Thursday, December 17, 2009

Latest Crime Bill - What it Includes...

On Tuesday, Councilmembers Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced the “Neighborhood and Victims Rights Amendment Act of 2009" [PDF].  The legislation:
  • Provides mandatory minimums for gun crimes by gang members (3 years possession, 10 years use);
  • Expands current law allowing the ability obtain a court order prohibiting public nuisances;
  • Recommends establishment of a "gun court" to quickly address such offenses;
  • Provides for consideration of "community impact statements" during sentencing;
  • Amends a District law that permits MPD to impound vehicles used in prostitution;
  • Provides for criminal background checks of alcoholic beverage license applicants;
  • Includes new penalties for PCP-related offenses and driving under the influence of PCP; and
  • Includes various protections for crime victims and witnesses, such as a right to know the status of the case; information related to any stay-away orders, pleas, releases, probation, or other placement; and protection from adverse employment action when attending court proceedings or meeting with law enforcement.
A more detailed summary follows this post below.

In the District, which has about four times as much violent crime as New York City, it is not uncommon for individuals to be arrested ten, fifteen, even twenty times for serious offenses, such as gun possession, robbery, burglary, car theft, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, and, even murder, and nevertheless remain on the street.

Councilmember Mendelson, who chairs the Council's Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, believes that the city needs closer study as to the reasons behind this "revolving door."  How much of this situation stems from "no-papering" due to lack of evidence or other factors, plea bargains, court rulings, jury verdicts, or sentencing?  How much accountablility lies with police officers, detectives, prosecutors, and judges?  How much lies with weaknesses in the District's laws?

If the District lacks critical data as to the source of the problem, as Mendelson suggests, then such a study should be included among the bill's provisions so that the city can better target areas of the criminal justice system for future improvement.  It is not a replacement or excuse, however, for delay or inaction in providing the tools included in the legislation to fight the current violence.

Overall, the bill appears to be a positive step forward.  There are some legitimate questions such as how would the court determine a defendant is a "member of a criminal street gang" subject to mandatory minimums for gun offenses, how significant of an expansion of the current nuisance law is the proposal, would the new gun court require additional funding from Congress, don't courts already consider community impact statements, and why hasn't MPD used the prostitution-related impoundment law since it was amended by the Council to address constitutional issues in 2006?

Mendelson should schedule a hearing on the bill in early 2010 and give the Graham/Evans proposal full and fair consideration.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Billboards Fall!

And the citizens said, "Director Argo, take down these billboards!"  And, this morning, residents ran out onto the streets to watch them fall, all four of them, at New Jersey Avenue and P Streets NW (and shared their observations via e-mail).

Neighborhood activists and ordinary citizens, working with the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, should be proud.  The process demonstrates DCRA's commitment to address quality of life issues in our neighborhoods, even when they might seem relatively small to some.

A bit of background.  Residents of the Shaw neighborhood, including the Bates Area Civic Association pleaded with DCRA to seek removal of what appeared to be illegal billboards at NJ and P.  Not only were they unsightly, but the large vacant lot lent itself to dumping, littering, drug dealing, and other crime.  The billboards contributed to blight and lowered property values in the neighborhood.  Residents longed to see housing, a park, anything at the prominent corner location.  Even a dedicated website emerged.

While DC law has long banned billboards, some were allowed over the years.  Additional regulations made clear that billboards were not permitted near residential buildings.  Records dating prior to Home Rule, however, were misplaced.  City regulations changed repeatedly and their retroactive application to previously permitted billboards was apparently arguable. 

Nevertheless, these billboards and many others across the city, remained in plain site.  Many provided a source of income for derelict owners of vacant lots, parking lots, used car dealerships, and liquor stores.

The Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association chimed in and urged DCRA to remove billboards at several locations in its neighborhood and review the issue citywide.  To its credit, DCRA promptly announced that it would begin enforcement of the billboard law.  Given missing records and conflicting regulations, enforcement posed a challenge.  DCRA commited itself to fixing the situation and, eventually, at least three sets of billboards came down over the past several months.

The billboards at New Jersey and P Streets NW, however, led to a fight.  They are owned by Clear Channel, which had a permit dating back several decades and they sought and obtained an court injunction prohibiting their removal.  In the midst of the legal strangling, the situation took an odd turn when another District agency, the Department of Health, placed a public service ad on one of the billboards.  To avoid an expensive legal fight, last week, DCRA promulgated emergency regulations to address the issue.  That seemed to get Clear Channel's attention. 

