- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

City watchdogs Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff have penned a scathing letter to their “Dear Decorous Readers” that should set tongues a-wagging about the abysmal process that is passing for “public hearings” at the D.C. Council of late.

The publishers of DC Watch and the Mail, respectively, in their missive “Decorum and Disgrace,” question whether the newly elected legislators, under the chairmanship of Vincent C. Gray, make up “the worst city council that the District of Columbia has ever had.” Now, I wouldn’t go that far just yet, but the jury is beginning to sense early doubts about this reconstituted council’s ability to set aside pet agendas and perform due diligence.

Ms. Brizill and Mr. Imhoff, a longtime couple, remember “the abysmal city councils of the 1970’s and 1980’s.” But at least the members of those councils “understood how to run public hearings, and they realized that public hearings were intended to give citizens of the District an opportunity to speak with their elected public servants.” But, they wrote, “this council is angry and mean. It is contemptuous of and hostile toward citizens, and its members don’t want to hear anything that differs with their preconceived opinions.”

Forgo the wrestling “SmackDown.” Watch the council hearings instead for blood sport. Again, you’ve got to wonder whether the city’s legislative body has forgotten that it works for its constituents and not the other way around.

New member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, for example, last week incorrectly argued that the burden of proving that the council should not adopt D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s power-grabbing school plan rests with those constituents who disagree with it.

Wrong. It is the burden of elected officials, as representatives of those constituents, to turn every stone to discover the pertinent facts. It is the representatives’ duty to convince their constituents of the wisdom of trading off their votes for the sake of yet another educational experiment with no evidence of guaranteed or sustained success.

Wrote Ms. Brizill and Mr. Imhoff: “Councilmember Mary Cheh, who is rapidly shaping up to be the nastiest and most disagreeable councilmember in DC history, made a point of assailing every witness who opposed the takeover with the dishonest argument that if they didn’t support Fenty, they supported the status quo and didn’t want the schools to improve. She deceitfully argued that the burden was on those who opposed the mayor’s takeover to explain why they did not support it.”

Careful discovery and deliberation are what the council members are paid their outrageous six-figure salaries to do.

But there is precious little effort being put into a public information campaign. A consolidation of the best ideas from the elected school board and the mayor’s plans — without diminishing democratic representation in a city with too little — could be a promising compromise to achieve the stated goal of everyone: improved educational services for the District’s deserving students.

This council appears to be more interested in preaching than in probing.

The D.C. Council was given the opportunity, on someone else’s dime, to question a New York City Council member, Charles Barron, who has experienced the highly touted schools takeover by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. After Mr. Barron, loaded with cogent data and evidence, said a mayoral takeover was the worst thing the council could support to improve student achievement, he was pilloried.

Mr. Barron, obviously a no-nonsense legislator, bristled and retorted to one council member, “You’re rude. You won’t even let me answer the question.” In all fairness, not all council members exhibited “disgraceful behavior.”

In his testimony, an unusually calm Philip Pannell of the Ward 8 Democrats said, “All we want is a real, intelligent community conversation, and it’s just not happening.”

The D.C. watchdogs added: “The council is shirking its job. It’s not doing its own research into the failures of urban school systems that have had mayoral takeovers, it’s deliberately turning a blind eye to the failure of the Bloomberg takeover in New York City, and it’s ignoring the many examples of urban school systems that have progressed and improved markedly under independent school boards.” Those cities include Charlotte, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Houston.

Further, the watchdogs characterized the council as “rushing headfirst into a debacle — all because it wants to control the money and the contracts and the land that the Board of Education controls now.”

It’s no surprise that during the third round of these meaningless marathon hearings, the council got as good as it gave. No doubt, some of these panelists feel betrayed by their new leadership, in whom they had placed so much hope.

The hearings turned into a far-ranging free-for-all and got ugly when some angry and frustrated panelists went on the offensive and yelled back at the council members. One hurled painful personal accusations at several council members. The predictable specter of race added fuel to the already raging fire.

All this passion and emotion is welcome, on the one hand, if it means that the city’s public schools finally will get the attention they deserve, but there must be a limit to the madness coming from both sides of the council dais during these “SmackDown” sessions.

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