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Striking Back

With the spirit of cooperation fading, City Council members attempt to get the mayor’s attention with money.


City Council President Charles Samuels, right, says the open lines of communication promised from Mayor Dwight Jones and his administration have become challenging. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • City Council President Charles Samuels, right, says the open lines of communication promised from Mayor Dwight Jones and his administration have become challenging.

This was supposed to be the City Council that worked with Mayor Dwight Jones to accomplish amazing, fantastic things. After all, the mayor's most vocal critics on council, Marty Jewell and Bruce Tyler, lost the November election to newcomers who were at least presumably more sympathetic with Jones' positions.

When the new council members were sworn in at the beginning of the year, Jones invoked a catchphrase from a children's television show, "Wonder Pets," during a speech, saying: "We're not too big, we're not too tough, but when we work together, we've got the right stuff." The show is about a cartoon guinea pig, duck and turtle who ride around in a flying boat and rescue baby animals.

Newly minted City Council President Charles Samuels echoed Jones' cooperative spirit when he laid out a vision for drama-free council meetings and a strong working relationship with the mayor.

Fast-forward six months, and Samuels and a handful of fellow council members are starting to get fed up with Jones and his brand of cartoon-inspired teamwork.

Apparently unable to resolve their concerns with the mayor's approach to conducting city business, they've resorted to drafting ordinances that specifically require his administration to keep them involved. In one case, they propose fining the mayor's chief administrator $100 for each day he fails to notify council of specific actions.

"I want to make sure when we make decisions they're not last-minute, knee-jerk decisions," Samuels says. "We want to make well thought-out decisions for the benefit of the citizens."

What's been preventing council from making well-thought-out decisions, in Samuels' view? Collectively and individually, council members have voiced a litany of complaints during the past few months:

There was the time no one bothered to tell City Council that the budget for the Redskins training camp had been increased by more than $1 million.

Before that, there was lingering irritation among council members who felt they were left in the dark while city administrators negotiated the complex training camp deal they would be asked to approve.

And then there was the time an administration official asked council to approve a lease agreement for new office space that city workers already had been moved into.

There are more examples. And as each came up, council members made it publicly known that they were unhappy with what was happening — usually while they approved whatever measure was put in front of them.

The two ordinances requiring communication from the mayor's office represent the first sign of any real resistance.

One would require the administration to report within 72 hours if any city employee is involved in negotiations relative to new development, expansions or leases. It would require a second report at least 72 hours after negotiations close.

As drafted, the ordinance makes its intent clear: "The provisions of this section shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by the city Council of the transactions that are covered by this section." It also makes clear the council members might feel like they're dealing with a hostile administration: "For that purpose, the word 'negotiations' shall be given its broadest possible meaning."

The second ordinance — the one that would impose a $100 fine for each day Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall is found in violation — requires reports to council if city employees are temporarily reassigned.

First District Councilman Jon Baliles, who is a co-patron with Samuels of both measures, says they were inspired to draft the latter ordinance when it was discovered that the mayor's press secretary, Tammy Hawley, had been put in charge of all the city's public information officers.

That move disturbed Baliles on two levels. He doesn't consider it "good for the public" to give someone whose chief concerns are political control over the release of all public information in the city, he says. And the city charter makes it clear that departmental organization is City Council's responsibility.

"I mean, it's written in English, and it says if you're going to reorganize, a paper has to be passed by council," Baliles says — "not just by [the administration] issuing an order that says we're reorganizing all the press information officers."

Hawley, the mayor's press secretary, says the administration's plan to reorganize the city's public information officers was dropped. But she says the charter was never violated.

"We're certainly working with members of City Council to address any concerns that they have," she says. "But we're also confident that we have been working within the confines of the charter."

Hawley wouldn't say if Jones has a position on the ordinances.

Samuels and Baliles say they're working with the administration to tweak the proposed ordinances. They want to know what the mayor's up to, but they don't want to make the reporting requirements overly burdensome.

"We're not trying to ram it down their throats and say, 'This is the way it's going to be," Baliles says. "But the charter is written very clearly. And if you don't like the charter, that doesn't mean you can ignore it and say, 'We're going to do what we want because we can.' … It's the old third-grade government class lesson: checks and balances." S

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