- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2011

A D.C. Council member is proposing a package of ethics-reform bills that would impose term limits on officeholders while raising to $170,000 the salaries of city lawmakers who are already among the most highly paid in the nation.

Vincent B. Orange proposed his “new deal for the District of Columbia” a day before the council’s first legislative session since the summer recess. Mr. Orange, at-large Democrat, said his efforts will “start the conversation” on bold reforms, even if some of his ideas prove to be unpopular among his colleagues.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said at a press conference inside the John A. Wilson Building.

The proposals are part of a hodgepodge of legislation that highlight individual council members as champions of reform after a steady drip of apparent ethical lapses in city hall this year.

Mr. Orange on Monday trumpeted an agenda that also includes a Committee on Ethics and Accountability, a city Office of the Jobs Czar and a moratorium on opening new strip clubs in Ward 5.

His ethics-related proposals add to the swelling stack of legislation to increase government oversight, mandate ethics training or prohibit specific practices among elected officials.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown told The Washington Times last week he wants to cull the proposals and form a comprehensive ethics bill by the end of the year.

Mr. Brown said he has tasked Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, with sorting through these bills as the new chairperson of the Committee on Government Operations.

Ms. Bowser said she expects a “flood of reform legislation to come to my committee,” noting she has met with the city’s attorney general, inspector general, auditor and officials at the Office of Campaign Finance.

She has scheduled public hearings for Oct. 12 and Oct. 26 to allow civic associations and private citizens to comment on ethics reform.

Mr. Orange said he will work with Ms. Bowser “so we can satisfy everyone’s concerns.”

Among his key initiatives, Mr. Orange touted a term-limits bill that would restrict council members from serving more than two consecutive, four-year terms as mayor, council member, council chairman, attorney general or as a member of the Board of Education. The term limits would not be retroactive, so sitting council members would be entitled to two additional full terms if the measure passed.

Another bill would turn council members into full-time employees to prevent conflicts of interest caused by outside employment. Mr. Orange’s proposal would set the salary for each council member to within $20,000 of the chairman’s, a pay raise from about $125,000 to $170,000.

The District’s “part-time” members are already the second-highest paid city council in the nation, earning more than New York City’s legislators and trailing only those in Los Angeles, who earn an average $178,879 annually, according to a February report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said he already feels “well-compensated,” but he would be willing to give some thought to a prohibition on outside employment.

As for term-limits, Mr. Wells said it would have been “a disservice to the city” if certain longtime members had left after eight years on the council. He cited the oversight work of David A. Catania, at-large independent and a council member since 1997, who knows “where bodies are buried and the questions to ask.”

Mr. Wells, who introduced his own package of reform bills in June, said he wishes the council did not have to focus on policing each other. However, he said, “I think we need to take advantage of the moment to pass the legislation we need.”

The “moment” stems from a series of unflattering situations this year involving the city officials.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan for $300,000, the amount he is accused of having bilked from public funds earmarked for youth baseball.

He still faces a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the District.

Mr. Brown’s 2008 re-election committee faces a U.S. Attorney probe for irregularities in its campaign finance reports, and a few other council members have been criticized for how they spent their constituent services funds.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Mr. Brown kicked off the series of ethics reform bills in May with their Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act, which would broadly expand disclosure requirements and other ethics rules for city employees and elected officials.

Mr. Wells followed suit with a package of bills that address specific practices. The legislation creates a “transition and inaugural committee” category that must report its finances to the Office of Campaign Finance, prohibits “bundling” of donations from a single business interest that are funneled through subsidiaries, and prevents an elected official from creating a nonprofit to spend unused constituent services funds.

Mr. Wells said the public will learn how serious each council member is about certain reforms when they offer votes for their colleagues’ bills and enlist support for their own.

“I think I’m the only one to have sent my bills around,” he said.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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