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1st Quarter 1999
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The broad powers given to the D.C. Council under the Home Rule Act ensure that the Council significantly affects virtually every aspect of 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 the executive branch and independent agencies. Little has been said about how the operations of the D.C. Council might be improved.
On February 5, the DC Appleseed Center released its report, Operational Reform of the District of Columbia Council: A Fix-It-Yourself Manual, which documents the need for major reforms.
The fundamental conclusion of DC Appleseed's study is that the Council's current decentralized staffing structure lies at the heart of the Council 's operational problems. Now, all committee staff members are hired by, report to, and serve at the pleasure of the 10 individual committee chairs, virtually assuring the creation of 10 different power centers, each with its own agenda.
As a result, the Council's work product is highly variable and too often poor in quality. DC Appleseed's research reveals that not one of the councils in cities most similar to the District follows the D.C. Council's practice of giving exclusive authority to an individual member to hire and fire staff of the committee that he or she chairs.
DC Appleseed proposes that the Council eliminate its 41 committee staff positions and reassign those positions to a central staff that reports to the Council as a whole. Our report further recommends a specific staffing structure for the central office that promotes hiring based on merit rather than patronage.
The report the culmination of a full year's research by a 14-member project team details why and how the Council must increase the clarity of its legislation, communicate more effectively with the public, perform more meaningful oversight, and entrance Council members' access to information and expertise. Specifically, the recommendations are designed to address critical problems such as:
The DC Appleseed report and its recommendations have been covered favorably in the press. And, the Council itself has begun to pay attention hosting a DC Appleseed briefing prior to public release of the document, and discussing reform in several other settings, including the Council's mid-February retreat.
Councils Own Consultant Echoes DC Appleseed's Findings, Recommendations
Soon after the DC Appleseed Center began its Council study, the D.C. Council retained the National Conference of State Legislatures ("NCSL") to examine the Council's operations. In January 1999, NCSL issued its Report to the Council of the District of Columbia. Building a Stronger, More Effective Institution.
The principal problem identified by NCSL echoes one of DC Appleseed's central concerns: "The Council appears to exist much more as a group of entrepreneurial individuals than as a group with mutual purpose or shared accomplishment." Not surprisingly, the "major emphasis" of NCSL's report is identical to DC Appleseed's primary proposal to the Council centralize staff in order to increase the Council's capacity to perform its institutional responsibilities effectively.
"The Council would be better served and would serve its citizenry better by reorganizing its staff resources to create a centralized, independent and permanent resource for Council research, bill drafting, fiscal analysis and other essential legislative services." Only through such reorganization, NCSL asserts, can the D.C. Council operate with a reasonable degree of independence from the executive and lobbyists, and become "a more effective policy making body."
Like the DC Appleseed Center report, the NCSL report urges major reforms, specifically, that the Council's development into a well functioning institution "will require effective and streamlined procedures, visible meetings and accessible Council information, and most of all, an independent stance that allows Council members to create their own options end to effectively critique the options presented by others."
The NCSL report also concurs with several other conclusions in the DC Appleseed report, including the need for the Council to improve the dissemination of public information, to streamline and increase discipline at public hearings, and to provide Council members with proposed bills and amendments early enough in the legislative process to permit Council members to understand each proposal's meaning and impact.
NCSL also recommends several changes not included in DC Appleseed's report, including a reduction in the number of Council standing committees from ten to eight, the issuance of a publicly available directory of Council employees, and the development of more comprehensive and reliable technology systems.
None of NCSL's proposals runs counter to DC Appleseed's suggestions. To the contrary, the two reports combine to make a forceful case that the Council can and should substantially overhaul its operations.
DC Appleseed welcomes new Staff Associate Colleen Shanahan.
DC Appleseed acknowledges with gratitude the following grants awarded since December 1998:
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