Back to Appleseed Center main page Back to City Council main page
Government and People
|DC Appleseed Center
733 Fifteenth Street, NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 393-1158
Fax: (202) 393-1495
DC Appleseed Council Project Team
Enid Beaumont has worked in the field of intergovernmental relations for over 20 years in Washington, D.C. She has also taught about state and local government at Johns Hopkins University and New York University. She held a variety of leadership positions in New York City and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Nicholas W. Fels (*) is a partner at Covington & Burling, where he has practiced law since 1970. He is an expert in energy and regulatory matters. Mr. Fels has been the President of the DC Appleseed Center since 1996.
John Hechinger, Sr.(*) is a fifth generation Washingtonian. He served as the first Chair of the D.C. Council. Mr. Hechinger headed the Hechinger Company from 1958 until his retirement, and has been a supporter of and an active participant in numerous civic and philanthropic organizations.
Jacquelyn Helm (*) is an attorney practicing in the District of Columbia and Maryland who frequently represents clients before the D.C. Council. She served as a consultant to the "Rivlin Commission." Under the late Chair John A. Wilson, Ms. Helm served as Clerk and Counsel to the Committee on Finance and Revenue.
Anna Laitin is a Staff Associate at the DC Appleseed Center, where she serves on several DC Appleseed Project Teams that analyze legislation and budgets enacted by the D.C. Council.
Edward M. Levin (*) is Chief Counsel of the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He has served as counsel to local governments, drafted legislation for the Illinois General Assembly, and been a Senior Fellow at the National Governors' Association.
Philip Rosenthal is a lawyer at Covington & Burling, where he practices intellectual property, communications, and environmental law. He has experience working in a major municipal planning of fice.
Daniel M. Singer(*) is of counsel to Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where he has practiced real estate law since 1958. He has served the District pro bono for the past three years as Special Assistant Corporation Counsel.
Arthur W. Spengler was a staff member of the Council of Montgomery County, Maryland for 19 years, serving as the staff director from 1983 until he left in 1991. He was a member of the George Mason University public management and administration faculty from 1992 until 1998. He is now completing work on his forthcoming book which examines the use of collective bargaining by local government employees.
Joseph Sternlieb is the Deputy Director of the Downtown Business Improvement District Corporations, where he oversees local government relations programs. Between 1993 and 1996, he was Staff Director of the D.C. Council's Committee on Economic Development, and, from 1990-91, was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner.
Melody Webb (*), as an attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, advocated before the D.C. Council on human service issues. She also served as executive director of a grassroots Southeast D.C. community organization advocating on human services legislation and programs.
Sharon Webber is an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission. From 1991 to 1992, Ms. Webber clerked for the late Judge Harriett R. Taylor of the D.C. Superior Court, where she researched and analyzed D.C. criminal law.
Roderic L. Woodson (*) is the former General Counsel of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency and member of the staff of the Securities & Exchange Commission. Since 1979, he has engaged a D.C. municipal law practice, including legislative representation before the D.C. Council on taxation, telecommunications, and managed health care issues.
Joshua S. Wyner is Executive Director of the DC Appleseed Center. As an attorney, he has worked on legislation introduced in, and has testified before, the D.C. Council and Congress. Mr. Wyner also served in a legislative oversight capacity as a Program Evaluator for the General Accounting Office from 1987 to 1989.
Current affiliations listed solely for the purposes of identification.
The DC Appleseed Center thanks the following for their generous contributions to this project.
In the Home Rule Act of 1974, Congress established the District of Columbia Council as an elected legislature with responsibility for passing laws, adopting an annual budget, and overseeing operations of the executive branch and independent agencies. This broad mandate ensures that the D.C. Council significantly affects virtually every aspect of the District government, from law enforcement to public education to economic development Until very recently, however, efforts to make the District government work better have focused almost exclusively on executive and independent agencies. Little has been said about how the operations of the D.C. Council might be improved.
For that reason, the DC Appleseed Center began, in late 1997, to examine the Council's operations. To do so, we assembled a Project Team that included individuals knowledgeable about the operations of the D.C. Council and legislatures elsewhere. The Project Team gathered data on how other city councils operate; interviewed community members as well as advocates who deal with the Council regularly; and studied the rules governing the Council's operations.
We concluded that there are major shortcomings in the operations of the Council. If the Council is to maintain its position as an equal branch of government, it must increase the clarity of its legislation, communicate more productively with the public, perform more meaningful oversight, and enhance Council members' access to expertise in virtually every area of the Council's operations. Above all else, the Council must improve the organization of its staff.
This report recommends changes that will enable the Council to work more effectively in each of those operational areas. While others including the Mayor, Congress, and District residents affect the way the Council operates, this report is about what the Council can do on its own, under its existing authority, to fulfill its responsibilities under the Home Rule Act. Highlights of DC Appleseed's recommendations are summarized below, followed by a full listing of recommendations contained in this report.
A. Centralize Staffing
The fundamental conclusion of DC Appleseed's study is that inadequacies in the Council's current staffing structure lie at the heart of many of the Council's operational problems. The decentralized nature of the staffing structure in which most staff members are hired by, report to, and serve at the pleasure of individual members of the Council favors the creation of 13 different power centers, each with its own agenda, as opposed to a work program designed to fulfill the Council's legislative responsibilities. As a result, the Council's work product is highly variable and too often poor in quality. Moreover, the staff's limited expertise in major subject areas and its lack of necessary technical skills such as legislative oversight, policy and fiscal analysis, legislative research and drafting, and public information constrain the Council's ability to exercise its powers effectively.
The most important difference between the D.C. Council and the 11 other city councils surveyed for this study is staffing structure.1 For example, not one of these 11 councils follows the D.C. Council's practice of giving exclusive authority to an individual member to hire and fire staff for committees that he or she chairs. The D.C. Council has 41 committee staff positions almost one-third of the entire staff each of which is under the sole control of the appointing member.
