Erin Palmer’s DC Council Accountability Plan
The DC Council should be trustworthy and effective.
By neglecting key pillars of strong leadership for a decade, DC’s current Council Chair has created a less effective, fair, transparent, and accessible legislature. Due to this poor management, many residents perceive the Council to be either inconsequential or unethical, despite the hard work of many Councilmembers. District residents deserve more, and a brighter future is possible. Both ambitious and fair, the practices I outline below will empower the Council with the tools it needs to legislate and conduct oversight so our government works well, efficiently, and to the benefit of all DC residents. These are clear, simple, and evidence-based changes that will result in a more effective District legislature that residents can trust.
In 1999, two expert organizations, the National Council of State Legislatures and the DC Appleseed Center, issued reports providing the DC Council with recommendations to adjust key processes to ensure ethical behavior and an effective government. Both reports highlighted that Council offices are too isolated and institutional processes and capacity are lacking. Unfortunately, the Council did not implement many of these recommendations. The public continues to witness indiscretion and ineffectiveness, most recently in the scandals surrounding ex-Councilmember Jack Evans and the current Chair’s inability to expeditiously address clear and present corruption.
We need improved DC Council accountability now more than ever. In the face of significant disruption, trauma, and hardship, we should not have to worry about corrupt politicians. We should not have to worry about our legislature’s challenges requesting and receiving needed information about agency decisionmaking and action. We should not have to worry about our legislature’s inability to access or conduct up-to-date research on District programming, or their inability to share research across multiple offices to inform agency oversight. Finally, we should not have to worry about how to easily, clearly, and consistently access our Council in the same reliable way every time. With new leadership, we can build a Council that is more effective, responsive, and a source of pride for all DC.
Below I outline four critical areas where I will implement changes as DC Council Chairwoman to improve the Council’s accountability and institutional integrity.
- Empower the DC Council’s Legislative and Oversight Function through strengthening the Council as a whole, reducing over-concentration of power in the Chair position, revitalizing committees, and adding legislative research capacity;
- Strengthen an Ethical and Accountable DC Council by holding the Council to the highest ethical standards and implementing practiced and effective safeguards to prevent and deter ethical misconduct;
- Ensure an Inclusive and Accessible DC Council by using modern technology and best practices to ensure all residents can easily and consistently participate in government; and
- Support DC Council Workers and Workplace Accountability through ensuring a workplace in which all employees are treated as professionals and one that reflects the diverse communities we serve.
Many of these recommendations can be implemented via amendments to the Council’s rules and policies, best practices, or through modeling behavior, without the need for changes to the charter or additional legislation. I believe in a collaborative leadership approach and have deep respect for our Councilmembers, so I would seek to implement these proposals in continual consultation with Councilmembers and their offices.
Good government requires constant vigilance, and institutions can always improve their accountability. The recommendations in this document are a starting point, and not the end. I will continue to work every day to build trust in our legislature and make our Council more effective.
Empower the DC Council’s Legislative and Oversight Function:
Over-concentration of power and authority in the Chair increases the risks of favoritism, back-door deals, and actions that advance the Chair’s personal political agenda, all to the detriment of the collective ability of the Council to make laws and conduct oversight of government agencies. Instituting more collaborative procedures for Council governance and continually assessing how best to support Councilmembers in making laws and conducting oversight will empower the Council as a whole to legislate and conduct oversight well.
The Council Chair can empower the Council’s legislative and oversight function by:
- Improving the process of forming and assigning membership to Council Committees to assure neutrality, expertise, and consistency and to avoid the appearance of impropriety (e.g., seeming to be motivated by obtaining a desired vote; punishing or rewarding Councilmembers for their vote; limiting certain Councilmembers from influencing specific issues), including:
- Collaborating with fellow Councilmembers to build a core list of standing Committees and agencies that fall within each Committee’s purview to reflect Council priorities; ensure consistent, continual oversight and legislation; and avoid the appearance of favoritism;
- Expanding dedicated, nonpartisan Committee support staff to ensure continuity, retention of institutional knowledge, and additional capacity to legislate and conduct oversight;
- Reconstituting the Council’s Education Committee to ensure consistent and dedicated oversight of and attention to DC’s public schools, including via dedicated Committee staff, particularly in light of persistent oversight challenges related to schools during the Covid-19 public health emergency and past efforts to establish additional education oversight;
- Placing tax responsibilities — which previously fell within the duties of the now-disbanded Finance and Revenue Committee — in the Committee of the Whole or creating a stand-alone Committee to better allow Councilmembers to identify revenue to fund Council priorities and enable additional deliberation, including a hearing on revenue policy early in the budget process, and;
- Instituting a neutral Committee membership and chair appointment process, such as seniority bidding, a process used by many legislative bodies across the country that adds stability, expertise, and neutrality.
