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SIMMONS: Charter changes could put teeth in demands for ethical behavior

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2012

There's a perfect storm brewing over the District of Columbia, and it's name isn't Sandy.

While massive gusts of wind and torrential downpours are threatening the nation's capital, D.C. voters have three chances to begin shaking the foundation of city hall, if they so choose, by approving three throw-the-bums-out amendments to the D.C. Charter.

All three ballot measures hit the bull's-eye on elected officials' character and ethics and should be approved to remind city leaders that full-fledged democracy rests in voters' hands.

Charter V would allow members of the D.C. Council to expel a lawmaker found guilty of gross transgressions.

We're not talking plunging necklines or failure to zip one's fly when leaving the restroom. We're talking behavior of a serious and devious nature — such as impeding local or federal probes and blatant conflicts of interest.

Charter VI and VII amendments address criminal behavior and would make sitting members of the council, as well as anyone running for those offices, ineligible to hold the seat or seek a run if they commit a felony.

Now, there is a monster of a loophole larger than Hurricane Sandy's potential wind field.

For example, Kwame R. Brown, who stepped down as council chairman in June before pleading guilty to bank fraud, would be precluded from running for chairman again, though he could seek a ward seat.

Similarly, if a mayor becomes a felon while seated, he or she would be ineligible to run for mayor again, but would be allowed to seek a seat on the council.

Approving all three ballot measures would signal to elected officials and wannabes that the voting public's perception of unethical and gross misconduct is as serious as crossing the line into criminal territory.

Look at it this way, too: Voter approval of the three measures would reopen the door to the issue of term limits, a ballot measure approved by a 2-1 margin in 1994.

Called Initiative 49, the term-limits measure would have prohibited the mayor, members of the D.C. Council and members of the Board of Education from serving more than two consecutive terms in the same seat. It was similar, if you will, to the term-limit amendment to the U.S. Constitution regarding the president.

Citywide, 62 percent of voters approved Initiative 49 on Nov. 8, 1994.

However, the will and the voice of the voters was stifled.

For one, the council's general counsel argued that Initiative 49 was inappropriate as a ballot measure because "it was not preceded by an act of the Council and a charter referendum," and because there had been no "act of Congress." The general counsel also said that even if it had been a proper subject for an initiative, implementing the outcome as law would have been practically impossible.

The law would have applied to several officials still holding seats to this very day — including council members David A. Catania, at-large independent; Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, and Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat — but lawmakers accepted the general counsel's interpretation as gospel, and subsequently overturned it in 2001.

Fast forward to 2012 and a foreboding outlook for incumbency that began sweeping the city by way of the 2010 Anybody-but-Fenty storm which cost then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty his job.

Interestingly, had term limits kicked in, Democrat Phil Mendelson, who is seeking the chairman's seat for a full term, and Mr. Evans, who is pondering a mayoral run, would not be in the comfy positions they now hold.

Voters are all too familiar with the ethical storm clouds hovering above city hall.

Next Tuesday, they have three opportunities to begin clearing the air and seeking revenge by preparing the Fat Lady's skirts for a gutsy do-over and gusty super storm.

Here's hoping they take full advantage of each and every one.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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