Phil Mendelson: responses to GLAA questionnaire

Responses of Phil Mendelson to
GLAA 1998 Questionnaire for Council Candidates

3871 Newark Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20016-3028 966-1485

August 15, 1998

1. If elected, what will you do to encourage the Council to exercise its powers more responsibly and thereby facilitate a speedy return of home rule powers to the District?

Balanced budgeting, effective oversight, and voting reasonably (as opposed to expediently) -- these are the keys.

Congress has said that upon attaining four years of balanced budgets the Control Board will go dormant. That is the obvious roadmap. It also makes sense; fiscal discipline will restore credibility and strength in the District government. When I first was elected a Director of the McLean Gardens Condominium (720 units) I was part of a reform movement to hold down costs which had been rising about 8% a year. In the five years since, we have held the annual increase in fees to below 2% -- below the rate of inflation. That is the attitude I will take to the Council. I intend to be honest about budgeting. Many service-related problems are due to underfunding, and the Control Board became omnipotent because the Council was resorting to budget gimmicks that did not represent real revenues nor resolve overspending.

Oversight is critical. See my answer to the next question.

Voting reasonably means voting against unqualified appointments. It means not voting for "emer-gency" legislation before all the facts (and community comment) are known. It means not voting for 99 year "leases" or for sole source procurements when there could have been competitive bid-ding. It means being willing to stand up to the hotel & restaurant industry regarding the convention center and insisting that there be a full and fair study of alternatives before voting for the Mount Vernon Square site. I cite these examples not only because they are instructive, but because I be-lieve I am the only At-Large candidate who has a record of action on these issues. I testified against David Watts' confirmation. I lobbied heavily and wrote commentary for the Post and neighborhood papers against fast-track regulatory "reform" legislation last winter. I wrote to other ANCs and the Council opposing Children's Island. And I have been one of the Committee of 100's representatives on the convention center issue (using my campaign kick-off to publicize the alternative site).

There are other things to be done, as well. Improving core services -- e.g., public safety, schools, transportation systems -- will make the city a more attractive place for our workers and residents. This will attract more residents and business which, in turn, will improve our tax base. Restoring the city will also facilitate the return of home rule powers.

2. The Council has seldom aggressively exercised its oversight powers over the District government. Instead, too often it has been passive and reactive in addressing the mismanagement problems that routinely plague the District government's administration. What will you do to improve the Council's performance of its oversight responsibilities?

I will bring a different approach to oversight, because this affects all aspects of government operations and delivery. I know what I am talking about because I spent seven years on staff at the Council. I know what is necessary to prepare for hearings, I've written the tough questions, and I've seen what is most effective from the dais.

Council oversight has been reactive, sporadic, and confrontative. It should be proactive, continuous, and collaborative. I want to reach out to the players (e.g., department heads and constituent groups) to learn problems and possible solutions. I can best do that ahead of the fact -- before problems become crises. It is the rage right now for candidates to talk about using subpoena power, swear witnesses, and prosecute perjurers. These can be effective tools, but it can be more effective to visit -- unannounced -- an agency office and witness what is really happening. The point is to identify problems and resolve them, not to be combative.

Better oversight is the only way the Council will understand that it is under-funding agencies, that equipment is failing, that certain requirements have become archaic (or, conversely, are needed), and so forth. Better oversight is also the only way to enforce accountability. To do this, the Council must utilize its authority to: require performance standards; hold management to task; deny confirmation of unqualified department heads; cut off funding for problems rife with waste and mismanagement; and so forth.

3. Do you support passage and full funding for the new civilian complaint review system to be established by Bill 12-521, the "Office of Citizen Complaint Review Establishment Act of 1998"?

Yes. The abolition of the CCRB in 1996 was due in large part to the city's budgetary crisis. It needed reform, but it should not simply have been abolished. There is a need for civilian review that arises from the long history -- in every jurisdiction -- of law enforcement tending to cover up transgressions within its ranks. Civilian review enables greater likelihood of accountability by people who possess incredible power in our free society: the police power to deny individuals their freedom. Bill 12-521 passed the Council unanimously in early July and will no doubt win final approval in the early fall. The principle concern at this point is funding. I support the efforts by others to secure $1.2 million in federal funds for the FY 1999 operations of the new civilian complaint review system being established by Bill 12-521. When I am on the Council I will work to ensure funding for future years as well, and to ensure that the kinds of case backlog that plagued the old board do not reoccur.