DC Appleseed believes that, unless the Council changes its staffing structure to focus on the institutional needs of the legislative body, its operational problems will persist. The Council has the authority to take a major step toward curing its problems by establishing a merit-based, centralized staffing structure that does not rely on patronage. DC Appleseed offers three basic recommendations for such a system:
The chart on the next page [below] depicts the difference between the Council's current staffing and DC Appleseed's recommended structure.
By adopting such an approach, the Council would be able to improve each of its functions: drafting and enacting legislation, holding public hearings, performing policy and fiscal analysis, conducting legislative oversight, planning the legislative work program, providing public information, and managing internal operations. Because a centralized system would enable the full Council, its committees, and its members to have equal access to information, research, and analysis, the Council as an institution would be better equipped to respond to the public's needs and concerns. In turn, the public would have access to better information, thereby enhancing public participation and improving the public's understanding of the Council's policy decisions. Under the current, decentralized approach, the quality of the Council's work is destined to remain, at best, uneven.2
B. Improve the Standard Legislative Process
The Council's legislative process has a number of shortcomings, many of which can be addressed by centralizing staff. In addition, however, the Council must change those operating systems that make it difficult for Council members and the public to obtain important documents such as draft versions of a bill, fiscal impact statements, and evaluations of a bill's legal and technical adequacy early enough in the process to enable Council members and the public to consider effectively, and respond constructively to, legislative proposals. DC Appleseed proposes several ways that the Council can provide better and more timely information to Council members and the public, including:
C. Reduce the Use of the Emergency Legislative Process
The Home Rule Act allows legislation to be considered on an expedited basis under "emergency circumstances," that is, when serious adverse consequences would result from the delays associated with the standard legislative process. The D.C. Council has employed its emergency powers far more frequently than anticipated in the Home Rule Act, enacting almost half of all legislation in recent years under truncated emergency procedures.
There are several causes for the Council's heavy reliance on the emergency legislative process, not all created by the Council. In addition to reacting to genuine emergencies, the Council uses the emergency legislative process to respond to: (1) emergencies caused by a lengthy Congressional review process, which delays the effectiveness of Council-enacted legislation for at least six weeks, and often for much longer; (2) poor planning by the District's executive branch, which forecloses the Council's use of the standard legislative process; and (3) poor planning by the Council, which uses the emergency legislative process, sometimes repeatedly, in demonstrably avoidable situations.
Regardless of the cause, the effect is the same. Each time the emergency legislative process is employed, public participation is severely limited because, typically, no hearing is held and the legislation is enacted after a single reading (as opposed to two readings at least 13 days apart). As a result, the public's views are neglected and the Council may be left unaware of important facts and perspectives that could inform its conclusions.
DC Appleseed recommends that the Council reduce its use of the emergency process by taking more care to account for the Congressional review period when planning the Council's legislative calendar. Specifically, the Council can decrease the number of emergency enactments by: ( I ) considering the likely length of the Congressional review period in its standard legislative planning process, and accommodating that review as often as possible without resorting to use of the emergency process; and (2) employing the emergency legislative process only when the hardship that would be caused by delays inherent in the standard legislative process substantially outweighs the harm that would be caused by excluding the public and limiting the time for Council deliberations. Moreover, when the emergency legislative process is unavoidable, the Council should seek at least limited public participation through public hearings and otherwise.
D. Promote Meaningful Dialogue at Public Hearings
The Council's conduct of public hearings is in dire need of repair. Shortcomings include insufficient and tardy public notice; inadequate public access to relevant materials (sometimes including the bill itself); failure to begin hearings on time and to explain to waiting witnesses when delayed hearings will commence; and a lack of discipline in keeping the statements of both witnesses and Council members succinct and relevant to the matter being considered. For public hearings to fulfill their central purposes of allowing the Council to gather information and encouraging the public to participate in legislative deliberations, DC Appleseed recommends several changes, including:
The recommendations in this report (which are listed as an attachment to this Executive Summary) provide a coherent plan for improving the D.C. Council's operations. While adopting each recommendation independently will have a beneficial effect, collectively they make even more sense. Most importantly, fundamental changes to the Council's staffing structure are essential if the Council is to improve significantly legislation, budgets, public hearings, oversight of executive and independent agencies, and public information.
Enacting changes is not enough to bring about reform; the Council must commit itself to implement the changes and assure that back-sliding does not occur. For example, the Council will fully realize the benefits of a centralized staff only if top-level managers who are expert in policy and oversight are hired to direct the new policy and oversight offices. Similarly, shortening time limits for witnesses and Council members at public hearings will result in streamlined hearings only if the limits are enforced.
DC Appleseed strongly believes that the Council should maintain and, indeed, expand its role as the central legislative body serving the District of Columbia, and as a co-equal branch of government along side the executive and the courts. The recommendations in this report provide the basis for significant operational reforms that will allow the Council to better fulfill its responsibilities.
Recommendation 1. Provide each Council member funding for four FTEs for his or her individual office, plus four additional positions for the office of the Council Chair (a total of 56 FTE positions).
Recommendation 2. Expand the central staff to meat the institutional needs and support the work programs of the Council and its committees, to help individual Council members carry out their responsibilities as elected representatives, and to better serve the public.
Recommendation 3. Create four central staff departments located outside of Council members' individual offices, and allocate 60 full-time equivalent ("FTE") staff members among them as follows:
Recommendation 4: Directors of the four departments would A. he hired by a majority of Council members, with the intent that the positions would be long-term career positions. Staff in each department would be hired, retained, and promoted by each director on a merit-based personnel system.
Recommendation 5. Abolish the existing committee staff structure and use the expanded central staff to support the work of the Council committees.
Summary of Recommendations Standard Legislative Process
Recommendation 6. Require that all legislation be reviewed by the Office of General Counsel before the public hearing notice is published to ensure that legislation is in the proper form.
Recommendation 7: Require a review of the committee print by the Office of General Counsel prior to the committee mark-up to ensure technical and legal sufficiency.
Recommendation 8: Adopt a germaneness rule for amendments offered at the committee mark-up and at the legislative session.
Recommendation 9: Require that, for all non-consent legislation, a record be made publicly available that reflects which Council members voted for and which voted against legislation.
