corruption: when you don't understand "systems", of corruption or anything else, you don't understand outcomes" and "DC ethics legislation misses the point: focus on what produces corruption as a regular outcome, not monitoring."
Toronto has both an Ombudsperson and an Integrity Commissioner. In New York City, there is the Office of Public Advocate which functions similarly to an Ombudsperson, which is a position that is supposed to provide citizens with a vehicle to investigate alleged violations of rights or malfeasance in government. This positions are set up to be independent of the Executive and Legislative Branches, giving citizens an alternative when other venues aren't responsive, and allowing findings to come out without being "edited" before release by agencies or elected officials.
California jurisdictions also have what is called a Civil Grand Jury, which is made up of citizens, but rather than focus on criminal or civil matters that normally are heard by juries, they address the operation of government agencies.
DC does have an Auditor who reports to City Council, in a similar way to how the Government Accountability Office is one of the agencies, like the Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress that provides support to the US Congress. Similarly, the Inspector General is a unit of the DC Executive Branch. Neither the Auditor nor the Inspector General are able to freely operate independent of their respective branches of government.
Electing a public advocate/ombudsperson
DC doesn't have a Public Advocate/Ombudsperson position. We need one and the person should be elected, with a three term limit. In a kind of way, like how in Michigan public colleges and universities function as a fourth branch of government, a public advocate should function similarly.
Reconstituting an elected School Board
With the dissolution of the DC Public Schools Board and the transferring of authority over the public schools to the Mayor of DC and the assumption of oversight over the school system by the DC City Council, what happened is that no independent review of the school system is provided except through election and occasional coverage of schools issues by the City Council. And the School Board was changed to have "state-level" responsibilities with no authority over local school system issues.
City Council isn't set up or at least big enough in its current configuration to provide adequate oversight. The law transferring authority to the Mayor didn't provide for an independent ombudsperson for the schools.
While with the reorganization of the City Council in the new term to have a standing Committee on Education, presumably Council could begin to provide the necessary level of oversight. I doubt it though.
Better to reconstitute a local school board but set it up to have authority over both the traditional public school system and charter schools, to have to have a master plan for pre-K to 12 education in DC, etc. Granted, there is a fine line between oversight and micromanagement. But there is enough to cover to justify a separate board.
That would require changes in federal law too, since the Public School Charter Board is independent of the electorate and basically is unaccountable. In this recommendation, the PSCB would be dissolved and folded into a newly elected local school board.
Building civic infrastructure
Currently, DC doesn't have an "Office of Neighborhoods," unlike many other cities. Typically such an agency provides technical assistance and training to citizens and civic organizations. There is an "Office of Neighborhood Engagement" in the Mayor's office and each councilmember provides constitutent service. But in both cases these outfits are designed more to build support for and dependence on the Mayor and Councilmembers, rather than to build the capacity of citizens and groups to act independently.
That needs to change.
I have written about this in the context of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, but the same recommendations pertain more generally. These blog entries discuss my thoughts about this more specifically.
Another element to this would be to have the city's grantmaking infrastructure, for both the Executive and Legislative Branches, to be reorganized on the principles of Participatory Budgeting, where citizens working together end up coming to consensus on what to fund. And all the resources of the Asset Based Community Development Institute...