4. Do you support Bill 12-612, the "Opened Alcoholic Beverage Containers Amendment Act of 1998" (a.k.a. the "Chardonnay Lady Bill"), that would allow people to drink alcoholic beverages on their own porches without fear of arrest?

Yes. I support "zero tolerance" if that means police attention to minor crimes such as graffiti, vandalism, and petty theft, because these often lead to the arrest of those who commit major crimes. I do not support "zero tolerance" if that means harassment of people drinking on their own porch, expelling 6-year-olds from school for sharing lemon drops, or arresting motorists for leaving their driver's licenses at home when they drive half a mile to the store for milk. Bill 12-612 does not legalize "keg parties," loud noise, and publicly drunken behavior.

5. In an apparent effort to bolster his standing with some segments of the District community, the recently ousted chief of the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs, David Watts, instituted a zoning regulation earlier this year barring video stores from deriving more than 15% of their revenue from sexually-oriented videos. Do you agree that this attach on the rights of adult consumers is utterly unwarranted and that there should be no limits on the proportion of video store revenues derived from adult videos?

As you know, I was very involved in the MVC Latenight video store controversy on upper Wisconsin Avenue which led to this ruling. I urged DCRA at the time to refrain from such a ruling, citing several reasons, and I urged that if DCRA nevertheless felt compelled to proceed, that it limit its action to MVC Latenight through the issuance of an informal enforcement advisory letter, such as is used by various federal regulatory agencies, which has no precedential effect on other stores. By so limiting its focus, moreover, DCRA could have made more efficient use of its limited resources. Attached is a copy of my December 22nd letter.

I am almost always with ACLU on First Amendment issues, but I do not agree that there should be utterly no limits on adult video stores. The neighborhood residents and businesses protesting MVC Latenight made it clear that 100% sexually-oriented stores with full-view plate glass windows are not acceptable in low density neighborhood commercial shopping areas.

The Zoning Regulations do permit such stores in higher density zones. They also permit stores with limited adult-inventory in the lower density zones. The issues, then, are what zones, and what inventory levels, are appropriate. The experience with video stores in the Dupont Circle area (and elsewhere) demonstrates that an inventory of adult video-tapes greater than 15% in C-3 zones is not objectionable. I agree that the Zoning Regulations should be revised and made more tolerant with regard to video stores selling or renting sexually-oriented tapes. Both the percentage and number of matter-of-right zone districts should be increased.

6. Will you support legislation to authorize and regulate the issuance of liquor licenses to establishments (in designated nonresidential commercial districts) that want to offer nude dancing as entertainment?

Yes, so long as such establishments are in nonresidential commercial districts such as are found downtown. Incidentally, I have never joined with residents near my ANC district who have sought to close Good Guys on Wisconsin Avenue.

7. Do you support Initiative 59 (or similar legislation) to legalize the use of medical marijuana when a patient's doctor recommends it as a means to combat some of the effects of AIDS, cancer, and other diseases?

Absolutely. My mother-in-law recently died of uterine cancer and as she was declining the family discussed whether to obtain marijuana because of its ability to counteract nausea. Government's attitude toward drugs is unthinking in general. Medical marijuana is not drug abuse. I signed the Initiative, would sign it again, and would support legislation in the Council.

8. The New York State Legislature recently passed legislation saying that: (1) doctors must report the names of people who test positive for HIV to public health officials; and that (2) health workers must attempt to have infected patients identify their sex or drug-use partners and then must notify those partners of possible exposures. Such measures are invariably counterproductive and discourage those most at risk from being tested and treated for HIV. Will you oppose any such legislation in the District?

Yes. Even if such legislation were well-intentioned, its deterrent effect exacerbates the AIDS epidemic. If the need is for good epidemiological data, there are other methods available to public health officials such as using a unique identifier system.

9. Do you support an increase in District government funding to combat AIDS in line with the continuing increase in the caseload?