Recommendation 10: Codify all titles of the D.C. Code.
Recommendation 11: Require that, for all legislation, a fiscal impact statement be prepared and made available at the time public hearing notice is provided.
Recommendation 12: Improve committee reports by assigning central staff to assemble such reports according to a standard format, and including in such reports an analysis of the impact the legislation may have on nongovernmental entities.
Recommendation 13: Require that draft committee reports and draft committee prints be circulated to committee members and available to the public at least two working days before the committee mark-up.
Recommendation 14: Make committee reports available to the public at a central location within one calendar week after the committee mark-up of legislation.
Recommendation 15: Prepare and make publicly available for all "breakfast meetings" (meetings that now occur immediately prior to legislative sessions) minutes that describe, in general terms, any matter on the public agenda that was discussed by a quorum of either a Council committee or the entire Council.
Recommendation 16: Hold "breakfast meetings" far enough in advance of legislative sessions (perhaps the night before) to ensure that legislative sessions begin on time.
Summary of Recommendations Emergency Legislative Process
Recommendation 17: Minimize the use of the emergency legislative process by:
Recommendation 18: When use of the emergency legislative process is unavoidable, utilize as many mechanisms as possible to allow at least limited public participation including holding a public hearing.
Recommendation 19. Require that public hearings be held prior to enacting any standard legislation. Hearings for which no witnesses sign up to testify by close of business the day before the hearing should be consolidated and conducted at a pro forma hearing by a hearing officer.
Recommendation 20. Strictly follow Council rules that provide for at least 15 days' public notice; and require that any shortening of the notice period be accompanied by at least two days' advance notice with an explanation of good cause for shortening the notice period.
Recommendation 21: Abolish "roundtables" because the only apparent difference between a roundtable and a public hearing is that no public notice is required for roundtables.
Recommendation 22. Establish a comprehensive citizen outreach strategy that not only improves methods for providing notice of hearings, but includes additional ways of increasing public awareness of, and involvement in, Council activities.
Recommendation 23. In addition to current methods for providing notice of public hearings, provide notice in newspapers, on District cable television at regular intervals, on the Council web site, through an e-mail distribution list, and on a recorded telephone message.
Recommendation 24: Develop a pamphlet describing the public hearing process, distribute it to witnesses at hearings, and make it available at public libraries, at the Council's information office, and on the Council's web site.
Recommendation 25. Provide the following materials at the time of hearing notice: (1) the full text of each bill, (2) copies of each section of existing law that will be amended by the bill, (3) a "plain language" summary of the bill and (4) a fiscal impact statement.
Recommendation 26. Require a quorum of two Council members to commence a committee hearing and a quorum of one for a hearing to continue.
Recommendation 27. Commence hearings on time.
Recommendation 28: Manage witness testimony more effectively by strengthening and enforcing rules on time limits and germaneness.
Recommendation 29: Recess to another day hearings that extend for more than four hours.
Recommendation 30: Improve the manner of selecting which hearings are broadcast on District cable television.
Recommendation 31: Expand information provided during District cable television broadcasts of Council hearings by routinely identifying speakers and the subject and date of the hearing.
Recommendation 32: Explore methods for better preserving the hearing record, including written transcripts and video-taped recordings.
Recommendation 33. Lower the dais in the Council chambers.
Under the Home Rule Act of 1974, the District of Columbia was established by Congress as a separation of powers government with a "strong mayor" and an independent Council sharing power and responsibility for governing the Nation's Capital. The office of Mayor is "strong" in the sense that it has a role separate from the Council's for example, the Mayor appoints city officials, may veto legislation passed by the Council, and plays a major role in fiscal decision making. The District of Columbia Council, the focus of this report, has independent responsibilities as well for example, enacting legislation, adopting budgets, and conducting legislative oversight to assure that the government operates effectively and efficiently. This distribution of powers is similar to that found in our national and state governments, as well as in many local governments across the country.
Over the past four years, a concerted effort has been made to reform operations of the District's executive and independent agencies. The Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority ("Control Board") extensively studied the problems faced by executive and independent agencies, and hired highly regarded managers to run several key functions, including the public schools and the Police Department. And the Control Board has recently returned much power to the locally-elected Mayor, who has promised further executive branch reforms.
By contrast, the Council's internal operations have not been the subject of disciplined scrutiny. As a co-equal branch of government, the Council must accept a significant share of the responsibility for the problems that gave rise to the Control Board's creation. Indeed, widespread criticisms of the Council's oversight, legislative research and drafting, and budget analysis predate the Control Board's creation. Yet, while the Council has made an effort to cooperate with the executive branch for example, by working with the Mayor and the Control Board to develop a consensus budget the Council has done little to improve its own operations. Ongoing reforms of the executive branch make it, if anything, more important that the Council operate efficiently and effectively.
This report focuses on the Council's internal operations. It does not address broader issues related to the Council's structure, such as whether Council members should be elected to staggered terms, whether Council members should hold outside employment or should serve full time, whether the Council Chair should be elected by Council members as opposed to being elected directly by the public, and whether the current method of electing five at-large members (including the Chair) and eight ward-based members best serves the public interest. Nor does this report address the extent to which the Council's actions should be subject to Congressional review.
These questions deserve examination. But, while structural reform requires long-term examination and Congressional action (possibly including Charter amendments), operational reforms can be undertaken immediately by the Council itself. Accordingly, a DC Appleseed Center Project Team has, since December 1997, been examining the Council's internal operations related to staffing, the standard and emergency legislative processes, and public hearings.
The DC Appleseed Project Team sought archival information from the D.C. Council in several areas of our research for this report. Surprising amounts of data were unavailable because, it appears, the Council either does not collect the data and/or the data are not kept at a central location. In light of our research experience, DC Appleseed notes the lack of transparency regarding the D.C. Council's internal operations, and suggests that the Council examine this issue further.
