The District's attorney general accused D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on Monday of trying to stifle opposition to a ballot referendum that seeks to overhaul the District's budget process, long the providence of Congress and a source of frustration for local advocates.
"Before the legislation was introduced, I called Mr. Mendelson. I told him I thought this was problematic," D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said of the push to amend the city's charter to increase the city's power over its own budget. "I asked him for an opportunity to meet with him; he told me was too busy to meet."
And when the council held a hearing to discuss the proposal, Nathan said lawmakers declined his request to testify about the budget autonomy proposal, which aims to allow city officials to pass budgets without Congress' approval.
"They wanted testimony that was favorable," Nathan said. "They got what they asked for."
Nathan leveled his allegations after a contentious D.C. Board of Elections meeting, a session in which Mendelson attacked Nathan's recent efforts to push regulators to block the proposal from the ballot.
"I'm shocked by what I would characterize as a Johnny-come-lately statement by the District's attorney general," Mendelson said. "None of this came up [during the council's deliberations]."
Lawmakers last year unanimously approved the proposal and pressed regulators to add it to the ballot for the April 23 special election. Charter amendments require a citywide vote.
But Nathan said the proposed amendment was illegal and shouldn't be the subject of a vote.
"It would violate our governing law to place it on the election ballot," Nathan said.
The council's lawyer, however, insisted board members didn't have the authority to decide whether proposed changes to the charter might run counter to federal or local laws.
Instead, David Zvenyach argued, the board was only empowered to administer the public vote on the proposal.
"The sole function is to place it on the ballot and report the results," Zvenyach said.
The board did not immediately rule on the referendum's fate, but a decision was expected soon.
Proponents have argued the amendment is vital to the District's financial future, especially as Congress continues to wrangle over fiscal issues.
And while one lawmaker has described the referendum as tantamount to "partial secession," D.C. Vote spokesman James Jones said
the city residents had to act.
"We really believe that this is the right approach," Jones said. "We sit and listen to the attorney general talk about not offending Congress, but Congress hasn't done anything for us on this issue."