My Plan as Chairwoman for a Better DC Council
This week I released the first-ever DC Council Accountability Plan — a comprehensive, evidence-based plan to build a more effective, modern, and ethical DC Council.
This Plan is long overdue: in 1999 two expert organizations issued reports that provided the DC Council with similar recommendations to adjust key processes to ensure an ethical and effective Council. But there’s never been the leadership to implement these critical changes. As time progresses, our Council falls even further behind, and we see it through ongoing scandals and lack of consistent oversight. My Plan builds on my expertise and work in ethics and accountability for more than a decade — critical experience I’ll use every day to make our local legislature stronger.
We need improved DC Council accountability now more than ever. In the face of significant disruption, trauma, and hardship as we weather the Covid-19 public health emergency and strive for an equitable recovery, we shouldn’t have to worry about corrupt politicians and a current Council Chair who won’t act expeditiously in the face of ethical misconduct. We shouldn’t have to worry about the Council’s inability to perform effective oversight because the current Council Chair has cut them off at the knees. We shouldn’t have to worry about the public’s inability to participate in Council proceedings because of the current Council Chair’s failure to use modern technology for inclusive and accessible hearings. And we shouldn’t have to worry about a Council Chair who isn’t even taking small steps to close pay gaps and build an inclusive Council. I will work every day to build trust in our legislature.
The challenges we have faced related to schools during the Covid-19 public health emergency show why new leadership and the proposals in my Plan are desperately needed. In December 2020, the current Council Chair unilaterally dissolved the Council’s standalone Education Committee as he consolidated power in the Chair position — to the exclusion of other Councilmembers.
Our children have paid the price of the current Council Chair’s unilateral decision to dissolve the Education Committee, concentration of power in the Chair position, and lack of focus on DC schools. As the Covid-19 public health emergency unfolded, we saw schools wholly unprepared for a necessary transition to virtual learning, including a system with inadequate and inequitable access to technology and Internet and that completely neglected incarcerated youth with disabilities. And we saw testing and vaccination rollouts built around a first-come, first-served model that have resulted in deep disparities in vaccination rates and deaths from Covid-19.
Worse yet, despite 18 months knowing students would ultimately be back in school buildings, we watched as students returned this fall to faulty HVAC systems, missing HEPA filters, lack of outdoor equipment for meals, and lack of basic PPE and cleaning supplies, while parents and community members resorted to a series of self-help measures to fill the gaps. In addition, the current Council Chair has failed to conduct meaningful oversight of the use of current federal funding related to Covid-19 and schools, with only 4.2% of those $600 million having been reported as spent.
Sometimes it feels like our Council leadership has given up on even trying. When recent emergency legislation was proposed to respond to the Mayor’s inadequate school safety measures, the current Council Chair refused to even consider it. He created a loophole for the Mayor to avoid accountability and undermined the Council as a co-equal branch of government.
We also see the current Council Chair’s unwillingness to operate independently in our failures to care for children before Covid-19. Faced with a decision by the Mayor to close Washington Metropolitan High School — an alternative school serving students who struggled on other campuses that offered the chance “to be nurtured, cared for and loved while working through various traumas’’ — the current Council Chair ignored data that closures are not accountability or investment in students and voted to close the school. He then shamed students, telling them this was not a school to be proud of, despite his and the city’s failures to meet their needs, including a school system that never followed the law to ensure that funding for at-risk students goes to children in need.
Our Council can be better equipped to support a resilient city that has a brighter future. That means being proactive — and not reactive — in the face of challenges. And empowering the Council as a whole to do its best work by building a stronger Council infrastructure. My DC Council Accountability Plan proposes meaningful solutions that will ensure the DC Council is better and smarter in supporting our schools, kids, and teachers. Specifically:
- Reconstituting the Council’s standalone Education Committee will ensure consistent and dedicated oversight of and attention to DC’s public schools including through dedicated, nonpartisan support staff.
- Re-instituting a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service and enhancing and increasing use of the DC Auditor’s Office will help the Council better target public funds toward programs that work and better ensure robust, consistent oversight.
- Expanding the work of the Council Office of Racial Equity to include review of the DC budget and requiring the DC Council to respond to that Office’s racial equity impact assessments will help assure our government is responding to deep racial inequities in our city, including as to education-related issues.
- Appointing a nonpartisan individual to serve as Parliamentarian for the Council will prevent the Council Chair from unilaterally depriving the Council of consideration and deliberation on legislative solutions to urgent problems facing our schools.
- Ensuring the Council uses technology and lessons learned during the public health emergency to make it easier for residents to participate and make their voices heard will empower those most impacted by proposed laws, regulations, and policy — including students, families, and teachers — to have a say in our government.
These improvements aren’t hard. They aren’t complicated. And many of them cost nothing. They are fundamentals of good government, and we need and deserve them now.
Good government requires constant vigilance, and institutions can always improve their accountability. The recommendations in my Plan 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.
Read the whole Plan online here or download the PDF. You can also read about my support for efforts to expand our local democracy by lowering the voting age to 16 and granting permanent residents voting rights in local DC elections.
Let’s keep building a government that works for all of us.
Erin Palmer, Democrat for DC Council Chairwoman