- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray says his top priority when the council returns Monday from summer recess will be to continue oversight hearings on the Fenty administration’s proposed changes to the city school system - a response, in part, to council members’ concerns about being left out of the administration’s key plans and decisions.

Mr. Gray, a Democrat, said he wants the hearings to delve into schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s master facilities and five-year educational plans, although past hearings have resulted in conflict between the sometimes brusque Mrs. Rhee and Allen Y. Lew, director of the school system’s Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Democrat, hired Mrs. Rhee last year when he took control of the troubled, 49,000-student school system.

The council is generally supportive of Mrs. Rhee’s plans but has taken issue with her reluctance to respond in detail to inquiries.

“The level of detail we’re looking for isn’t there,” Mr. Gray said Friday. “We’ve had a difficult time getting information from the executive” branch.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said Mrs. Rhee could have a better relationship with the council if she was cooperative with the oversight process, especially concerning the school system’s budget.

“It’s my job as a council member to exercise oversight,” Mrs. Cheh said. “I think I should have the best understanding possible of how money is being used. She has to realize she’s not Henry VIII.”

Though Mr. Gary has stated school oversight as a top and long-term priority for the 13-member council, members will likely have to address the more immediate concern of passing legislation to address the end of the city’s 32-year-old ban on handgun ownership.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said either extending emergency legislation or crafting permanent rules regulating handgun ownership will be a high priority for the committee and the entire council.

The committee will hold a hearing on gun regulations Thursday.

Mr. Mendelson said the council may have to relax handgun-storage requirements to comply with the high court’s decision. He said he would likely push for a child-access-prevention law as a safety net, a move that Mr. Gray said he would be inclined to support.

“We may have to say as policy that we recommend you store handguns locked up, with a trigger lock or disassembled,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But there have to be much stricter penlites if a child gets access to a gun.”

Handgun owners in the District must keep guns unloaded and disassembled unless they are being used in self-defense inside the home, under emergency legislation that expires in mid-October.

Mr. Mendelson said the council also will have to examine the District’s broad definition of a machine gun, which bans most semi-automatic pistols.

He said his committee will explore the implications and enforceability of capping magazine capacity, the key issue in the legalization of semiautomatic handguns.

Right now, a gun capable of firing 12 or more rounds without being reloaded qualifies as a handgun under D.C. law.

Three D.C. gun owners, backed by the National Rifle Association, have mounted challenges in federal court to the ban on the restriction, and the U.S. House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bill, unpopular among D.C. officials, that would relax local gun-control laws.

City officials and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s non-voting House member, say the bill undermines the city’s right to govern - known as Home Rule - and would hinder police efforts against violent crime.

Violent crime also is expected to be the focus of an oversight hearing on public safety and social services, after a series of shootings in the spring and early summer in the 5th Police District, particularly in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, said he plans to advocate for a central-information clearinghouse to connect neighborhood youth advocacy groups such as the Peaceoholics and Alliance of Concerned Men share information and better understand when young people start becoming involved in crime and gangs.

Mr. Thomas wants to determine how to stop children from rival neighborhoods who become friends in elementary school from feuding when they go to high school, a phenomenon that officials have seen across the District for decades.

“There’s a disconnect somewhere,” he said. “At some point, the neighborhood becomes more important than the bonds they made in school.”

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