POLITICS

Barras: Perplexing choices to head D.C. council committees

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Politics,Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,D.C. Council

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson's selection of committee chairmen is no fresh start for the legislature. Ethically flawed legislators and those who provided poor oversight during the last session are expected to retain their prestigious assignments if the legislature approves his proposal next week. Under the plan, even the great racial divider Marion Barry would have his authority expanded.

The proposal, Mendelson told me, "presents perhaps the best matchup in years between members' interests and their chairmanships." He said he grappled with "competing dynamics" while responding to previous recommendations to reduce the number of committees. "This is seen as a way to counteract the disproportionate power of committee chairs."

Seriously?!

Mendelson's choices foreshadow a leadership style likely to frustrate residents hoping for a swift shift to good, ethical government. While conscientious and without ethical baggage, he nevertheless dances with the disreputable in the name of harmony and protecting members' political turf.

Therefore, Jim Graham keeps a poorly constructed committee that includes human services and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board although he is under investigation by federal and local officials. Barry gains control of workforce development, community affairs and parks and recreation. In the past, the Ward 8 legislator has made sexist and racist comments about a mayoral pick to run the Parks and Recreation Department.

In fairness, some assignments -- Muriel Bowser to the Committee on Economic Development and Housing, Tommy Wells to the Committee on the Judiciary, David Catania to the Committee on Education, for example -- offer promise. But mostly Mendelson's plan suggest he has decided to placate his colleagues rather than boldly taking the reigns, using committee assignments as one potent method for raising standards while restoring the public's trust.

Mendelson's most baffling decision is to sideline David Grosso, a talented, young politician who pulled in 78,123 votes during last month's hotly contested at-large election as he booted incumbent Michael A. Brown. As a former legislative director to then-Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose and a former aide to congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Grosso's knowledge of local government probably exceeds that of the person Mendelson has tapped as chairman pro tempore.

Grosso could not be reached for comment.

"I think David will be an excellent council member and he will have a chance to shine even without chairing a committee for the moment -- as others have done before him," said Mendelson, who obviously doesn't remember that each of his immediate predecessors provided new members with full committees or subcommittees, particularly those who won their seats during a regular election.

Failing to assign Grosso a chairmanship, Mendelson has relegated him to the same status as Anita Bonds. The chairwoman of the D.C. State Democratic Committee, Bonds gathered 55 of her cronies to appoint her temporarily to the at-large seat left vacant by Mendelson's assent.

Grosso is no Bonds. He arrived on the council the honest way and with support of tens of thousands of voters who expected him to be treated fairly. More important, District residents would benefit greatly from his leadership of a committee.

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

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