Photo by philentropist on Flickr.
The DC Council has bruised its reputation with a pair of self-inflicted wounds: over-priced leased SUVs and Verizon Center ticket squabbles. It can take steps to regain credibility by repealing its members’ parking ticket exemption, stop accepting free sports and entertainment tickets, and release data on official credit card purchases.
The District deserves respect for generally good financial stewardship. Closing the $322 million budget deficit will create the 16th balanced budget in a row. DC continues to maintain a large reserve fund, an
A A+ bond rating overall and a AAA rating on income tax-backed bonds.
Instead, the press and public are rightfully very focused on a pair of Lincoln Navigators and prime seats to watch Lady Gaga. Are these questionable distractions symbolic of a Council that doesn’t “get it” during these tight times? Looking forward, what could the Council do to make some immediate progress towards repairing its credibility?
Council fix #1: Repeal the parking ticket exemption.
In 2002, the DC Council voted to exempt itself from many parking regulations while on official business. Part of the justification was the odd reasoning that if US Congressmen should not have to pay tickets, neither should members of the DC Council.
This exemption sends an unfortunate message to residents and commuters. 13 members of the Council are too busy or important to deal with finding and, if necessary, paying for legal parking spaces. This double standard means that legislators who write laws to create and regulate parking really don’t have the same experience with how those laws impact normal drivers.
Furthermore, free and nearly unrestricted parking removes nearly any incentive for Councilmembers to walk, bike, carpool, taxi or take transit.
Council fix #2: Stop accepting free tickets from sports and entertainment venues.
The problem is that now two Mayors in a row and the DC Council incorrectly concluded that residents cared about how the tickets were distributed between the Mayor and Council. The real issue is why Council members and staff are involved with these tickets at all.
Some Councilmembers justify their access to the tickets by donating most if not all of the tickets to schools and community organizations. Sure, these organizations benefit from tickets to be auctioned off as fundraisers.
The bottom line is that the Council (and Mayor) should not be receiving tickets as gifts from for-profit businesses that regularly have tax and regulatory matters under consideration by the DC government. Donating the tickets to community groups doesn’t resolve the issue because it enables incumbent Councilmembers and the Mayor to leverage their office to do favors for selected constituents.
Let the Verizon Center and Washington Nationals distribute tickets to schools and community groups on their own.
Council fix #3: Release purchase or credit card transaction data for official
and constituent services expenses.
There is a natural curiosity and suspicion about the use of government credit cards. While those purchases are no different than any other tax dollar spent, residents remain sensitive about those who have the privilege of carrying a DC government purchase card.
Since January 2009, DC Government executive branch agencies have released a list of all purchase card transactions in the Data Catalog. This transparency has given the taxpayer and media the information with which to scrutinize how these purchase cards are used.
The Council could copy the way DC government agencies already release this financial data to promote transparency of Council official
and constituent services funds. This would enhance spending and procurement transparency by the Council.
Correction: A long-time Council staff person pointed out that the Councilmembers release all revenues and expenditures for constituent services funds on the Office of Campaign Finance site. The same transparency should exist for all official Council expenses.
None of these three suggestions will repair overnight any recent damage done to the reputation of the Council or the District as a whole. But implementing these three fixes quickly and in their entirety will show residents and the region that the Council wants to take measurable steps in the right direction.