The recommendations in this report are based on research conducted over a ten-month period (March-December 1998), including (1) a survey of 12 city councils, including the D.C. Council, to elicit information about their practices relating to the operational issues we examined;3 (2) meetings with D.C. Council members and their staffs; (3) interviews of 16 business, labor, nonprofit, and citizen advocates who spend much of their time meeting with and lobbying the D.C. Council; (4) a "focus group" meeting of nine District residents, each of whom has testified at one or more D.C. Council committee hearing, but none of whom has testified frequently; and (5) research of D.C. law, Council Rules, and other available archival sources.
While the D.C. Council has responsibilities of both a state and a city legislature, its operations and organization are much more like those of a city council. Like other city councils, and unlike state legislatures, the D.C. Council has a relatively small number of members, meets year-round, is unicameral, and represents a population of less than one million people.4 Because this report examines the operational aspects of the D.C. Council, the DC Appleseed Project Team chose to compare the D.C. Council to other city councils rather than to state legislatures.
The recommendations in this report cover four areas, each discussed in a separate chapter. The opening chapter recommends substantial centralization of the Council's staffing structure. Chapter 2 makes several recommendations for improving the Council's current legislative process. Chapter 3 details the problems associated with, and the changes needed to abate, the Council's overuse of the emergency legislative process. Chapter 4 recommends reforms to the Council's public hearing process.5
The District's Mayor and the 13 members of the Council require significant support to help them fulfill their respective roles in governing in an efficient manner. The mayor is able to call upon the extensive resources of the executive branch of the government for assistance. And, while no legislature should (or could) assemble a staff as broad and deep as that available to the executive, the Council must be organized to ensure that it can carry out its responsibilities in an effective and efficient manner.
The Council and its members should have available to them independent, timely, and reliable information, research, and analysis needed to enact beneficial legislation, to make sound fiscal decisions, and to perform meaningful oversight. Council members also should have support that enables them to communicate with the public and to respond in a timely manner to constituent inquiries and requests. Similarly, the public is entitled to have access to information in a timely fashion and in an understandable format regarding those matters being considered by the Council and its committees.
DC Appleseed has concluded that the D.C. Council's staff is not now configured to provide the Council or the public with the expertise needed to fulfill each of these functions. This chapter addresses the Council's current staffing practices, and recommends changes in the composition and organization of the staff.
II. CURRENT PRACTICES: THE D.C. COUNCIL'S CURRENT STAFFING STRUCTURE AND ITS DETRIMENTAL EFFECTS
A legislature may organize its staff in a variety of ways. Two important characteristics of staff are ( 1 ) the degree to which the management of the staff is centralized, and (2) the terms of individual staff members employment.
In a totally centralized system one extreme of the spectrum there is an institutional focus and staff are appointed by vote of the full council or by its designated representative (such as a staff director). At the other extreme is a decentralized structure that allows individual council members to appoint and remove staff members at will. Of course, there are intermediate options. Rather than being appointed either by the full council or an individual member, staff may be appointed by a committee chair, the council chair, a majority of a committee, the unanimous vote of a committee, or a majority of council members. A more centralized system is likely to foster a staff that responds to the institutional needs and responsibilities of the council as a whole as opposed to a more decentralized system which responds to the concerns and priorities of individual council members.
Regarding the terms of employment, hiring decisions can be based on a system where an individual "serves at the pleasure of" the appointing person or authority, or, at the other extreme, can be selected and retained based on a merit system. In addition to merit and patronage appointments, staff can be hired as term employees, contract employees, or with limited merit system protections.
In general, legislative bodies will utilize some combination of these various staffing models.
B. The D.C.Council's Decentralized Staffing Structure
The District of Columbia Council which employs 130 full-time equivalent ("FTE") positions with salaries totaling $4.9 million currently emphasizes a decentralized model in which about 3 out of every 4 FTE staff members are hired by, and are accountable only to, individual members of the Council. The 41 FTE staff members that most frequently perform policy and fiscal analysis, legislative research, and legislative drafting are accountable solely to individual Council members: i. e., each staff member reports to one of the chairs of the various Council committees. Individual Council members also appoint the 54 FTE staff members who work in their offices. Only the remaining 35 FTE positions are accountable to the full Council: 24 administrative services staff in the Office of the Secretary; eight positions in the General Counsel's Office; and three positions in the budget office.6
Because committee staff serve at the pleasure of the committee chair, staff loyalty strongly favors the chair. Indeed, virtually every interviewee that spoke to DC Appleseed's Project Team on the issue stated that the Council's budgeted allocation between committee staff and individual members' office staff is rarely, if ever, followed in practice. Many committee chairs reallocate a portion of their committee staff budgets to pay the salaries of additional staff for their own offices. Moreover, neither members of a committee who are not the chair nor other members of the Council are generally free to draw directly on the expertise and support of committee staff absent permission of the committee chair. That mentality is reinforced by the physical location of committee staff offices within the suite of the committee chair, making access more difficult for other Council members.
7. The D C. Register is a weekly publication of the D.C. Office of Documents and Administrative Issuances. It contains all actions of the D.C. Council as well as all administrative actions of the executive branch and independent agencies. Except in the case of emergency rules, no rule or document of general applicability and legal effect is effective until it is published in the Register. The Register is available at D.C. Public Libraries, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and by subscription at a cost of $150 per year.
The pernicious effects of this decentralized structure are myriad. DC Appleseed's Project Team interviews uncovered broad criticism of virtually every institutional function of the Council.
Overall, the comments of those interviewed by DC Appleseed's Project Team evidence a highly variable work product that is too often poor in quality. There is little doubt that the Council's decentralized staffing structure plays a major role in that outcome. For example, as currently configured, the Council relies on committee staff, who are hired by individual members, to perform the Council's public information function. That structure virtually guarantees a fragmented approach with uneven results because Council members place different relative values on the Council's public information function. A more centralized public information function would allow the Council to develop a coherent public outreach strategy using a variety of techniques, including more effective use of the Council's web site and District cable television.
DC Appleseed proposes that the D.C. Council change the way it makes staffing decisions by placing greater focus on the long-term institutional needs of the legislative branch of the government. We offer three general recommendations:
These recommendations can be implemented with no increase in fiscal resources. In fact it is likely that modest budgetary savings may be realized due to a reduction in staff from 130 to 1 16 under DC Appleseed's proposal.8 The recommendations are discussed in greater detail below.
