Wells and Brown campaign together in 2010. Photo by hcwoodward on Flickr.

DC Council chairman Kwame Brown plans to remove Tommy Wells from his chairmanship of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation today. This appears to be naked political payback from February, when Wells published a report on the Lincoln Navigator scandal.

Email the Council or call Brown’s office at (202) 724-8032 to express your disappointment that personal grudges are trumping good policy.

Wells supported Brown’s campaign for chair, but since February, relations between Wells and Brown have been frosty. Brown blamed Wells for the report, which found that Brown violated the law.

Wells had a duty to investigate. This was a major news story, and it fell squarely in Wells’ committee responsibility. Instead, Brown seems to have wanted Wells to simply bury the issue. It shows a serious failing in Brown’s ethical compass when he expects this of colleagues, and those who take the honest route get punished so blatantly.

It’s pretty blatant, too. Brown isn’t rearranging all the committees. He’s just singling out Wells for punishment.

Wells will get the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, generally considered the least desirable post one of the least desirable posts. Mary Cheh, who is still close to Brown and his number two as Chair Pro Tempore, will take over Public Works and Transportation as well as keeping the Department of the Environment. Muriel Bowser, who got Parks and Rec in January because of her support for Mayor Fenty, will get Government Operations.

Committees are rarely shifted mid-term, and only to take responsibilities away from a member facing scandal. This may be the first time in history a committee is taken away midway from a member for being honest.

Brown had the opportunity to alter committees because Harry Thomas, Jr. stepped down from the Committee on Econmic Development amid his own ethical problems. Brown moved economic development into the Committee of the Whole, under his direct control.

Vincent Orange (at-large) wanted Economic Development, but Brown didn’t want to give it to him because of their rivalry in the race for chair (and, perhaps, because Orange has a poor track record on economic development).

Instead, Brown is proposing a new, smaller committee with only oversight of the Department of Small & Local Business Development and some other smaller agencies, and is keeping Economic Development in the Committee of the Whole.

Since Orange has no committee today, there’s no need for any further reshuffling. But apparently Brown is still sore from the report.

Ironically, however, that report could have been the best thing for Brown. It got the issue fully into the spotlight, reducing the long drip of new scandal news. It put a fair amount of blame on the Department of Public Works as well as on Brown.

Had Brown embraced the report, apologized for his missteps, and pushed to fix policies around official vehicles for the future to stop such failures from recurring, he could have put the issue behind him.

Brown had many opportunities to start rebuilding the Council’s reputation. Instead, he has continued to drag it into the gutter. He told colleagues that his own campaign finance scandals didn’t go any deeper, and then they did.

The Council started the year with very high esteem among the populace, after a term of steady and effective leadership under Vincent Gray. Now, it’s widely derided, and rightly so, with many of its members facing some ethical questions.

Now, he’s even transferring the DC Council’s voting seat on the WMATA Board. That’s quite ironic. Last year, before becoming chair, Kwame Brown participated in a secretive committee to study WMATA governance, dominated by the Board of Trade. One of the better recommendations from that committee was to make board appointments based less on politics. Now, Brown is reassigning the post once again based solely on politics, and dirty personal ones at that.

By putting politics over progress, Brown is abandoning a commitment to make transportation better in DC. The people of Ward 7, where Brown himself lives, could suffer. Wells was making improving bus service east of the Anacostia a cornerstone of his chairmanship. He hosted listening sessions in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, got WMATA to promise technological upgrades for Metrobuses east of the river, and pushed the east of the river Circulator even though it meant losing some service in Ward 6.

Cheh, on the other hand, complained in the budget that the Circulator is going east of the river but doesn’t go to the Palisades. Was that just posturing for her ward, or will she really push for more transportation spending in Ward 3 over other parts of DC?

Cheh is one of the least bad alternatives to head transportation, but it’ll break the forward momentum that’s been built with Council working closely with DDOT. Wells’ staff has a deep understanding of transportation issues, including some carried over from when Jim Graham ran the committee. That institutional memory will likely be lost.

Plus, as Brown’s closest confidante on the Council, Cheh could have tried to talk him out of this move which clearly makes him look petty. Does she also think keeping Brown’s scandals quiet is the top public policy goal for the Council? Or is she sore with Tommy Wells for stymieing her plan to pretend to support the bond tax in place of an income tax, but then try to get both out of the budget?

DDOT is at a crossroads. New Director Terry Bellamy, formerly Gabe Klein’s deputy, could aggressively move to implement the ambitious Action Agenda that Klein put together, including pedestrian safety, bikeshare expansion, cycle tracks, bus priority lanes, real-time bus information, Circulator expansion, performance parking and more.

Or, Bellamy could let inertia win out, not making the tough calls and allowing projects to stagnate when the public isn’t unified for or against them, as they usually aren’t. Wells and his team were well situated to push DDOT to achieve its potential.

By taking Wells off the committee for transparently political reasons, Brown is showing that forward progress in the District isn’t foremost in his mind. Instead, punishing those who don’t cover up his own ethical failings is the priority. At least now, we know exactly what kind of man we have as Chairman.

The Council typically goes along with a chairman’s committee choices, but they all have to vote on the recommendation this morning. Will this Council really stand by and let Brown do this? If they do, each member will be sending the message that it’s appropriate to cover up a colleague’s misdeeds.

What, then, should the public assume is behind each future decision the Council makes? Or the difficult decisions they do not make? Email Brown and the Council or call Brown’s office at (202) 724-8032 to remind them that this unprecedented, vindictive move will further degrade the reputations of Brown, each member who votes aye, and that of the Council as a whole.

Update: Mary Cheh has sent me the following statement:

Kwame decided to reshuffle and make more coherent committee functions. And yesterday he told me of his plan to emphasize the environmental work in one committee, bringing back environment to public works and transportation (stormwater, recycling and waste management, transportation policy, pollution and vehicles, etc. brought together with environmental policy) and he offered the committee to me. I jumped at it and am very enthusiastic.


The argument about making committees more coherent makes little sense when he’s also splitting up the traditional Economic Development functions into smaller committees to limit Vincent Orange. We all know why this one area is being singled out. I’m disappointed that Cheh is defending such an ethically suspect move.