- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The chairman of the D.C. Council said Wednesday that he intends to make the District’s deals with vendors and land developers more transparent by requiring them to disclose campaign donations to city officials.

“The big issue for me is improving the council’s oversight function,” Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, told The Washington Times. “I want a better chance of a fair deal for the District.”

Mr. Mendelson held up the sale of the 965 Florida Ave. NW building as a deal gone bad for the city, citing it as a “classic example” of the need for more oversight and transparency as well as better valuation of government-owned properties and greater involvement from residents.

In September the council approved selling the city-owned property to MidAtlantic Realty Partners and Ellis Development Group, who plan to erect on the site a Whole Foods market and a 10-story residential building with more than 100 affordable housing units among its 361 total apartments. Mayor Muriel Bowser had pushed hard for the deal.

The city sold the Florida Avenue property, which sits less than a half-mile from the Shaw Metro station, for $400,000. But an independent analysis valued the site at $7.5 million even after taking into account the loss of revenue from 105 affordable housing units there. A second independent appraisal valued the property at nearly $5.9 million.

In a Sept. 22 report, Mr. Mendelson was critical of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), which handles property deals between the city and developers.

“DMPED must become a better steward over the disposition of public assets,” he said in the committee report. “It is the responsibility of the DMPED to be a shrewd negotiator on behalf of the city. Yet the record is disappointing.”

Mr. Mendelson said in the report that the millions of dollars the city lost in the sale could have been spent on any number of priorities, including the Housing Production Trust Fund, which provides money for affordable housing projects under the auspices of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

Ms. Bowser, however, has hailed the Florida Avenue deal as a victory for affordable housing, saying it is a good example of how the city can place affordable housing for low-income residents close to a Metro station.

In his interview with The Times, Mr. Mendelson also addressed a recent Labor Department report that says the District isn’t effectively using federal money for job training programs.

The mayor said last week that, despite the Labor Department’s assessment that the District is a “high-risk partner,” she has focused on “strengthening the workforce-development system by providing high-quality training that leads to good-paying jobs.”

Ms. Bowser issued that statement in announcing restaurant owner Andy Shallal as the new head of the Workforce Investment Council, a private sector-led board that advises the city officials on how to better invest in workforce development and job training.

But Mr. Mendelson said he’s cynical about recent statements on how the Bowser administration is making better use of job training funds.

“I’ve heard that mantra over and over,” he said, adding that the issue isn’t more money, it’s how the money that’s been left on the table is being used.

Again referring to council oversight, Mr. Mendelson said he hopes that D.C. lawmakers will look back at what the mayor’s administration is doing with job training and workforce development in the new year to push the government to do better.

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