Three broad types of expertise are needed among staff members to assist the Council in carrying out its on-going activities.
While Council staff is currently assigned to fulfill each of these functions, most staff members perform their responsibilities under the direction of individual Council members. By centralizing staff, the Council can markedly improve its ability to exercise its powers and meet its responsibilities.
Under DC Appleseed's proposal, the main functions served by individual Council member's staff would be to provide constituent services, to respond to citizen inquiries and requests in a timely manner, to represent the member at meetings and other forums, to undertake special projects and/or initiatives for the member, and to manage the member's office. Under our proposal, this staff would continue to serve at the pleasure of Council members and would not be subject to the District's merit system.
The current level of four FTE positions for each D.C. Council member's office be retained, although it is higher than in any of the other 11 cities surveyed by the DC Appleseed Project Team. Ten of the 11 cities surveyed provide staff resources for the individual offices of council members. The number of staff provided to each member in those 10 cities ranges from one to three FTE positions, and the median provided per member is two FTE positions.9
The District government differs from other local governments because it serves both municipal and state functions. While it is not possible to quantify precisely the number of additional staff members in each Council member's office needed to assist in this regard, DC Appleseed recognizes that some additional staff is warranted. Four FTE positions per Council member (one- third more than the highest number for any other city in our survey) seems adequate to assist D.C. Council members in handling their unique requirements. DC Appleseed further recommends that an aggregate annual budget of $150,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) be provided to each Council member for annual staff salaries (not including benefits) in his or her office.. This would represent a modest increase from the current level of $138,000 in staff salaries allocated for each member's office.10
The current practice of having each member designate a defined number of staff to each D.C. Council committee should be discontinued. Rather, the Council should create a professionally trained and qualified, permanent cadre of nonpartisan staff to assist the full Council, its committees, and individual members in carrying out the legislative agenda.
This approach would be consistent with the staffing structures of the 11 other city councils surveyed by the DC Appleseed Project Team. While each legislature surveyed has a formalized committee structure and assigns the work of the council to a committee before the full council takes final action, only the D.C. Council has an organizational structure which, at least on paper, assigns staff to work solely on the functions of Council committees (41 FTE positions for its ten standing committees). None of the other 11 cities surveyed follows this practice; in each of these jurisdictions, staff work for committees is provided by a central staff that works for the full council and is under the leadership of a staff director.11
DC Appleseed recommends that the D.C. Council's entire central staff (including professional, clerical, and support staff) be organized into four offices Policy/Fiscal Analysis and Research; Legislative Oversight; General Counsel; and Council Secretary. Each would be headed by a director appointed by a majority of Council members. The intent is that the directors would serve in long-term, professionally qualified career positions, and would serve at the pleasure of the Council as a whole. Each director would hire the professionally qualified staff for his or her office with logistical assistance from the Council's personnel staff. Some central staff would be under the District's merit system, while others would be hired for certain and defined terms. Appropriate career paths and salary ladders should be created to help limit turnover, and salaries should be competitive both within the government and in the region.
To staff the four offices, DC Appleseed suggests a complement of 60 FTE positions to be allocated as follows: 18 positions (about one-third) for the Office of Policy/Fiscal Analysis and Research; six positions (one tenth) for the Office of Legislative Oversight; 10 positions (one sixth of the central staff) for the Office of General Counsel; and 26 positions (about 40 percent) for the Office of the Council Secretary. Staff allocations in each office include professional and support staff. Staff in each office would have clearly delineated responsibilities as described below:
For a more centralized staffing system to succeed, it will be critical that (1) the Council perform a broad search for central office directors who are expert in managing the functions for which they will be responsible, (2) the central office directors and their staffs work as a team to assist the Council, the committees, and the individual members, (3) the office directors consult closely among themselves, as well as with the Council and committee chairs and individual Council members, (4) central staff expertise be shared so that each Council member has access to central staff resources, and (5) work programs be coordinated so that, for example, the oversight schedule supports the legislative process and adequate resources are dedicated to fiscal analysis during budget season.
In implementing these recommendations, clear and enforceable safeguards to ensure confidentiality must also be put in place. When seeking the assistance and advice of central staff, each Council member must be able to talk freely and in confidence with members of the central staff, secure in the expectation that the substance of confidential discussions will not be passed on to other members, the executive, or the public at large. This principle must be clearly understood by all concerned, and there must be severe consequences for any staff member who breaches confidentiality.
In addition, the citizens of the District and all concerned with the operations of the Council must have a high level of trust in Council members and Council employees. Safeguards must be in place to ensure that staff is not subject to any improper influence or the appearance of improper influence. Therefore, in addition to current laws and regulations governing the conduct of Council members,14 appropriate conflict-of-interest and ethics statutes to govern the professional and political activities of Council staff must be in place and strictly enforced. Rules for employees should address such matters as gifts, outside employment, nepotism, participation in activities in which a staff member may have an economic interest, participation in partisan political activities, and using the prestige of one's office for personal gain.
Centralizing staff operations offers numerous advantages, which, together, can strengthen the D.C. Council as a separate and equal branch of the government. As revealed by the DC Appleseed Project Team's interviews and observations, the Council is currently lacking adequate professional expertise not only in fiscal matters, but in evaluation and oversight, policy analysis, legislative drafting and research, preparation of legislative histories, planning and scheduling, outreach and public information, records management, and technology management. By improving the support available to the Council in these areas, the legislative branch of government will be strengthened.
1. Improve the Quality of Staff Assistance through Increased Specialization and Merit-Based Hiring
By centralizing staff, the Council can better ensure quality and consistency of staff assistance. Under the current system, in which each of the ten committee chairs independently hires the analytical, research, and legislative drafting staff, the skill levels of those assigned to work on the Council's complex and diverse legislative agenda vary greatly based upon the priorities of different Council members. Thus, if a committee chair is more interested in hiring staff based on patronage than merit, the quality of work for the entire Council in the areas covered by that committee can be adversely affected.
