Has a rubber stamp factory opened in the D.C. Council quarters in city hall? That's the question some folks are asking after observing several actions by the legislature last week.
Consider, for example, Marion Barry's actions during the hearing on legislation offered by At-large Councilman David Catania to elevate to Cabinet level the head of the city's HIV/AIDS administration. The Ward 8 legislator urged witnesses to reject the bill. Proponents were focused on solving the District's Third World-like HIV/AIDS problem -- but Barry was acting as like a guard, protecting Mayor Vincent Gray's prerogatives.
The executive determines which agencies are included in his Cabinet. Catania's legislation would strip that power from Gray, albeit temporarily. When the bill comes before the entire legislature for a vote, Barry probably won't be the only one running interference for the mayor.
Days earlier, led by Chairman Kwame Brown, the council confirmed through emergency legislation -- without benefit of any public discussion -- Gray's nomination of Thomas Downs to the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
"With all that has happened at Metro, there should've been some kind of hearing," said one council staffer who requested anonymity.
"Has there ever been a [public] hearing or a roundtable for a Metro nominee?" Brown asked during my conversation with him Saturday. "I'm still researching that."
Help us. He moved Downs forward without even knowing if there should be a hearing.
The transit authority is in crisis. It has been for nearly two years. Its operations and governing board have been under intense national scrutiny since the 2009 subway crash in which nine people were killed and dozens more injured. Failure to adhere to safety standards and follow National Safety Transportation Board recommendations were the root causes for the tragedy. Safety issues have persisted and the agency has severe financial problems.
It's not clear what Downs' views are about any of that: What would he do to better protect riders? The District government pays the largest subsidy to WMATA. How would he guarantee the money is better managed?
Brown said the city needed to be represented during selection of a new general manager. "The only person we had on the board was [Councilman} Tommy Wells," continued Brown, apparently dissing the legislature's appointee to WMATA. "Mr. Downs brings an incredible resume to the table."
Downs served, during the early 1980s, as head of public works before rising to become one of Barry's city administrators. Downs also served as Amtrak's president. He headed the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland between 2001 and 2003, and reportedly serves as a chairman at Veolia Transportation -- a private French company that, according to its Web site, has more than 200 transit contracts with U.S. state and local governments.
Is Downs' association with Veolia a conflict of interest? The public should know the answer to that question.
Brown and company may be happy with biographical summaries of mayoral nominees. The public deserves better. Hopefully, other individuals won't receive a similar royal pass under the guise of an emergency.
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.