According to DCRA Director Linda Argo:
The District has reached a settlement agreement with Clear Channel regarding their four billboards at 4th and P Street, NW and additional billboard at 3rd and K Street, NE.
The agreement calls for Clear Channel to begin removing the billboards today, Tuesday, December 15, and to completely remove the billboards no later than Monday, December 21. Clear Channel will then remove any supporting posts for the billboards by December 31.

I’m thrilled we’ve reached this amicable settlement with Clear Channel and want to express my gratitude for the community’s invaluable assistance in these efforts.
Just fifteen minutes after receiving Director Argo's e-mail, Richard Dane Norwood, Ward 5 Coordinator for the Mayor's Office of Community Relations and Services reported that removal was underway.

Congratulations to the community for its hard work and to DCRA (as well as the Attorney General's Office) for following through on their commitment and delivering an early holiday gift to the neighborhood.  Let's hope to see the lot put toward a beneficial and productive use in 2010!

UPDATE: More photos and commentary from the Prince of Petworth as well as video from the Bates Area Civic Association. Also Washington Business Journal, Examiner (via BACA blog), and DC Wire coverage.

Gone, but not forgotten, in 2009 (from top to bottom): 7th and L Streets, NJ Avenue & P Street, and the 300 Block of New York Avenue NW.

Car Sharing to Expand

Residents may be interested to learn that the the District Department of Transportation Office of Zoning will hold a public hearing next Monday, December 21, regarding new regulations for Zipcar and, I assume, other car sharing companies, to operate beyond downtown and in residential neighborhoods.  Zipcar

Here is a blurb from Zipcar, which received the 2009 Mayor's Environmental Excellence Award for Outstanding Achievement for Innovation in Green Products or Services.
Over the past few months, we've been working tirelessly with DDOT and the DCRA to adjust the zoning regulations as they pertain to some of the home locations for our Zipcars. The new regulations would officially allow Zipcar to conduct business in residential areas of the District. That means we'll be able to continue parking your beloved neighborhood car in the alley behind your house. However, there's still one last step, and for that we need your help.
On Monday, December 21 at 6:30pm at 441 4th Street NW Suite 220 South, there will be a public hearing for citizens to vocalize their support for the new regulations. We would love it if you could stop by to share a story or two about what Zipcar means to you. As a token of our thanks, we'll be handing out Zipcar t-shirts so you can show your pride during the meeting.

If you think you might be able to make it, send a quick email to to let us know.

Thanks again for being a Zipster, and we hope to see you soon.
If you would like to provide some "information sharing" for readers on the proposed regulations, which I have not located online, please do!

A Frank Discussion on Crime

Last month, a post on this blog led with a quote by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the D.C. Council's Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, "Violence in Shaw is not a legislative problem."  Last night, Mendelson, to his credit, came out to the that neighborhood to explain his view, discuss what he has done and continues to do to address crime, and respond to the safety concerns of his constituents.

Mendelson began by sharing two actual case studies.
Person A, age 60, has been arrested 26 times (19 as an adult and 7 as a juvenile) for 2 stolen autos, 1 robbery, 2 for carrying a gun, and 5 for drug dealing while armed.  He was most recently charged and found guilty of carrying a gun in May 2009.  Of the 26 arrests, there were only 3 guilty verdicts and 2 not-guilty.  The rest were dismissed or "no papered."
Person B, age 27, has been arrested 20 times (19 as an adult and 1 as a juvenile) for murder, 2 assault with a deadly weapon, a carrying a gun, and 8 for drug dealing.  Most recently, he was arrested for 1st degree murder (in January 2008, but dismissed by the U.S. Attorneys Office).  Of the 20 arrests, he was found guilty on 2 and not-guilty on 2.  The rest were dismissed or no papered.  
One might assume both of these fellas are doing hard time.  No.  Person A was sentenced to 12 months after being caught with a gun, all time suspended.  The U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed 1st degree murder charge against Person B.  Apparently, two of Bs brothers pleaded to 2nd degree murder.  In other words, A and B are walking the street today.  They are likely armed and dangerous.

Mendelson's Exhibit A was intended to show that the Council can pass law after law without solving the revolving door problem, which may lie with shoddy evidence, plea bargains, poor prosecutorial discretion, or judicial rulings and sentencing.

Not everyone saw it that way. 

"This is an embarrassment - you should be ashamed," a resident of the 1200 Block of 7th Street  repeatedly stated. 

The resident, who has had three shootings on his block in the few months he has lived in the neighborhood, noted that he holds the members of the Council and the Mayor responsible. 

