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Barras: The people's power

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

It's easy to understand how some people listening to Phil Mendelson's speech during last week's swearing-in ceremony for newly elected and re-elected legislators believed the D.C. Council chairman was attempting to tamp down expectations for his leadership of the legislative branch.

He told the audience inside the Walter Washington Convention Center he does not wield "mythical powers" as some may think; he is only "one of 13."

Further, Mendelson noted that while citizens may believe that elected officials should be a "cut above" everyone else, they are "ordinary people." He also warned that "statesmanship is more than vision. It's finding solutions."

Translation: Don't expect muscular leadership. Don't anticipate any grand plans for the legislature or the city. Be prepared for mistakes -- small and large.

Then, Mendelson talked about shared responsibility, shifting some of the burdens for good government to citizens: "The solution to someone breaking the law is not to pass a new law," he said.

"Rather, it's to hold your elected representatives accountable," continued Mendelson. "Probe our ethical and moral character on the campaign trail. Study our ethical and moral character on the job. Encourage and support the ethical candidate."

So far, Mendelson, who has led the council since the summer and won the special election for chairman in November, has been accused of failing to exert the powers of his office, including raising standards and offering a new direction. None of that should surprise anyone.

Despite investigations that resulted in two councilmen pleading guilty to felonies and U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen concluding the 2010 mayoral election was "illegal," Mendelson has never called for anyone's resignation. Even after his former colleagues were sentenced, he has not publicly chastised them.

With that history of timidity and the clear warning in last week's speech, it's certain residents will have to drive the good government movement. They also will have to push for Mendelson to get off the sidelines and into the game.

Leadership requires more than the ability to reach consensus. It also demands charting a bolder -- sometimes unpopular -- path.

In truth, a citizen-led effort to improve the quality of elected officials began more than a year ago. That's when residents demanded ethics reform. Their efforts continued with the election last month of David Grosso to the at-large seat once held by Michael A. Brown.

Will that movement persist through the April 2013 special election, even without support from current leaders?

Already 15 individuals, including sitting Councilwoman Anita Bonds and former Councilman Brown, have picked up nominating petitions. They must gather at least 3,000 signatures of registered voters to have their names placed on the ballot.

Most people sign any petition thrust in their faces. But that process is the first opportunity voters have to send a message about the kind of individuals they want to lead this city. Consequently, residents may want to be more deliberative about rejecting or just saying no to individuals with documented histories of questionable or unethical behavior.

You get my drift, right?

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

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