Sojourner presents research on DC governance

TESTIMONY OF
THE HONORABLE SABRINA SOJOURNER
US REPRESENTATIVE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

BEFORE THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON
LOCAL, REGIONAL AND FEDERAL AFFAIRS

COUNCILMEMBER CAROL SCHWARTZ, CHAIR
COUNCIL CHAIR LINDA CROPP, CO-CHAIR

Thursday, January 29, 1998

Good afternoon Council Chair Cropp, Committee Chair Schwartz and members of the committee.

I am Sabrina Sojourner, US Representative for the District of Columbia. I want to start by thanking you for having these two days of hearings on reviewing the Home Rule Charter for the District of Columbia. We are beginning a very important process, one central to the responsibilities of a government. Many cities around the country are engaged, or have recently been engaged, in this same process. In addition to receiving ideas, I hope one of the outcomes of this process will be the establishment of a charter commission - or other appropriate body - that will develop and execute a wide reaching process for affirming the final changes we present to Congress. I also hope that such a Commission will fully utilize the talents and commitment of Statehood Delegation and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners.

Governance is the structure by which a group of people regulate, mediate, manage and facilitate their affairs. We, the residents of the District of Columbia have two overarching governance issues we must consider: One, the management and regulation of our local affairs, and Two, gaining equal constitutional standing before our federal government. As we seek to make changes in the first instance, we must also seek to make changes in the second. If we do not have the will to see reforms in our relationship to the Federal government, then we might as well stop this hearing and suspend the process until we are ready to pursue such a change. My comments will reflect my ideas regarding both.

Local Governance

In thinking about what changes I wanted to suggest for the local government, I examined the governance structures of jurisdictions of comparable size and complexity. They included the City and County of San Francisco, population 750,000; New York City, population 7.5 million; and the City and County of Denver, population 500,000. I did not look at state governments because I really wanted to focus on governments with multiple responsibilities such as ours.

Interestingly enough, the more complex and vast the responsibilities, the smaller the governing body. New York City, including the five Burrough presidents has 56 members on its City Council. In addition to the president, each Burrough has an elected district attorney. Instead of a Council President, there is an elected Public Advocate whose primary job is to act as an ombudsman, or go-between, for the consumers of City services. The PA is responsible for answering the thousands of complaints about the government bureaucracy, investigating ineffective agencies and programs, proposing new solutions to make government more efficient, and working with specific communities to advocate on their behalf and facilitate access to government. New York also has an elected comptroller and, of course, an elected mayor.

In Denver, the Council has had 13 members - 11 from equally populated districts and two elected at large. The whole Council meets every Monday night, except holidays, when the meetings are held on Tuesday nights.

San Francisco has eleven supervisors that, all of which are elected at-large. However, they are in the process of changing their charter. At their next election, they will be voting on a total of seven initiatives. Four of the choices are:

  1. Electing 11 Supervisors, one from each of 11 districts.
  2. Electing 15 Supervisors, three from each of five districts.
  3. Electing 11 Supervisors at large, using preference voting.
  4. Electing 11 Supervisors at large, using cumulative voting.

The three additional questions, or referendum on the ballot examine: Whether or not voters want any change at all in how Supervisors are elected; the setting of Supervisors salaries at $50,000 a year to be raised as the Consumer's Price Index changes, compared to the present $23,924 which does not change with inflation; and the last proposition would change municipal elections from even numbered years to odd numbered years. San Francisco and Denver also have elected District Attorneys, controllers, and judges.

My research has led me to believe that adjustments to the number of people elected to the Council does not necessarily need to change. Increases in effectiveness may be accomplished through changes in community philosophy and the execution of the job. Though it is referred to as part-time, I know most - if not all - of the current Councimembers work closer to full-time in executing their responsibilities. Certainly, to be effective, including maintaining ties with the people who elect one, there are weeks and months when it is more than full-time. And, unlike some jurisdictions, the pay is closer to that of a full-time job.

That said, there are additional elected offices I would like to see created, including:

I also think the formal name of this body should be changed to the District of Columbia Board of Supervisors, or District of Columbia Supervisors, or District of Columbia Council, or another name reflective of who we are. In other words, let's drop "City." Even with the recent changes in responsibilities, this body is more than a "City" Council. The title of Chairman definitely needs to be changed to Chair, President, Speaker, or something else that is gender neutral.

If we are going to increase the numbers for this body, I would increase the number of Wards to 12 and the total number of At-large to seven - including the President or Speaker. I am opposed to increasing the body to 120. I just do not see what we gain, and my concern is that we lose, particularly if the relationship with the Federal government does not change.