Why?  Because when he goes to the polls, those are the names on the ballot -- not the prosecutors or judges.  "It is the Council that is responsible for running the city, structuring the criminal justice system, and holding police, prosecutors, and judges accountable," he exclaimed. 

Therein lies the rub. 

The District's quasi federal-city status leaves it in a situation where major crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorneys Office (federal), not the D.C. Attorney General or the District Attorney that we do not have.  There's no requirement that the U.S. Attorney or federal prosecutors live in the District.  Judges are appointed by the President of the United States to 15-year terms, not the Mayor.  They can come from anywhere in the country. 

While representatives of the U.S. Attorneys Office frequently testify on legislative proposals before the D.C. Council, there is no true city oversight of its prosecutors or its courts.  The city makes the laws and polices the city, but it is left out of the final steps of the process - bringing charges, prosecuting cases, and sentencing. 

Mendelson's Exhibit B was a list of 33 pieces of legislation passed by the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary during the four years he has served as chair.  He offered it to show that he does, indeed, in some cases, believe crime is a legislative issue.  Generally, the list was not compelling.  It included a dozen bills  unrelated to the type of violent crime of concern in Shaw and many other communities, such as white collar insurance fraud, dishonored checks, animal cruelty, and littering.  It also included items that have little to do with crime at all, such as a bill to improve jury service (which I testified on).  That's not to say that some of the omnibus bills that ultimately passed have no teeth.  I'm sure some provisions have made a difference.

There was plenty of finger pointing, but on to some of the highlights of some proposals:
Loitering.  Mendelson committed to looking at a Chicago-style anti-loitering ordinance, moving away from his longstanding opposition to such laws as a violation of liberty.  His commitment came in response to the type of situation raised by a resident in which a group continuously hangs out on his corner.  Public drinking quickly escalates to fist-fighting, then to shootings.  If the police would get involved earlier and ask them to move on, then the violence might be avoided.   In order for such laws to be constitution, Mendelson believed, they must be limited in area and duration.  Some residents, however, find 5 and 10 day drug-free zone type laws just silly.  Why isn't it always a crime-free zone, they ask.  As an alternative, I suggested to Mendelson that rather than an arbitrary 5 or 10 day period that requires significant MPD paperwork to obtain, that the Council grant the police enhanced power to address loitering at any location in which there has been X calls for service to 911, Y arrests for guns/drugs, or Z reports of gunfire through Shotspotter within the past month for the following month.

Safe Passage to School Law.  Mendelson recently sponsored this bill with the support of all members of the Council. It will create a no loitering zone in posted areas around schools. In response, DC Attorney General Peter Nickes, however, said the safe passage bill is "not an effective way to deal with ... the real problems." "I think it's halfhearted, ineffective and has legal problems," Nickles told The Examiner.

Civil Gang Injunctions.  Mendelson continues to feel they are counterproductive.  Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) supports them, at least on a trial basis in Ward 2.  Today, Evans who participated in the forum, will introduce a bill that again proposes such a measure, as well as a new gun court and nuisance law (anti-loitering).

Funding Gang Intervention Groups, such as the Peacaholics and Alliance of Concerned Men.  Mendelson commented that the District has given too much money to such programs without adequate performance measures.  While these groups may do a lot of good, I wholeheartedly agree that accountability for public funds is sorely lacking.  Taxpayers (and the Council) need to know how the money is spent and what results are achieved to understand whether the city would more effectively spend such funds on job training programs, extended recreation center hours, or mentoring programs, or more police officers.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety.  Mendelson criticized Mayor Adrian Fenty's elimination of the position of Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, which was established under Mayor Williams.  That position, Mendelson commented, coordinated efforts between the federal and city governments and forced them to sit down at the table and communicate.

Addressing the revolving door.  While almost everyone seems to acknowledge that violent criminals get arrested repeatedly and remain on the streets (the representative of the U.S. Attorneys Office seemed to be the only one who took issue with this representation), no one can put their finger on WHY?  What happens after arrest is "amazingly opaque," said Mendelson.  While citizens (and policy makers) can, at the touch of their laptops, pull up data for an area on arrests, calls for service, and shots fired, what happens after an arrest is a mystery.  What percentage of arrests are "no papered?"  Is that a result of shoddy police practices, lack of evidence, or some other reason?  How many of those arrested for 1st degree murder actually serve the "mandatory" minimum already set by the Council?  What percentage of those arrested are charged with a lesser offense or released because of a plea deal?  Where does the responsibility lie and how can lawmakers, prosecutors and judges improve the criminal justice system?  I suggested that if the District lacks needed data to back sound public policy decisions with respect to crime, it ought to establish an agency/office such as the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics to track local arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing.  Mendelson seemed supportive of that idea.  He suggested that he may seek funding from the DC Council and speak with Evans about it.

