Mendelson sees confidence gap for D.C. Council

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he wants to effectively and efficiently restore public support for the city’s legislative body, even as lawmakers gird for a fight Wednesday over the best ways to mitigate the effects of potentially steep federal spending cuts next year.

Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat, indicated Tuesday that the council is in a better frame of mind than it was ahead of the June resignation of his predecessor, Kwame R. Brown, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud and misdemeanor campaign-finance violations.

He said he expects the council to pass a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill by the end of the year and to tackle education issues, such as high turnover among principals and teachers and the best way to pinpoint truant students so they do not cross paths with the criminal justice system.

Mr. Mendelson is poised to finish Mr. Brown’s term as chairman after city elections Nov. 6, although he deflected attention from himself during a press briefing Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s legislative meeting, the council’s first since its two-month summer recess.

“I’m always going to give credit to the collective body,” he told reporters Tuesday, referring to a return to calmer days around the John A. Wilson Building after summertime scandals. “It’s just hard on members when they report to work, if you will, and there’s a lot of criticism that is swirling about, and that all came to a head in early June with my predecessor’s resignation. I think with that pressure and attention out of the way members are just more comfortable.”

Yet the governing body appears to be split over how to handle its most pressing business Wednesday — the Technology Sector Enhancement Act of 2012.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray has implored the council to pass the bill. It provides tax incentives for tech businesses in the District and the wealthy investors who support them as a way to diversity the city’s economy and insulate it from the impact that potential government spending cuts, known as “sequestration,” will have on federal jobs and the contracting industry in the capital region.

But Mr. Mendelson is among city lawmakers who see the bill as a tax cut for deep-pocketed investors, noting the council already passed tax incentives for high-tech business in a bill aimed at keeping daily deal-giver LivingSocial within D.C. borders. In his briefing, Mr. Mendelson said the issue has attracted “some attention and some controversy” and he would not be surprised to see an amendment Wednesday to cut the investor-relation portion of the bill.

Also this week, the council is expected to rectify an idiosyncrasy in motor vehicle laws that prompts the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to revoke D.C. residents’ driver’s licenses for speeding in Virginia at levels deemed “reckless” by some prosecutors in the state.

The council is nearing the end of its legislative period, so “there will be a lot of bills moving over the next several months,” Mr. Mendelson said. Among the most high-profile goals, the mayor will present a package of campaign finance reforms designed to curtail the influence of city contractors and force corporate donors to document their stake in subsidiaries, so they cannot exceed maximum contribution limits by giving through multiple limited liability companies.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, said he plans to introduce a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the council’s role in reviewing contracts from the mayor’s office that exceed $1 million. He said his colleagues rarely read the contracts they vote on and their role is an invitation for pay-to-play politics among contractors with a vested interest in swaying city lawmakers.

Mr. Mendelson has said the review process is a key part of transparency in the contracting process. He is aware that overlapping campaign finance reform proposals will be before the council this fall, but thinks council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations, will assemble the proposals into a single bill by the end of December.

“It’s difficult,” he said, “but it can be done.”

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