Greater Greater Washington talks about policy more than process: housing, transportation, and the built environment, more than we do government operations. But recent revelations about DC Councilmember Jack Evans (Ward 2) affect urbanism greatly. Consequently, Greater Greater Washington has signed on to a letter urging him to step down from the Council.
At Greater Greater Washington, we believe that our city and region need to build more homes. Businesspeople — developers — build that housing. Projects are usually financed with their potential proceeds, but even 100% publicly funded “public housing” is built by private companies contracted by the government. Sometimes incentives, a form of government subsidy, are necessary: Little affordable housing gets built without a combination of local and federal tax incentives.
Ending homelessness and making housing more affordable are the crux of a stable economy, and we need systems that ensure needed housing is built. If some businesses can pay a councilmember to lobby on their behalf, it casts suspicion on any elected official’s motivation to modify plans or grant public funding to new homes. This perception lends credence to claims that approving a development is a “fix” for someone paying off an elected official.
Evans’ corruption hurts Metro
As WMATA Board chair, Jack Evans did a great service by advocating, loudly and constantly, for dedicated funding. Without his voice, people may not have paid as much attention as they did to an issue that languished for decades.
However, his legacy is tarnished by the findings of the WMATA Board’s ethics committee, which show that Evans tried to spark an investigation of a parking contractor whose competitor was his lobbying client. When any official in any position of significant influence is both receiving payments and not disclosing conflicts of interest on the side, it calls into question everything he or the board have done. And it makes building public trust in the agency more difficult.
Over time, multiple voices have called for banning elected officials entirely from the WMATA board (as Maryland already does). That comes with some real drawbacks, as a 2010 Riders’ Advisory Council governance committee chaired by David Alpert said in its report. Elected officials have more authority over funding sources and are more responsive to riders.
DC benefited from Evans’ insistence for dedicated funding, as it did in low bus fares championed by Jim Graham, a former WMATA board chairman who also left in disgrace over ethical breaches. When an elected official misuses his or her power, it should be no surprise that calls emerge to remove them from roles at WMATA.
Corruption is toxic to effective policy
The effect of corruption in government is to drain public confidence in any action of government. And for everyone who has seen the proof that public policy can solve many problems, it’s essential that people actually believe government is able and trying to make public policy for the betterment of all. That faith is eroded in the face of evidence that government enriches a certain subset of influential people — particularly ones who personally benefit those in power.
Regardless of the ultimate legal resolution of Evans’ transgressions, that trust has been undermined.
Evans has long worked as a lobbyist alongside his job as councilmember, an arrangement that should be illegal, but isn’t. That tension cast a shadow over his decisions throughout his tenure. In the past year more revelations have emerged, including a criminal investigation regarding his aiding a digital sign company, and an email where he said he could “cross-market [his] relationships and influence to clients” of a law firm he unsuccessfully asked to hire him.
As long as businesses and governments exist, so will transactions between the two, including on the issues we focus on here at GGWash. A public transit authority buys trains and trash bags from businesses. A private taxi company uses public roads. A public housing authority buys faucets and light bulbs from businesses. A private housing developer needs public approvals to build on private land.
Setting boundaries between businesses and government in these sectors is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. It gets much tougher when corrupt officials take this overlap as a license to abuse public trust.
Evans cannot now regain the public trust
We see no way for Evans to regan the level of public trust every councilmember should possess. The Metro revelations, which Evans has disputed, only distance him further from that goal. Nothing he said in his defense at a council meeting Tuesday morning changes our view on this.
The District has toiled for many years to rebuild its reputation from scandals of the past. It cannot tolerate a councilmember whose compromised loyalties are so evidently not with the people he serves.
Evans should resign. In the meantime, the DC Council must take swift, unambiguous action to rebuild confidence in its collective policy-making.
This is the opinion of the Greater Greater Washington Editorial Board and Advocacy Committee. Note: Members of these committees who work for the DC Council or who are connected to Ward 2 electoral campaigns did not participate in the decision to run this opinion or its writing or editing. This is the opinion of the group as a whole and does not necessarily reflect any specific individual’s opinion.