- Re-instituting a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service to assist the Council in crafting legislative solutions to DC’s challenges, including robust consideration of best practices across jurisdictions; encourage holistic knowledge building across Council offices; help the Council better target public funds toward evidence-based programs; and supplement the research work of the Council’s Office of the Budget Director
- Enhancing and increasing the use of the DC Auditor’s Office, including through additional hearings on important audit findings and enhanced Committee consideration and use of recommendations, as a tool to ensure robust, consistent oversight to improve agency performance
- Expanding the work of the Council Office of Racial Equity to include review of the DC budget and Council operations, as well as requiring the Council to respond to racial equity impact assessments, including providing its rationale for supporting or opposing legislation that maintains or worsens racial inequity
- Requiring the Council Chair to release their DC budget proposal at least 72 hours before a vote, giving time for fellow Councilmembers and the public to review and weigh in on what is proposed
- Auditing the Council’s oversight activities and tools, including use of subpoenas, to assess the timeliness and completeness of agency responses and determine best practices to assist the Council in obtaining complete information to fulfill its oversight function and ensure agency accountability
- Appoint a nonpartisan individual within the office of the Secretary to the Council to provide neutral interpretation of the Rules of Organization and Procedure for the Council of the District of Columbia and avoid the appearance of an interpretation of the Rules to achieve a desired political result
We need improved DC Council accountability now more than ever. In the face of significant disruption, trauma, and hardship, we should not have to worry about corrupt politicians.
Strengthen an Ethical and Accountable DC Council:
The Council must hold itself to the highest ethical standards. Institutional integrity requires constant attention. The Council should be proactive — and not just reactive — in implementing safeguards to shield against ethical misconduct and to root out such misconduct when it occurs. Council offices should not operate as isolated work environments, which can increase the risk of workplace misconduct and weaken accountability.
The Council Chair can strengthen the Council’s procedures to ensure an ethical and accountable Council by:
- Instituting a two-year cooling off period for former Councilmembers to engage in lobbying to reduce the risk of former Councilmembers acting on behalf of the same special interests that previously had business pending before the Council and using inside connections from their time as Councilmembers to advance the interests of their clients
- Instituting a two-year recusal requirement for Councilmembers to preclude participation in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to the Councilmember’s former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts
- Immediately implementing the recommendation from the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability’s 2021 Best Practices Report to prohibit Councilmembers from holding outside employment in the form of “providing any professional services for compensation,” and then prohibiting all outside employment for Councilmembers going forward
- Abolishing Councilmember constituent services funds, which are not distributed equitably and are regularly used for items like campaign-style swag and sports tickets, not their statutory purpose of meeting immediate constituent needs, to prevent misuse of these funds and the appearance of impropriety
- Conducting an audit of past Councilmember ethical misconduct to determine whether any Council procedures or practices facilitated such misconduct and whether Council procedures or practices can be improved to prevent future misconduct
- Providing additional training and guidance to Councilmembers and Council staff with regard to rules and regulations governing referral and reporting of potential misconduct to ensure all Council offices understand confidentiality and feel comfortable and familiar with reporting potential misconduct to appropriate entities
- Providing consistent and reliable support for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions as governmental entities that work toward accountability, including ensuring the Council responds to formal Commission actions
The Council should be proactive — and not just reactive — in implementing safeguards to shield against ethical misconduct and to root out such misconduct when it occurs.