Alternatively, if staff is managed centrally, the Council as an institution will not have to rely on individual committee chairs to hire staff. Instead, because they will be responsible to the entire Council, staff directors should have an incentive to meet the needs of the Council and its committees by hiring the best available experts in various subject matters and disciplines (including legislative research and drafting, analysis, policy analysis, program evaluation, and oversight). Council members should have an incentive to hire directors with expertise in managing both a staff and a legislative work program in an efficient and effective manner.
The D.C. Council cannot afford, and does not require, the deep and wide-ranging expertise provided by CBO, GAO, and CRS. However, by centralizing its staff, the Council will provide itself greater access to the enhanced level of expertise needed to serve public needs without relying so heavily on information generated by lobbyists and other interested parties or by the District's executive branch.
2. Provide the Full Council, its Committees, and its Members Equal Access to Information, Research, and Analysis
A centralized staff also has the benefit of equalizing access by Council members to information, research, and analysis on all items on the legislative agenda. Under the current system, as a practical matter, committee chairs control the work programs of their committee staffs. Moreover, because some committee chairs reallocate a portion of their committee staff budgets for additional individual office committees often have even less access to the expertise necessary to accomplish the committee's agenda.18
In contrast, under a central staff model, a Council member would request policy research and analysis, drafting, oversight, etc. from the central staff directors, who would assign staff to fulfill those requests. Because the staff directors would be accountable to the full Council, they would have an incentive to respond fairly and in a timely fashion.
3. Improve the Quality of Legislation and Accompanying Reports
According to most of those interviewed by the DC Appleseed Project Team, legislation introduced by Council members varies dramatically in quality. This variability exists not only among bills introduced by different Council members, but also among bills introduced by a single Council member in a single session. This uneven quality in legislative drafting can be attributed to the fact that, within the Council, bills are not consistently drafted by staff in any one of office, but, instead, each bill may be drafted by any of the following: committee staff or the Council member's personal staff few of whom have expertise in legislative research and drafting or staff in the General Counsel's office.19 By having so many people draft legislation, the Council virtually guarantees an inconsistent work product.
According to those interviewed by the DC Appleseed Project Team, the quality of committee reports that accompany legislation vary greatly not only from committee to committee, but among reports prepared by the same committee. Most often, the section-by-section analysis portion of the report is merely a recitation often verbatim of the legislative language. Rarely does it truly explain the substance or policy goals of the proposed legislation. The "impact on existing law" portion of the report is frequently limited to a listing of the laws that are amended by the legislation and a generalized description of the changes being made. The statement of the legislation's purpose and effect rarely provides an exposition of the history of an issue, alternatives considered or tried, or a concise rationale of the need for and intent of the legislation. Too often, this portion of the report simply asserts without supporting evidence several conclusions favoring enactment of the legislation.
The Council can improve the quality of legislation and legislative reports by having a greater amount of legislation drafted in the first instance by staff in the General Counsel's office.. DC Appleseed recommends an increase of two FTE positions in the General Counsel's office to provide additional drafting assistance.
By centralizing staff, the Council can increase staff specialization, which should improve the efficiency of the Council's legislative drafting, fiscal, and oversight functions. Under the current system, a Council member who wishes to pursue an initiative that is not favored by the chair of the relevant committee will generally have two choices: abandon the issue, or have his or her individual staff conduct the research, regardless of whether the staff has the relevant expertise. On the other hand, under a centralized staff model, research on a given issue would be assigned to the staff member or members with the greatest expertise in that issue area, regardless of which Council member initiated the request. The staff will be likely to have the basic understanding needed to research and analyze the issue and thereby provide a soundly-based response in a shorter period of time.
Moreover, a centralized staff structure would foster greater efficiency when two Council members are interested in related issues that arise in different committees' subject areas. For example, if the Council is simultaneously considering oversight of contracts let to repair public school buildings and contracts let to repair other government-owned buildings, a single central staff member may be best suited to handle both inquiries. Indeed, a central policy staff would be expected to have at least one person well versed in government contract law, and, perhaps, someone with expertise in building renovation as well (a person with an engineering background would likely be a member of the policy analysis staff). Under the current committee-based staffing system, public school oversight is handled by staff for the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, while the oversight of repairs to other District buildings would likely be handled by staff of either the Committee on Public Works and the Environment or the Committee on Government Operations. Because these committee staff work for different members, and are physically located in different offices, it is unlikely that staff of one committee would coordinate its work program with the work of the other committee. A centralized staff structure would help minimize such inefficiencies.
The current staffing structure inhibits the Council's ability to meet certain responsibilities in a coherent manner. For example, consideration and analysis of the Mayor's annual budget proposal is fragmented among the staffs of all of the committees. Such a system hinders the Council's ability to analyze tradeoffs between programs assigned to different committees, such as whether the level of funding for human services should be increased or decreased in relation to the budget for public works. Instead, the current system encourages tradeoffs within the programs under the jurisdiction of a single committee, such as whether increased residential trash collection should be funded through a reduction in road repair. Because the vast majority of staff members who analyze the various sections of the budget report to individual committee chairs, there is very limited centralized information and advice on which the Council can draw as it attempts to consider the budget as a coherent whole.20
Under a centralized staffing system, on the other hand, budget analysis would be performed by a staff accessible to every Council member on an equal basis. Council members would have access to the expertise necessary to understand not only the areas of the budget within the jurisdiction of the committee they may chair, but also other areas of the budget that may be of concern or interest to the member. Centralization of budget information and analysis will enable the Council to consider the budget holistically.
Similarly, a centralized staffing structure will provide Council members access to professional oversight and policy staff who, collectively, would have broad knowledge of legislative issues. As a result, each Council member will be able to gain a better understanding of legislation outside of the purview of his or her own committee. Such understanding should serve to improve the Council's ability to consider government operations in a comprehensive manner.
