Jonetta Rose Barras: D.C. Council goes from skillet to fire

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

News the D.C. Council may select Michael Brown as its interim chairman pro tempore on Wednesday means the legislature is on an express trip from the skillet to the fire.

Brown, after all, is the person who was at the center of the shenanigans surrounding the failed attempt to bring Internet gambling to the nation's capital. Brown also pleaded guilty in 1997 to federal campaign finance violations. According to published reports, he made illegal contributions in his own name. Then, he persuaded other people to make donations for which he reimbursed them; that's called making contributions in the name of another, which also is illegal.

His outsized ambitions and lust for the good life are comparable to those of federal felons Kwame R. Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. In fact, Michael Brown's previous offenses are similar to those for which workers in Mayor Vincent C. Gray's 2010 campaign recently pleaded guilty.

"It's going to be god-awful," one council staffer told me about Brown's elevation, adding the "demoralization" of legislative branch employees is "palpable."

The Home Rule Charter mandates the interim chairman and interim pro tem be selected from among the council's four at-large council members. Phil Mendelson is in line to become interim chairman. The other job will be filled by Brown, David Catania or Vincent Orange. Based on what city hall sources tell me, Brown appears likely to take the interim pro tem slot.

Residents I spoke with over the weekend are absolutely disheartened by the state of political affairs in the city. Many said they feel as if the city has taken a leap backward to the pre-Control Board era.

"The council has to rebuild trust in our government that has been shaken. That's not something we can issue a press release and get back," Councilman Phil Mendelson told me. He may run for the permanent job in the special election scheduled for Nov. 6.

Choosing Brown as second in command won't give residents any confidence. It's likely to scare the bejeezus out of them, particularly ethics and campaign finance reformers. That's because if Mayor Vincent C. Gray actually gets charged with a crime and is forced to step down, the interim council chairman would move over to the executive branch. Brown then would become head of the council.

Brown's appointment last week to head the Committee on Economic Development was cause enough for concern. He just can't be trusted with oversight of that multibillion-dollar portfolio, especially during election season.

Mendelson said when committees were restructured last summer, "It was enormously destabilizing to the legislative process. To do it again now would be disruptive." He said he might be willing to detail certain responsibilities to a committee. "After I get a sense of what the issues are and who has interest in them."

Everyone appreciates Mendelson's don't-rock-the-boat strategy. The legislature has to be deliberate and thoughtful. But, it cannot become stagnant. Nor can it have a tainted leader like Michael Brown -- even as second in command.

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

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