- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

Veteran human rights advocates should school the District’s neophyte attorney general until she learns that the right to vote must not be called “improper” under any circumstances.

Attorney General Linda Singer — acting on behalf of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty — last week filed an appeal of a ruling by the D.C. Board of Ethics and Elections that allows D.C. voters the opportunity to vote on a referendum to change the city’s Home Rule Charter in the mayoral schools takeover, which would neuter the Board of Education.

In a poor choice of words and sentiment, Ms. Singer characterized the election ruling as “improper.” She argued that the referendum sought by D.C. voters would adversely affect a funding bill now approved by Congress and the president rather than radically ruin an existing governing body protected by the charter.

Not even a nice try. This shallow argument is most illustrative of this shallow administration in its grab for power and real estate. How long did Mr. Fenty’s clones and secret advisers dash around to come up with such a weak legal strategy to advance his schools takeover scheme?

Matthew Watson, the attorney for the voting rights advocates working in a coalition called Let Me Vote, is not deterred; he is “still quietly optimistic.”

“We’re trying to accelerate the hearing on the suit so we can win quickly and be on our way,” Mr. Watson said yesterday.

Representing D.C. grandmother Mary Spencer of Let Me Vote and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Mr. Watson will be in court this morning asking a Superior Court judge to expedite a ruling on the city’s appeal so his clients can collect their petitions and proceed with attempting to acquire 20,000 signatures in four or five days for the August referendum.

Even the loss of one day could make this democratic endeavor moot. Mr. Watson said the elections board is being conservative and does not want to hand out the petitions until the court appeals are settled.

“The issue here is whether [the charter change] is an appropriate subject for referendum,” Mr. Watson said.

“The law and the facts are on our side,” he said. “It would be fine if the District treated [the schools takeover legislation] as an appropriation act when it went through” the D.C. Council. But they didn’t, he explains in great detail.

The courts generally uphold rulings of city agencies in part because it “gives great weight” to their expertise in certain areas, such as election laws, and as homage to the Home Rule Charter. At the very least, the courts have tried not to be “a bottleneck” when it comes to cases involving the election process, Mr. Watson said.

It’s ironic that the judiciary respects the charter and local autonomy more than the executive and the legislature. But we have reached an era in the District where the city’s paternalistic and arrogant leaders act as if they know what’s best for their constituents despite their admirable protests.

Just watch, for example, what happens to the expressed wishes of Ward 5 residents who don’t want a red-light district in their community. Strip clubs, by the way, that were summarily displaced by a baseball stadium that the majority of D.C. taxpayers didn’t want either. At one point in the not-too-distant past, it would have been political suicide to take any steps to diminish what little voting opportunity residents enjoy.

Mr. Watson and others are curious about why the hometown mayor is undertaking this latest legal maneuver to deny residents a voice in what is arguably one of the most important changes in their governance structure since the Home Rule Charter was enacted in the early 1970s.

“I really wonder why the mayor is so opposed [to the referendum] if, as he believes, he has massive support” for the schools takeover, Mr. Watson said. If the coalition is able to get 20,000 signatures within the extremely short window, then that should give Mr. Fenty pause. In any case, the voters will have had some say.

“If the District wants to be a state, it should act like a state,” Mr. Watson said, by having a referendum on its charter. “Why should we go to Daddy Congress? We want to leave the nest, but while we’re here, let’s take advantage. We should show we can stand on our own two feet.”

Mr. Watson is no stranger to the District’s hard-won voting laws and process. In fact, he was the first general counsel to the elections board when home rule was granted. He was the city’s first auditor. Now retired and working pro bono, he has held numerous city positions, including a seat on the Metro board of directors, and most recently as an administrative judge for contract appeals.

The veteran lawyer also has lent legal advice to D.C. residents seeking other referendums, including some dealing with medical marijuana and workers’ compensation.

“Democracy is sometimes a messy business, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” Mr. Watson said.

“There have been totalitarian governments that made the trains run on time, but I don’t thing we want to give up our right to democracy” for the promise of government efficiency, he said. “Voting is more important than a possible slight delay in implementing a risky plan to improve schools, which have needed attention for years.”

No matter in whose favor the judge rules, Mr. Watson fully expects an appeal to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has moved speedily in voting matters, he said.

All this legal mumbo-jumbo would not have been necessary had the city’s elected leaders and its neophyte legal team realized that allowing the electorate to vote at every opportunity should never be discouraged because this fundamental democratic right is anything but “improper.”

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