Why is DC so different?  Borderstan questioned why DC’s murder rate is 4.56 times higher than that of New York City, noting that other crimes follow the same pattern.  While DC has made progress in recent years, it remains leaps and bounds away from other major cities with respect to the prevalence of violent crime.  There was no explanation offered.

What's the U.S. Attorneys Office going to do differently?  In a terse exchange, Evans demanded that a representative of the U.S. Attorneys Office, Albert Herring, answer this question in light of the community's frustration.  There's was no response -- other than, "we prosecute crimes to the fullest extent of the law...."

Home Rule.  Evans noted that both he and Mendelson support the District gaining control over its courts.  It would cost $120 million annually.  While such a proposal was considered (and died in Congress) years ago, the Council and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton have not pushed such a proposal under the Obama Administration and a Democratic Congress.  There was no discussion of whether they support establishing an elected District Attorney or additional Home Rule with respect to prosecution of cases.
So, what did the meeting accomplish? 

Mendelson seems closer to lending his support to a broader anti-loitering law, has already backed a school-zone loitering law, and wants funding to examine the District's revolving door. 

Evans has an anti-gang bill due out today, which Mendelson should give a timely hearing and fair consideration. 

Mendelson and the U.S. Attorneys Office both got an earful.  One can hope that what they heard will add vigor to their efforts and give them helpful perspective in their decisionmaking.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Photo Tour of Franklin School

On Thursday, December 3, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) held an open house at the Franklin School for those interested in responding to its Request for Proposals. Although the RFP clearly is geared to submissions from private developers, those who attended included charter school representatives, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, and historic preservationists, among others. I attended as a support of the Coalition for Franklin School, which supports using the building as a model school for the 21st century.  There was no guided tour or handouts.  Those who attended wandered the building on this rare opportunity.

As you will see by the photographs, the building is frozen in time from the six-year period it served as a homeless shelter.  A calendar hangs on the wall of what was an office marking September 2008, when the city closed the build, and a flier tells occupants to register to vote because "this is the most important election of our life time."  Looking more closely, one can find remnants of its history as a school building.  Outlines of chalkboards and room numbers.  I am told that above the false ceiling in the great hall, there is is a portion of a mural that once extended down to the floor.

Press coverage:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Disposition of Public Property: Some Thoughts

The DC Council is (finally) moving forward in considering legislation that will require an assessment of potential public uses of public property before it is deemed "surplus" and sold for private development.  Earlier this week, a bill passed first reading.  Providing an open and transparent process for the sale of public property that guarantees community input is a goal that we should all support. 

Here are some thoughts on current or potential elements of the legislation:
  • The legislation should factor in that a public use does not in every situation provide the greatest public benefit.  For example, a vacant lot owned by the DC government in Ward 8 might offer more to residents as a supermarket than a government office.  Likewise, development of a publicly-owned building in a residential neighborhood for private housing might be strongly favored by residents over a drug rehabilitation clinic or social service agency.
  • Parks, schools, and libraries should have the strongest presumption against private sale.  Once a green space is sold and developed, it's gone for good.
  • Whenever feasible, public properties, particularly historic properties, when made available for private use, should be leased (preferably short-term), not sold, so the city can reclaim them for public use when a need arises.
  • Not all government-owned properties are created equal.  For example, the District owns numerous vacant houses and residential-zoned lots.  Those properties fall into government hands as a result of fire, calamity, or abandonment.  The problem with those properties is not that they are sold off too fast, but that they decay for decades under District neglect.  Such properties should be put back into private residential use as soon as possible.  If such properties are placed in an affordable housing program, then the program should have its own expedited process for renovation and sale.  Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) has reportedly introduced an amendment to address this issue by providing that blighted or dilapidated properties that the city acquires “for the sole purpose of converting them to productive commercial uses” should be exempt from the bill's provisions.
  • The legislation should not include a private right of action to enforce its provisions.  Some have advocated for such a tool and their intentions are understandable and good.  However, it is important that the bill not create a situation where a single person can easily destroy a project that is supported by a community by seeking an injunction in court for a claimed technical violation during the transfer process.  Developers will be very hesitant to enter into a project in which there could be a cloud on the title due to a legal challenge.