6. Provide Sound Management and Planning of the Legislative Work Program and Agenda
Currently, each committee chair sets the legislative agenda for his or her committee. When committee agendas overlap, the chairs may hold joint hearings on a particular subject.21 But such collaborations occur only on an ad hoc basis, and are not the result of a Council-wide work plan based explicitly on Council priorities. A well-configured centralized staffing structure would include staff dedicated to helping the Council and its committees plan and manage their work program over a period of time, allowing the Council and its committees to focus energy over the longer term on areas of concern to the entire Council.
A prime example of the improved planning that would flow from centralization can be found in the area of legislative oversight of executive and independent agency operations. Presently, the Council performs oversight on an ad hoc basis. Whether oversight is done well (or done at all) in a particular subject area depends upon whether the Council member chairing the relevant committee deems oversight important. The result is that oversight is generally performed only after a government function becomes so seriously dysfunctional that the public and press become aware of and outspoken concerning that dysfunction. While there is surely a need to perform oversight under such circumstances, the Council also must increase its capacity (1) to anticipate problems and perform oversight on issues before they reach crisis proportions, and (2) to conduct oversight as a means of gathering information to evaluate planned legislative proposals.
By centralizing oversight staff, the Council can ensure that oversight priorities are established over a longer period of time. For example, the Council may be interested in evaluating a program's effectiveness so that it can decide whether the program should be expanded, modified, or eliminated. Without improved planning, it will remain very difficult the Council to dedicate adequate resources to fulfill its oversight and other responsibilities. A centralized staff charged with ensuring that such long-range work plans are devised and implemented would greatly improve the Council's oversight function.
7. Increase Access to Information for Both the Public and Council Members
Under current practices, the committee staffs play a central role in providing information to the public and Council members. Committee staff are responsible for disseminating notices of public hearings and are a main source of documents relating to legislation under consideration by the Council or a committee. For example, the draft committee print of a bill scheduled for markup is generally available to the public, if at all, only through committee staff, and even Council members often do not receive the draft committee print until they arrive at a mark-up session.
The Council should accept as mandatory providing the general public and Council members full and timely access to understandable information about matters being considered by the Council and its committees. A well-staffed public information office within the Office of the Secretary should have the time and resources to consider such matters. This should include a regular analysis of the locations where, and the processes through which, the public is most likely to gain access to information, as well as the potential for employing new and existing technologies to disseminate information. Such analysis is unlikely to occur under the current system.
8. Improve the Ability to Attract and Retain Highly Qualified Staff
Centralizing the Council's operations will also increase the Council's ability to attract and retain a highly qualified, stable cadre of professional staff members to assist the Council, its committees, and its members. Those interviewed by the DC Appleseed Project Team stressed that the problems of inadequate expertise and poor institutional knowledge flow, in part, from the high rate of turnover among Council staff. The decentralized nature of the Council's staffing structure is a major contributor to these problems. Because so many Council staff are hired by individual members, staff jobs depend upon the reelection of the Council members that appointed them and not solely on the quality of staff work. While some Council members retain existing committee they are first given a chairmanship, the norm is for Council members to hire their own committee staff.
Moreover, the current staffing structure stifles the Council's ability to create performance incentives through staff advancement. At present, approximately three-fourths of all staff members report to individual Council members. Thus, for most staff, the opportunity for advancement is limited to the possibility of moving from one position to another within the office of the member for whom they work. Such opportunities are further limited by the fact that ( I ) each Council member, on average, employs only eight staff members,22 and (2) staff members in each office have vastly disparate responsibilities. Hence, there is little room for Council members to create career paths with accompanying opportunities for promotion.
By contrast, under a centralized system, analysts, attorneys, and administrative staff would be hired at varying levels of experience and training, which would allow for promotion opportunities. By including appropriate career paths and salary ladders, a centralized staffing model provides incentives for able employees to remain in career positions. Salaries should be established to be competitive both within the government and in the region. These incentives should help reduce staff turnover, which in turn should improve continuity and institutional memory among Council staff.23
9. Create and Maintain Complete and Comprehensive Records of Council and Committee Proceedings
As described in Chapter 4 of this report, no one person has the responsibility of ensuring that necessary records of Council and committee proceedings and the history of enacted legislation are assembled and maintained. DC Appleseed's Project Team understands that, while certain records (such as committee reports) are stored at a central location, those records are sometimes incomplete, and the missing information resides only in committee offices, if it exists at all. Compounding the problem, when a committee chairmanship is transferred to a new chair, committee files are often not transferred to a central location and are often in such disarray as to be unusable. Moreover, files and documents are not always provided to the Office of Legislative Services in a timely fashion, making it difficult public to research legislative histories.
A well-run records management office within the Office of the Secretary should be created to establish a records management program and to implement a system to store and maintain all files related to Council and committee proceedings, legislation, and internal operations. Such an office, properly managed, would enable the public and Council members to find legislative documents at a single location, not only after legislation is enacted, but during the legislative process itself.
A centralized staff structure would increase the Council's opportunity to develop appropriate institutional relationships with the Mayor and specific offices within the executive branch. Several persons interviewed by DC Appleseed's Project Team noted that, in years past, the Council met with the executive branch to discuss legislative proposals before they were enacted. Specifically, representatives of the Council members who sponsored legislation would meet with members of the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Relations and appropriate executive-department personnel to discuss each branch's perspective on specific legislative proposals. These meetings no longer routinely take place. By assigning a central staff member to this function, the Council could ensure that proposals are commented upon by representatives of the executive offices that will implement the legislation.
As the national capital, Washington and the surrounding region is home to an extraordinary wealth of expertise on issues that the Council deals with in governing the District. Council staff should be encouraged to work with local universities and nonprofit agencies (such as the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association) to establish internships at the Council, as well as to take advantage of the expertise of professors and staff of these institutions. By centralizing the policy and research functions and thereby developing and retaining a higher degree of staff expertise, the Council will likely foster a greater number of long- term relationships with institutions that have particular contributions to offer the Council in carrying out its responsibilities.
1. While the D.C. Council has responsibilities of both a state and a city legislature, DC Appleseed chose to compare the D.C. Council to other city councils (rather than state legislatures) because the Council's operations the subject of this report are much more like those of a city council Those similarities are detailed in Appendix I to the report.