Yes. Moreover, the District government should be doing everything it can to secure federal funds and grants that are available, and it should be spending all of its annual appropriation for AIDS treatment rather than turning-back over $1 million each year. Using these funds would enable the District to develop more extensive prevention efforts. It would enable us to develop programs for populations where AIDS continues to spread (e.g., teens and heterosexual women). Prevention is critical, and therefore I support condom availability, clean needle exchange, and meaningful AIDS education in our public schools ("meaningful" means more than an "abstinence-only" philosophy). Public health is a critical component of government, and AIDS prevention & treatment is a paramount public health issue. We must address it, so I will press health officials to use all available local and federal dollars and to manage these programs efficiently so that additional funding can be supported to the extent needed.

10. Do you support continued District government funding for the needle exchange program to combat the spread of AIDS?

Yes. Needle exchange does not promote drug use, nor does it increase the supply of needles. It does, however, reduce the spread of AIDS and it does get people into the public health system who need to be treated.

11. Do you support legal recognition of marriages between partners of the same sex?

Yes. Civil marriage has many very tangible economic and social benefits which help promote stability in our society and which would promote stable relationships within the Gay & Lesbian community. I will oppose Congressional interference in this matter.

12. Do you support the current District policy, sanctioned by a court ruling, of allowing adoptions by unmarried couples?

Yes. Here, too, I will oppose Congressional interference in this matter. Such interference is homophobic and offensive to Home Rule prerogatives. More importantly, they disre-gard our society's desperate need for caring and competent adoptive parents.

13. Do you support both an increased budget for the Office of Human Rights (OHR) so that its heavy case backlog can be eliminated, and the reestablishment of OHR as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor?

Yes. Funding for OHR must be adequate to reduce the backlog, then it can be reduced -- but maintained at a level that will not permit recurrence of the backlog. The Human Rights Act is important and therefore must be supported with an adequate number of investigators to eliminate the case backlog. Regarding independence, OHR has suffered by being consolidated with minority business development. This consolidation must be reversed --

because it has failed, and because it makes no sense to have combined two unrelated functions that appeal to mostly different constituencies.

One of my campaign themes, though, is that we must look at efficiency when we talk about "adequate" funding. The critical factor in the administration of any program is the quality of the manager or agency director, and so usually it should not matter where an office fits within the government. An independent, cabinet-level director can be lousy. Ultimately, the Mayor and Council must ensure that there are capable administrators. This is a fundamental problem with service delivery in this government. Poor managers are not held accountable. Where the Executive fails, the Council should step in. Yet the Council has failed in oversight: it does not hold managers to any kind of performance standards, it does not deny confirmation of unqualified department heads, it does not press for resignations when the incompetence becomes manifest, it does not use funding as a tool to fight waste and mismanagement, and it never uses its subpoena powers.

14. Will you support legislation codifying OHR's current practice of granting top priority to discrimination complaints from those afflicted with AIDS or other life-shortening conditions?

If there weren't the backlog, such triage might be unnecessary. But it is necessary, so I will support such legislation.

15. Proposals for establishing a system of vouchers for private schools, whether here or elsewhere around the country, would funnel taxpayer dollars to religious schools controlled by denominations that frequently are aggressively homophobic. Will you oppose any legislation authorizing vouchers for religious schools?

Yes. I oppose any form of privatization that refers to vouchers or other mechanisms whereby students go to non-public schools -- religious or otherwise. We do not improve public schools by redirecting funding, students, and other resources to private schools. I am a product of public schooling; I know it can work. I believe there is a real value to the commonality of experience that children receive in the public schools. But our D.C. school system is not what it should be. Kids should be able to go to school and feel safe. They should be in an environment that is clean, and that fosters a sense of pride in themselves and their public school. Kids should want to learn. We have to provide security, repair the physical plant, install modern equipment in the labs and classrooms, reward teachers for their good work, and find ways to involve parents.

Candidate's record

I was on the Council staff for 7 years. I worked for Councilmember Jim Nathanson during his handling of Domestic Partnership legislation (he chaired the Government Operations Committee, which had jurisdiction) and sodomy repeal (he chaired the Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction).

I am a long-time community activist. Attached is my testimony against David Watts' appointment. Also attached are three letters from the past year: two regarding the civilian complaint review system and one regarding the 15% video rule.

I am the candidate who can fight for a better government -- because that's what I've been doing.

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