Sports-Team Plates May Be Coming

It's nice to see an idea possibly get implemented. 

Yesterday, Councilmembers Kwame Brown (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced legislation that, if enacted, will allow DC residents to get license plates that show their support for the Redskins, Wizards, United, Capitals and Mystics, and possibly college teams as well [DC Wire / WTOP]. 

I think I am entitled to share a little credit.  Exactly one month ago today, I suggested such legislation to Councilmember Evans.  I e-mailed the idea soon after driving by a car with a Maryland plate with a Washington Capitals logo on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, finding it offensive that we live practically next door to the Verizon Center, but don't have the same option as our suburban neighbors.  I had also suggested putting some portion of the revenue gained from the fees from the special plates toward a recreational purpose that benefits city youth.  While I have not yet seen the actual bill, reportedly revenue generated from the plates under the proposed legislation will go into the general fund.

Press reports do not mention whether license plates will be available for the Nationals or DC United. Hopefully, these teams are included in the legislation as well.  Maryland and Virginia residents can already sport DC United plates.  [UPDATE: DCist reports that the omitted teams will be added to the bill].

Now, if I could only address the shootings, put vacant properties back into productive use, improve the District's education system, get some of our parks renovated (legally)....

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New Poll: Franklin School

The Franklin School, located at 13th & K Street NW, was designed by Adolph Cluss in 1869.  It is a National Historic Landmark. Photo: army.arch on Flickr.

What do you think is the best use of the vacant Franklin School building at 13th & K?  Please take a moment to vote in the poll in the top right corner of the blog.  Here are some of the options:

Magnet high school:  Did you know that aside from School Without Walls, which has far more applicants than available slots, there is no public high school in all of Ward 2?  Students on the west side of the Ward travel up to Woodrow Wilson in Tenleytown.  Those on the east side head over to Dunbar in the area of Shaw near New Jersey Avenue that extends into Ward 5.  Franklin's central location would be easily accessible through multiple metro stations and bus stops.  I attended a magnet high school in New York, as I believed it provided an environment that was more conducive to learning (i.e. safer than my neighborhood school and with more focused students) and it had an alternative curriculum that was a better fit for me.  The magnet school could also have a limited in-boundary area to guarantee a slot for those who live downtown.  It could provide an innovative program, such as focusing on international studies or the arts.  The school has a capacity of approximately 400 to 450 students.  While there is no athletic field, arrangements might be made with another school. 
Innovative elementary/middle school program: According to the Downtown BID, there are now about 3,000 apartments and 2,500 condos downtown. Not all of these are in the immediate area of Franklin, but some are, and more will be.  For instance, about 700 additional units are planned for the Old Convention Center site, just a few blocks from the Franklin School.  While there may be few children in these buildings, if DC is going to have a sustainable and livable downtown, it will need high-quality schools in the area.  Franklin may provide a location to fulfill this need.  A challenge, however, is that it does not have playground or outside recreation space, is not conducive to busing, and downtown streets could pose a safety challenge to walking to school.  Parents who live or work downtown, however, would find it convenient to walk or drop off their children at school.  For instance, Stevens Elementary (closed this year) located on K Street had a population of out-of-boundary students whose parents worked downtown.  Likewise, Hardy Middle School in Georgetown is about 80% out-of-boundary students.

Community college: Earlier this year, UDC established a community college.  In addition, DC Appleseed and the Brookings Institution have voiced support for establishing an independent public community college.  While the Franklin School would not provide capacity for an entire community college, it could provide a flagship downtown campus.  The school might focus on a program such as hospitality management, a paralegal program, construction management, or provide technical training.  This is consistent with UDC's goal of opening several campuses throughout the city over the next few years.  The downtown location would be particularly convenient for DC residents, many of whom might work in the area while taking classes, who would otherwise need to travel to Van Ness.  Franklin Square would provide a quad that students could use for study groups, reading, and lunch.

DC-Semester college programs.  Various public and private colleges throughout the country have semester-in-DC programs.  Some of the larger universities, such as the University of California, have classroom space in the District, but many do not.  The Franklin School classrooms might be made available, for a fee, for such programs.  In addition, the building's Great Hall could host lectures both for students and the DC community.  If not filled by educational programs, rooms in the building might provide ideal conference space for business and other meetings.

Charter school.  The city recently put out a "Request for Offers" for charter school use of the school, but, after receiving responses, deemed none of them acceptable.  That may be because the city expected the charter school to finance renovation of the massive building.  There are many quickly expanding charter schools that are looking for space and could fill all or a part of the building.  KIPP and a chinese language immersion public charter school, Washington Yu Ying, are two examples.