2. We do not, of course, pass judgment on individual members of the Council or its staff because we have not performed the kind of case-by-case review that would qualify us to draw such conclusions.
3. The 11 other cities chosen by a methodology described in Appendix I are Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Columbus, Denver, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Seattle.
4. Consider this summary profile of state legislatures: more than 90% have more than 75 members; 70% meet, on average, for four months or less pa year while only four state legislatures meet for longer than eight months per year; all are bicameral other than Nebraska; and the median state population is 3.8 million and the mean 5.3 million. See Appendix I - Methodology, Chart II. By contrast, the legislatures in the cities surveyed for this report have fewer than 30 members; meet for 10 months or more per year (Baltimore, the sole exception, meets for an average of 7.5 months per year); are unicameral; and represent populations of less than 800,000. See Appendix I - Methodology, Chart I.
5. Appendix I details our methodology and approach; Appendix II is a copy of the questionnaire used in the 12-city survey; Appendix III provides a summary of our focus group with District residents; and Appendix IV provides an overview of the District's legislative process.
6. While it is clear that some of the 35 central FTE positions are covered by the District's merit personnel system, we were unable to determine the exact number because we were able to gather only appropriated as opposed to actual staffing figures.
7. The D C. Register is a weekly publication of the D.C. Office of Documents and Administrative Issuances. It contains all actions of the D.C. Council as well as all administrative actions of the executive branch and independent agencies. Except in the case of emergency rules, no rule or document of general applicability and legal effect is effective until it is published in the Register. The Register is available at D.C. Public Libraries, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and by subscription at a cost of $150 per year.
8. The D.C. Council has a substantially larger staff and budget than any of the 11 other cities surveyed by DC Appleseed. we did not draw direct staffing comparisons because the D.C. Council unlike the 11 other cities surveyed has both state and city responsibilities. Nonetheless, DC Appleseed's recommendations which are based on a review of the Council's needs would result in a 10% reduction from the current staffing level. we note that even with this reduction, the D.C. Council's staff would be almost 60 percent larger than the next highest level of any city council surveyed (the Milwaukee City Council has a staff of 72).
9. Only the DC Council provides 4 FTE positions per member (a total of 54 positions); three cities provide 3 FTE; four provide 2 FTE; and three provide fewer than 2 FTE. Indianapolis provides no staff for individual member offices.
10. The Council further reports that each office is provided $6,885 annually for "non personal services," such as furniture and travel.
11. All cities, including the District of Columbia, have staff that work for the full council, although there is great variation in the level of support. For example, in Minneapolis the executive branch provides staffing for the legislative branch, and only two people work directly for the full council to provide limited administrative support (reception, etc.). In contrast, Seattle and Milwaukee have 43 and 49 FTE to support the legislative work program for the full council. In the District, as noted earlier, 35 FTE work for the full Council.
12. The District of Columbia Auditor is appointed by and reports to the D.C. Council, and is charged with conducting annual audits of D.C. government accounts and operations. D.C. CODE §47-117 (1987). Because the Auditor's budget is independent of the Council's, the Auditor's office is not reviewed in this report.
13. The Inspector General's office is part of the executive branch of government, and is charged with conducting 'independent" audits of D.C. government accounts and operations. D.C. CODE §1182.8.
14. See D.C. CODE §1-1461, 1-227; Council Rule 202.
15. See, generally, U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Responsibilities and Organization of the CBO. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (1993).
16. Aaron Wildavsky and Naomi Caiden, New Politics of the Budgetary Process, third edition. New York: Addison Wesley Longrnan, Inc. (1997) at 76.
17. Irene Rubin, The Politics of Public Budgeting, third edition. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., (1997) at 103.
18. One interviewee cited a former committee chair who shifted much of the budget allocated to hire staff for his committee into salaries for staff in the Council member's individual office in addition to the Council member's office staff allocation of four FTEs. The DC Appleseed Project Team has been told by Council members, staff, and others that this practice is widespread, even though it appears to violate Council Rule 273, which states that staff salaries are "subject to appropriations and positions allocated by the Council." In reality, current practice inappropriately allows individual Council members to decide what amount of Council resources will be dedicated to each substantive area.
19. Some bills introduced by the Council are drafted by lobbyists for business, labor, and other interest groups. The general perception among those interviewed is that, while legislation drafted by lobbyists is often technically well drafted, the Council does not pay adequate attention to the details of legislation to ensure that (even after it goes through the legislative process) it serves the public interest rather than the narrow interest of the drafters.
20. Existing central budget staff members (3 FTEs) are, however, able to provide general information concerning D.C. government spending.
21. For example, based on a shared concern by committee chairs over the operations of the Metropolitan Police Department, the Judiciary and Government Operations Committees held joint oversight hearings in 1998.
22. The exceptions are the Chair of the Committee on Local, Regional, and Federal Affairs (who has authority to hire only six FTE positions) the Council Chair (who has authority to hire ten FTE positions) and the two Council members without committee assignments (who may hire only four FTEs).
23 The DC Appleseed Project Team's research reveals that Council staff salaries are, on average, $39,248 which is at the median of staff salaries in the 11 other city legislatures surveyed ($38,854). However, the DC Appleseed Project Team did not analyze how the distribution of salaries among D.C. Council staff compares to salary distributions in other city Councils. Moreover, DC Appleseed did not compare Council staff salaries to salaries in the District's executive branch.
Each D.C. Council member is paid an annual salary ($80,605) that is higher than the salary paid to members of any other council surveyed, the highest of which (Seattle) pays each member $75,505 per year. Recognizing that while D.C. Council members are defined by law as part-time, many work full time, in part, because they are both city and state legislators. Accordingly, DC Appleseed does not believe that members' salaries should necessarily be lowered. We do believe, however, that, given the relatively high salaries of D.C. Council members, citizens can fairly demand superior performance, including attention to operational issues such as those raised in this report.
Back to top of page
Send mail with questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site copyright ©DCWatch (ISSN 1546-4296)