The Federal Relationship

The changes in governance we have endured in the last three years have been monumentally out of our control; out of our agreement. In fact, we - the elected officials of the District of Columbia - have been labeled incompetent, corrupt and out of touch. Our voters have been labeled incompetent and immature. Both stances have been used independently and together to justify curtailing our democracy.

Definitely, past and present elected officials need to take responsibility for a variety of mistakes and bad judgments. And, that responsibility needs to be coupled with our lack of equal constitutional standing before our own government. Washington, DC is the only capital city in the world in which the residents are treated differently than the rest of the country. We are the only jurisdiction in the country who can be punished for electing officials that outsiders don't like. After all, the citizens of Arizona in a five year period, elected two governors who subsequently were convicted of felonies. But no one has even entertained the idea that they as citizens are incompetent, therefore, unfit for democracy.

As the US Representative for the District of Columbia, my mandate has been to lobby for Statehood for the residents of this jurisdiction. I enlarged my responsibilities to include educating people across the country, around the world and in the halls of Congress about our status as second-class citizens. Most Americans, including many in Congress, do not know or understand how it is the residents of DC have less than equal constitutional standing before our government.

While full voting representation for District of Columbia residents in both houses of the United States Congress begins to settle this, it is only one piece of the equation. Congress must also cease to interfere with our local budgetary and political affairs.

As all of you well know, there are Members of Congress determined to force changes on the District of Columbia without regard for the impact on the people who live here. Once Congress gets it way, if they are not happy with the results, they can impose something else. That is the situation under which we currently live. Two years ago, Congress decided that a Financial Authority - without local representation - was the best course of action to resolve the City's problems. However one feels about the Financial Authority, the implementation period of its mandate was very short-lived before Congress decided to change course. And that is the point. Now we have a consultocracy and a defacto City Manager.

The forced implementation of this governance was aimed at disempowering a Mayor unpopular with Congress. Our governance should not be based on personal vendetta. As long we are governed by people who are not accountable to us, we will be subjected to short-sighted, revenge-based changes that serve no one.

Whether one likes the Financial Authority or not, or is happy with Dr. Camille Barnett or not, how both came into existence demonstrates how flawed the basic relationship is between DC and the Federal government. Without fundamental changes in the relationship between the two governments, changes in the Charter will be meaningless, because we will still lack fundamental, Constitutional rights before our government.

DC residents fulfill their obligations to the Federal government by paying taxes, serving in the military, and volunteering in support of many national and local efforts. It is time for the Federal government to fulfill its obligation to the 500,000 people who call DC home. The people of the District of Columbia are entitled to full Federal representation, true Home Rule and a change in Congressional attitude.

Our ancestors established the United States government over 200 years ago. In that time, its governing role and responsibilities have evolved in approach, philosophy and execution. Women's rights, segregation, immigration, international trade, labor rights, foreign affairs, and the size of Congress are just a few examples of those changes. We have reflected our country's evolution in 24 Amendments to the Constitution and the many laws passed since our birth. One of the few constants has been the neglect and dismissing policies directed at the nation's capital - Washington, DC

Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 17 of the Constitution established the District of Columbia and Congressional control of the Federal enclave. Our founding fathers intended Washington, DC to be the home of Congress. The major reason Congress wanted control of the local environment in which they operated was because of a tiff they had with the Continental Army in another city. When Congress failed to pay them for three months, the Continental Army surrounded the body as they met at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. After the City's Mayor and the Governor of Pennsylvania both refused to help, Congress vowed never, again, to be at the mercy of a local government.

The District of Columbia is not a state, a city or a county. It is, in fact, a combination of the three. DC governance is a unique mosaic; an original for which there is no equal. Though the citizens elect a Mayor and a City Council, Congress does not allow the District to fully govern itself. The City is framed by a web of intergovernmental constraints, beleaguered by a maze of ever increasingly complex social and economic problems, and provokes passionate extremes in Members of Congress. DC's peculiarities are why attempting to draw exact comparisons between it and other U.S. urban centers is pointless; and between it and other state governments lacks credibility.

Since the establishment of the District of Columbia, there have been several different types of government. Each change in governance has been in response to a fiscal crisis. Some of those financial problems were more devastating than the current situation. While there are specifics regarding how each government got into financial trouble and how each was rescued by the Federal government, two things are true to every instance:

1) local governance of the jurisdiction has remained almost completely out of the control of local citizens, and 2) Congress has contributed to both the creation of the financial problems and to the failure of the subsequent reform.

