Barras: Vote yes for D.C. charter amendments

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Abuse of the public trust should have strong, unequivocal consequences for those who have committed criminal or unethical offenses and deter others from engaging in similar activities. Three proposed amendments to the District's governing constitution that appear on the 2012 general election ballot would achieve that goal.

The measures would permit the council to expel by a supermajority vote any one of its members for gross misconduct while in office and declare "ineligible" to remain in office any legislator convicted of a felony. A mayor convicted of a felony while holding office also would be immediately "ineligible" to stick around through the end of his term. And any council member or mayor so convicted would be forever barred from holding office in the city.

Together, the amendments to the Home Rule Charter begin to set a higher standard for those seeking and holding office. That's a good thing, especially when residents consider the problems with elected officials that surfaced during the last several years.

Unfortunately, some D.C. Council members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, have argued the Board of Elections went beyond the legislature's intent when it prepared the ballot summary for the charter amendments. Mendelson said the council never intended to permanently disqualify anyone from running for office.

If it didn't, it should have.

A felony is not some wrist-slapping crime. It is a serious transgression. Think about the actions of the two elected officials who were forced to resign from office -- in disgrace, I might add.

Former council Chairman Kwame R. Brown committed bank fraud, lying not once, but several times on loan documents presented to Industrial Bank. Perhaps the oldest African-American bank in the country, Industrial is also a government contractor. Former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. stole, through a wicked kickback, more than $300,000 of the public's money that had been intended for disadvantaged youth.

Individuals like those do not deserve the privilege of holding public office in the District ever again. But if the charter amendments do not pass, their names could appear on a future ballot. Already there is talk that Brown is plotting a Marion Barry-esque return to office.

Stop him. Reset the standard of decency in the city. Vote yes on all three amendments.

Citizens serious about good government can't stop there, however. They should begin the systematic transformation of the legislature, using each election as an opportunity to push out officials who have engaged in questionable behaviors -- even if they haven't been convicted of a crime.

Ethical leadership requires more from elected officials than a declaration they are not "under investigation" or never received a subpoena. That's why at-large Councilmen Michael A. Brown, I, and Vincent B. Orange Sr., D, should be shown the door.

David Grosso is the best choice for at-large councilman. Voters may want to give A.J. Cooper their second vote. Both believe in service to community, understand the role of the legislature and could help begin fumigation of the District government.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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