D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown swallowed the Committee on Economic Development last year after Harry Thomas Jr. was forced to step down. Thomas had been accused, and later pleaded guilty to, federal charges of stealing more than $353,000 of taxpayers' funds intended for disadvantaged youth. Brown's move added to his considerable power.
His Committee of the Whole already had oversight of education, property management, zoning, and the budget. Economic development came with a huge multi-billion dollar portfolio. Consolidating that kind of power in the hands of one individual -- even the legislature's chairman -- seemed reckless at the time.
Maintaining that committee structure now is dangerous, considering the questionable state of Brown's political future. His 2008 election committee is under federal investigation for alleged campaign finance violations. If, as some have speculated, Brown is charged with a crime and forced to step down, the council could descend into chaos.
A scrimmage surely would ensue to fill the leadership vacuum. By law, a temporary chairman must be selected from sitting at-large legislators. There likely would be a push to ensure only a Democrat assumed the post. That fight, marked by unvarnished ambition, would be exacerbated by having so many critical functions lodged under the chairman.
The arrival last week of the new Ward 5 representative, Kenyan McDuffie, provides the perfect reason for realigning council committees. But Brown's spokesperson Karen Sibert told me the chairman has "no plans currently in place to make reassignments."
Other legislators should push the envelope. At the very least, the Committee on Economic Development should be reestablished. A case also could be made for a separate Committee on Education.
With a recovering economy, there have been signs development is on the rise. Nearly every ward touts important projects: Skyland in Ward 7; McMillan in Ward 5; Walter Reed in Ward 4; and Reservation 13 in Ward 6.
Still, the District's growth plan cannot rely principally on market whims. Development must be deliberate, incorporating anticipated demands of the city's changing demographics while satisfying the needs of long-time residents. That important work requires an attentive and engaged council -- one that is overseeing the mayor, who also has a cloudy political future.
The legislature's role in education reform is even more critical.
Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright is gearing up to effect the operation of charter and traditional public schools. He has said he intends to close several DCPS facilities. He also has indicated he wants to alter admission policies for charter schools. Meanwhile, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has launched her five-year strategic academic plan.
That agenda and a total public education budget of more than $1 billion require more sophisticated and rigorous oversight than has been provided over the past 18 months. That can happen only with a singularly focused committee -- not one distracted by zoning, property management and general budget issues.
With their chairman under a cloud, legislators may want to hope for the best. But their duty to District residents requires they prepare for the worse.
Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.