The District of Columbia is one of the youngest governments in the country. Prior to the granting of limited Home Rule in 1974, most of the management jobs in DC were filled through Congressional and Presidential patronage. The work culture and systems were based on how the Federal government went about its business, which was not necessarily the best way to run a hybrid jurisdiction. Additionally, there were many Trojan Horses in the Home Rule Act. Congress still had (and has) 100% control over the District of Columbia legislative and budget processes, turning every action by the legislative and administrative branches into a political dance with Congress.

The Home Rule Charter mandated Federal payment for services rendered was never fulfilled. Congress intended the payment to cover: lands that cannot be taxed such as all Federally owned land, embassies and related properties, not-for-profit and special tax-exempt held real estate - equaling approximately 41% of all land in DC; the nonpayment of sales tax on all Federal gift shop transactions; police and fire fighter services to augment Federal services; and more.

DC inherited a $300 million deficit and an unfunded pension liability for judges, police officers, fire fighters and teachers - all of whom were formerly Federal employees; St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental health facility, was forced on DC with inadequate resources and badly in need of repair. Shortly after the transaction, the DC government was fined for St. Elizabeth's disarray by the very people who left it in decay.

Over the last 23 years, DC laws have been overturned or defunded, rendering them unenforceable. DC has endured intimidation tactics and tinkering with its budget. Our annual appropriations bills are magnets for unilateral social causes and hot button issues. Members of Congress can force votes on unpopular items without suffering repercussions in their home districts. The District of Columbia has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny no jurisdiction could withstand. True technical assistance has been withheld or used as punishment. The "capital of democracy" lacks democracy.

The citizens of this country, including those living in DC, have fought around the world to preserve or to bring about democracy. Every Member of Congress speaks at home and abroad about the importance and spiritual imperative of democracy. It is time to bring Democracy to the nation's capital.

The District of Columbia government must make two issues its mission: First, the quality, cost-effective services for residents; second, securing for residents equal Constitutional standing before the Federal government.

The Twentieth Century Fund/The Century Foundation, an organization committed to quality governance, states: The path toward reviving respect for government and resuscitating civil society is not through quick-fixes and gimmicks, such as term limits, balanced budget amendments, hollow appeals to "family values," and willy-nilly privatization. (It is through) seeking reasoned ideas for governance reforms, including changes that would encourage legislators to act in the best long-term interests of the country."

It is in the best long term interest of this country that our second-class status be rectified. And, our local government officials must actively take on that fight.


The Supervisor's Handbook (abbreviated)
Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco

Some Basic Information About San Francisco's Form Of Government

Terms And Ballots

There are eleven Supervisors. Voters elect them in November of even numbered years. They have to declare they are candidates sometime in early August. As a practical matter, they usually decide well in advance of August so they can start raising money. They have four year overlapping terms. Voters elect six Supervisors in years when they elect a U.S. President; voters elect five Supervisors two years later. Voters use non-partisan ballots; that is, the ballot does not show any political party, and Supervisors do not run as members of a party or faction. In no California city or county does the ballot show political parties. Local election ballots in some other states show political parties.

Districts

Currently, there are no districts in the City/County of San Francisco. For a while in the late 1970s we had eleven districts and elected one Supervisor from each district. In November 1976 voters changed the charter to provide for district elections. In 1977 there were eleven Supervisors elected from districts. In 1979 voters elected Supervisors from six of the eleven districts, the odd numbered districts. Then in August 1980, the voters amended the charter to go back to at large elections in November 1980. Some of the Supervisors among the eleven elected at large in 1980 were first elected from districts. None of those Supervisors now remain on the Board of Supervisors.

The voters in November 1994 created a task force to study ways of electing Supervisors. The Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and the Registrar of Voters each appointed three members. But the task force did not agree on any proposal in time for the November 1995 election and for the March 1996 election recommended giving voters a choice of four different ways of electing Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors did not agree on placing those suggestions on the ballot. New proposals were presented to the Board in late May 1996.

The four choices were:

  1. Electing 11 Supervisors, one from each of 11 districts.
  2. Electing 15 Supervisors, three from each of five districts.
  3. Electing 11 Supervisors at large, using preference voting.
  4. Electing 11 Supervisors at large, using cumulative voting.

There will be three additional questions, or referendum on the ballot. One was a question of whether voters wanted a change at all in how Supervisors are elected. Another would have set Supervisors salaries at $50,000 a year to be raised as the Consumer's Price Index changes, compared to the present $23,924 which does not change with inflation. One proposition would have changed municipal elections from even numbered years to odd numbered years.

In June 1990 voters adopted a charter amendment limiting Supervisors to two terms. Supervisors in office when the limit was enacted were deemed to be serving in their first term, even though they may already have served several terms.