Ensure an Inclusive and Accessible DC Council:
Robust participation in public hearings before the Council and government agencies is essential to a strong democracy. Individuals who are most impacted by proposed laws, regulations, and policy should be heard and have easy access to the information needed to engage thoroughly in the legislative process. The Council should constantly work to improve the inclusivity and accessibility of its proceedings, including by using technology to its advantage, to build on lessons learned during the public health emergency and institutionalize best practices.
The Council Chair can ensure inclusive and accessible Council proceedings and Council action by:
- Ensuring a clear, centralized website to share hearing notices, witness lists, and testimony, and not relying on websites controlled by individual Councilmembers to share critical public information
- Permanently implementing virtual and hybrid options for Council proceedings to improve and expand participation, including dedicated personnel to assist in maximizing use and functionality of these options
- Developing and implementing best practices to expand participation in Council hearings, including:
- Scheduling hearings with day, evening, and weekend options;
- Using timed panels and outreach to witnesses when they are ready to testify;
- Providing options for video and other recorded testimony to be played at hearings;
- Distributing clear and concise communications regarding the various options for remote public participation in government hearings, and;
- Using a public comment platform.
- Using technology to improve inclusion and access of Council hearings and public meetings by requiring Communication Access Real-Time Translation services, American Sign Language interpretation, and translation to allow every DC resident to participate in their government
- Developing and implementing a coordinated plan for the Council to improve language access, including as related to Council websites, materials, and staff and working to include the Council within the scope of DC’s language access law to ensure meaningful participation in public services, programs, and activities for individuals who cannot or have limited capacity to speak, read, or write English
- Expanding and coordinating the Council’s civic engagement and education efforts to modernize Council notice to residents beyond the DC Register and individual Council office efforts, with a focus on how to reach different communities, including youth and non-English speakers
- Exploring resident engagement with regard to the budget process through mechanisms like participatory budgeting (such as through a voluntary Advisory Neighborhood Commission program)
With new leadership, we can build a Council that is more effective, responsive, and a source of pride for all DC.
Support DC Council Workers and Workplace Accountability:
A strong workplace ensures a strong institution. The Council should promote workplace accountability and strive to be a model workplace. Support for employees should include ensuring employee protections are clear and well communicated and that employees have resources to exercise their rights. Employees who are treated as professionals and feel secure at work are more likely to speak out on ethical concerns, improving accountability and transparency on the Council. A workplace that reflects the diverse communities we serve should be a priority.
The Council Chair can support Council employees and ensure workplace accountability by:
- Supporting or remaining neutral in employee efforts to unionize or otherwise engage in collective action to allow employees to decide on their own, without interference, to engage in collective action
- Implementing an Employee Advocate Office with staff dedicated to supporting employees, providing information and training regarding workplace rights and protections, investigating potential violations of these rights, and representing employees in proceedings to enforce these rights to protect every Council worker
- Establishing standing working groups comprised of employee members to regularly review workplace policies and procedures, including anti-sexual harassment and anti-bias policies to ensure that the Council’s policies are modern, effective, and inclusive
- Developing a public repository of open employment positions that includes the salary for such positions, including interns and externs, and ending all unpaid internships to help with recruiting and retention, diminishing wage gaps, and ensuring pay parity for similar work
- Commissioning an annual pay equity report to provide transparency and ensure fair pay for Council staff of varied backgrounds, ensuring that hiring requirements are set at the actual requirements to do the job to allow more candidates to apply, and implementing a “Rooney Rule” to ensure that candidates from traditionally-marginalized communities have the opportunity to interview for jobs and appointments
- Increasing Council staff pay and increasing office budgets to put the Council on equal footing with the Executive
A strong workplace ensures a strong institution. The Council should promote workplace accountability and strive to be a model workplace.
I’m Erin Palmer, a mom to three wonderful children, an ethics lawyer, and a dedicated public servant. I’m running to be DC Council Chairwoman to bring new energy and vision to the DC Council. I’ll bring my years of experience fighting for stronger ethics and greater transparency to the Wilson Building to ensure that our government serves all residents and makes DC stronger.
To learn more about Erin, visit www.erinfordc.com.