Image from TBD.

Kwame Brown criticized Greater Greater Washington to TBD, claiming we’re wrong about his motivations for reshuffling committees. But his explanations continue to simply not hold water.

Brown claimed that the changes better unify subject areas in the same committee, like putting the environment with transportation and public works. There is indeed a lot of linkage, and those all were part of the same committee, under Jim Graham, before 2008.

But that’s almost the only case where Brown’s claim fits. He’s keeping the Office of Zoning in the Committee of the Whole, while moving planning to Wells’ committee. Planning and zoning go together like peas and carrots. In Montgomery County, they put planning and zoning together with the environment; that would have made even more sense and a great committee for Mary Cheh.

And what about alcohol licensing? Kwame Brown gave that to Jim Graham in January. It’s widely agreed that this was compensation for taking away transportation. But it has little to do with human services. If rationalizing committees is so important, why isn’t it in the same committee as other licensing bodies like DCRA?

I can think of no explanation other than that Brown didn’t want to hurt Graham but did want to hurt Wells. Can you? And that’s the problem. Brown keeps asserting that payback was not the motive, but almost all local reporters have pointed out that his explanation doesn’t hold up.

Sadly, Mary Cheh has started parroting the same line:

CM Brown had to reshuffle things because newly elected Vincent Orange had to be assigned a committee and arrangements had to be made to account for Mr Thomas losing his committee. CM Brown reconfigured committees along better functional lines including placing transportation and public works under the comm on the environment.

No reshuffling had to happen with transportation, because the Thomas/Orange changes don’t overlap at all with the Wells/Cheh/Bowser changes. And a transportation committee that has the environment but doesn’t have WMATA is definitely not “better functional lines.”

John Hendel wrote,

When questioning the Greater Greater Washington report, Brown also emphasized that he hadn’t been able to weigh in properly, and that a proper news story needed to include all the different sides of a decision such as this. He told me that he likes the news site but that it has a lot of emotion, and that journalism needs to include multiple perspectives. Again, this sounds fair enough on paper but doesn’t seem to harmonize with the increasingly loud sense of outrage over Wells’ shift as well as what seems to be a growing consensus that yes, the SUV investigation may have played a role.

I’m sorry that Kwame Brown, citywide elected chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, feels he isn’t able to properly communicate with reporters who spend much of their time in his building. This underscores Alan Suderman’s point yesterday that one of the clearest lessons from this saga is that Kwame Brown is bad at media relations. Or, maybe, the local press corps is just smarter and more penetrating than Brown would like.

If Brown is genuinely trying to improve the Council’s function, Suderman makes another good suggestion: make committee staff more real professional staff rather than political hires of each councilmember.

When members switch committees, the expected convention in the council is that each member of the committee’s staff just keeps working for the former chair in their new capacity. For example, in January Tommy Wells and Jim Graham swapped committees. But all the staff of Human Services kept working for Wells even though he didn’t have human services oversight, and the staff of Public Works and Transportation kept working for Graham.

John DeTaeye, for example, had been handling DPW issues, and had become an expert on recycling and trash. He had some good ideas which he’d discussed with me for improving recycling rates. Suddenly, he couldn’t implement those, and had to learn human services issues (though he also got promoted to committee director).

One uncommon exception was Jonathon Kass, the excellent transportation committee staffer who has a background in transportation. Graham let Wells hire Kass to be the new committee director. But will Mary Cheh do the same? Then what would happen to Jeremy Faust, the current Government Operations and the Environment committee director?

It’s all crazy. This makes it less likely for councilmembers to hire people with deeper subject knowledge. As long as all staff are generalists, with backgrounds in law or public policy or something, they can generally shift, but still have to learn new policy areas from scratch, at great cost of productivity and institutional memory.

Kwame Brown shouldn’t swap around committees lightly, with unbelievable explanations. Barring that, he should take steps to reduce the severe impacts that result when committees change hands.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.