PROFESSIONAL STAFF

The City's Budget Analyst works for the Board under contract. A five member joint venture, led by Harvey Rose, has an office on the tenth floor of the Fox Plaza at 1390 Market Street. His office prepares reports on each item before the Budget Committee and on items before other committees with significant fiscal implications. For two years the Board had legislative analysts, but the Board could not get eight votes to retain them in the budget after that.

The present charter requires Supervisors, and all city officers, including Commission members, to receive approval of the Mayor and of the Board of Supervisors before leaving the State. That requirement will end on July 1 when the new charter takes effect. Supervisors who plan an out of state trip should write a memo to the Clerk stating the date of departure, the date of return, and the fact it is out of state. The Clerk will then add the name of the Supervisor to the weekly resolution granting leaves of absence. If a Supervisor will miss a Board meeting or miss a committee meeting, but will not be out of state, the Supervisor is requested to advise the Clerk of that fact by memo so the Clerk can arrange to have the Supervisor excused from attending the Board meeting, and so that Committee members and clerks will know of attendance plans. There is no sense in advertising a committee meeting if a quorum will not be present.

On the first Thursday of each month, at 9:00 a.m., the Clerk of the Board conducts one-hour workshops on various topics. In odd numbered months, the topic is "San Francisco's Legislative Process: How to get Legislation approved." This session may be useful to new aides. The Clerk is willing to provide this information to new Supervisors and new aides in a special presentation. On the first Thursday of even numbered months until August 1996 the workshop topic will be the new city charter. After August the even month topic may be ballot propositions or management styles or similar items primarily of interest to city employees.

NEW CHARTER

In November 1995 the voters adopted a new charter, the first since 1932. The 1932 charter was adopted at a time when, all over the country, voters were more concerned about stopping corruption than they were above solving urban problems. But right after World War II many cities adopted more modern charters, providing for Council-Manager plans or Strong Mayor plans. These charters were designed to give officials the power to get things done, and at the same time hold the officials accountable. For many years, many San Franciscans agreed the City needed a new charter; they simply could not agree on what it would say.

The 1996 charter goes into effect on July 1, 1996, although a few provisions go into effect over the three months following. The Recorder's office does not merge with the Assessor's office until July 1997.

Some of it was put in the new charter, some of it was put in an appendix of the new charter where it has the same legal effect as if it were in the main body of the charter (but it makes the main section more streamlined), some of it was put in the Administrative Code as ordinances which can be amended by the Board of Supervisors, and some of it was simply deleted as obsolete.

The City government will be more centralized. The Mayor's position will be stronger. The Board's position will be stronger. Department heads will be stronger. Commissions will be less strong. They will have plenty to do in the policy arena, but they will no longer administratively direct their departments.

There are two keys. One is how the Mayor and the City Administrator work together. Under the new charter the City Administrator performs such tasks on a citywide basis as the Mayor directs. The Mayor could leave the City Administrator weak, with little to do, so as not to interfere with the Mayor. On the other hand, the Mayor could make the City Administrator strong, a real partner with the Mayor.

I would hope the Mayor would have full confidence in his City Administrator, a manager who runs the internal operations of the city, leaving the Mayor enough time to deal with the Board of Supervisors and with his tremendous external responsibilities and time pressures.

I think the second key is in the relations between department heads and their commissions. The department heads will run the departments. The new charter says the administration and management of each department within the executive branch shall be the responsibility of the department head. Commissions and commissioners will be prohibited from interfering in the operations of the department. Commissions will adopt an annual statement of purpose for review and approval by the Mayor and by the Board of Supervisors, and will make an annual report to the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors. Existing commissioners and existing department heads will have to develop new relationships, new ways of working together.

Under both the old and new charters, the Board is prohibited from interfering in department administration concerning personnel and concerning contracts. Under the old charter the Board could not get involved in other departmental administrative matters, except to inquire. But under the new charter the Board can be involved in department administration, other than personnel and contract matters. Still, if the Mayor and the Board are going to hold department heads responsible for the effective operation of their departments, then the Board had better let the department heads make the administrative decisions.

The Mayor will appoint commissioners. Board confirmation is not required, but the Board can reject the appointments. The appointment of the City Administrator by the Mayor for a five year term (compared to the 10 years for previous CAO's) will be subject to Board approval. The removal of the City Administrator by the Mayor will require confirmation by the Board, although under the new charter the removal can occur without cause.

The Board will need only a majority vote to adopt the budget, instead of the present 2/3 vote. Now the Board can only lower proposed appropriations. Under the new charter, the Board can raise them too, if there is enough money. The Board will have to appoint an Audit Committee to work with the outside auditor.

There are many other changes, many of them minor. Here are some of them:


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