D.C. Council chair bests Barry on criminal offenders bill

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder

Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry lectured plenty, but he ultimately decided late Tuesday night not to contest a key parliamentary ruling by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson that left a prized legislative proposal of the former mayor's dead.

Mendelson, who became chairman in June after Kwame Brown's resignation, determined Tuesday that an effort by Barry to offer greater legal protections to ex-criminal offenders was out of order because of how Barry managed a committee vote last week.

"The issue here is the fundamental right of members to vote. At the meeting, that right was denied. That's the issue," Mendelson told reporters ahead of a council meeting. "One does not ignore that or bypass that because the merits might be worthwhile."

After Mendelson's formal ruling on Tuesday night, Barry slammed the council's leader.

"Let me be very clear: I am not going to let you use this parliamentary procedure to sidetrack us on the issue of jobs for returning citizens and residents," Barry said. "It's very clear that we've never had a chair like this, who used parliamentary procedure, who used rules, etc., to block that which he is opposed to. That's not democracy."

Mendelson's ruling stemmed from a rowdy committee meeting on Thursday during which Barry's bill faced defeat before the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, which he chairs.

As the vote neared, Barry suddenly recessed the meeting without announcing a time to reconvene, and several of the bill's opponents exited.

But Barry resumed the session minutes later and quickly called for a vote. With some of his top rivals out of the room, Barry's bill passed.

Barry also refused to allow Mendelson, who is allowed to vote on any committee because he is the council chairman, to participate.

The episode set off a Tuesday of tense exchanges between Mendelson and Barry, a former mayor with a penchant for dramatic politicking, that allowed Barry to try to undermine Mendelson's authority.

Barry regularly challenged Mendelson's decisions in open session Tuesday and accused him of blackballing opponents.

At one point, as Mendelson tried to restore order to the full council meeting, Barry told him, "I'm going to keep talking because you're violating the rules."

Barry's bill had been before the council in some form for about six years and would have barred companies from asking about a job applicant's criminal history before extending a job offer. If employers were to choose to rescind job offers after learning about a person's record, they would have to prove a "relevant relationship" between the job involved and the applicant's criminal history. Complaints about discrimination would have gone to the District's Office of Human Rights.

The debates about the bill and its handling were small segments of an extraordinary day of council meetings that ran for more than 12 hours as lawmakers tried to finish legislation before adjourning for the holidays.

In other late action at the Wilson Building, the council voted 8-4 to approve an $11 million tax break for the Howard Town Center development, a proposed mixed-use project in Ward 1. Mayor Vincent Gray and the city's chief financial officer argued the incentives weren't necessary, but the bill's proponents said the abatement was vital to the project moving forward.

But the council rejected a plan that would charge disabled drivers to park at meters throughout the District. Under existing city law, motorists with handicapped placards can take advantage of free parking, but city officials say that policy encourages fraud.

The council deadlocked on its vote, killing the proposal, after some lawmakers expressed fears that the plan would lead to a reduction in curbside parking.

Lawmakers also ignored Gray's objections and approved a plan to cut traffic fines dramatically. Although city officials have said the proposal was unaffordable - its price tag is estimated at $95 million over four years - legislators supported the plan amid a steady drumbeat of reports that the District has collected record revenues from the fines.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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