None, prefer another public use: The Franklin School was designed for educational uses, however, there may be other options that serve District residents.  The building might provide space for local artists and exhibits, performances in the Great Hall, or cultural events.  In the past, the building provided administrative space for the Board of Education.  It could provide government offices or a recreation center of some type.  Fortunately, the building is no longer being used as a massive emergency homeless shelter without sufficient services.

None, prefer private development.  Currently, the District government is accepting proposes for a private use of the Franklin School.  In the past, developers have expressed interest in turning the building into a boutique hotel.  The private option has its attractiveness.  Such a use would generate tax revenue for the city and put the building into productive and well-maintained use.  There would be limitations, however, given the building's historic landmark designation, which covers both the inside and outside of the building.  Such a hotel, at that location, would have few rooms, extremely expensive rates, and could not have any retail/restaurant space opening onto the street.

Some view private development as a faster way to fill the vacant building, particularly given the RFP process already underway. That's not necessarily the case. Think Convention Center Hotel, 5th and I project, Old Convention Center site, O Street Market. Not exactly quick movers. Nor is private development necessarily free for the city. Quick frequently in recent years, the DC Council has provided substantial public financing for such projects.

Even when the building opened over 150 years ago, there were those who thought it was too magnificent for a school.  Men in top hats fought and lost that argument back then.  Will their arguments win the day in 2009?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

DC Council Approves Gay Marriage 11-2

A few moments ago, the D.C. Council voted on first reading to approve same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia.  The measure passed by a vote of 11 to 2.  Councilmembers Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) voted in opposition.

In his opening remarks, Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) noted that the Council had heard 17 hours of testimony on the bill from 219 witnesses, two-thirds of which supported the bill.  In response to opposition from the DC Archdiocese, Councilmember Mendelson characterized the proposed legislation as expanding, not reducing, religious freedom.  Some churches and other religious institutions that would like to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies are precluded from doing so, Mendelson explained.  On the other hand, the legislation would not require any religious institution to perform same-sex marriages if contrary to its beliefs.

Catholic Charities has asserted that it will not be able to provide valuable social services on behalf of the District should the measure become law because they would be required to provide services, such as marriage counseling or adoption services, to same-sex couples on the same basis as straight married couples.  Mendelson noted, however, that after closely reviewing the laws of the six states that have by legislation or court decision recognized same-sex marriages, he could find no basis for providing an exemption to religious institutions to permit discrimination in providing social services or employment benefits.  Despite discussion of a potential "compromise" over the past weeks. no such amendment was offered.

The legislation will now move to a second reading.  It will then be subject to the ordinary Congressional review period applicable to all DC laws before taking effect.

Poll Results: Lift Off

"Lift Off" at 5th and K Streets NW.

The survey on reader reaction to the new sculpture at 5th and K Streets NW has closed.  About one-third of readers (34%) reacted positively to the addition to the street-scape, while two-thirds (64%) initially expressed reservations.  Seventy-one individuals voted in the poll, which is now closed.  Some also expressed their comments here.

I am looking forward to completion of the sculpture, including the addition of lighting.  I think that most, if not all, of us can agree that it is good to see the District supporting public art and livening the street-scape.  It certainly a positive development to see more art and less prostitution on that particular corner!

Monday, November 30, 2009

District Could Lose Millions in Tax Revenues

The District's consumer affairs agency has fewer than 60 days to compile a list of every "blighted" building in D.C. so those properties can be taxed at a significantly higher rate -- a challenge that could deny city coffers millions of dollars if it is not met. . . .
Projected revenue gains, losses » Revenue gained from blight tax: $800,000 through 2013.
» Revenue lost by eliminating vacant tax: $48.9 million through 2013.
But a limited timeline and confusion over what constitutes "blight" could mean few properties are captured by the highest tax. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs must submit a list of all properties that meet the conditions to the Office of Tax and Revenue by mid-January, so that tax bills can go out on time.

"There's just no way they can have this ready for this tax season," said Cary Silverman, president of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association. "The whole thing will have to be on hold." 
In case you missed the article in by Michael Neibauer in Sunday's The Examiner, you can read it here.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Scott Montgomery Elementary: Should It Close?

Chancellor Michelle Rhee is considering closing Scott Montgomery Elementary School on the 400 Block of P Street NW in Shaw [DCPS Announcement].  The school's 200 students would join the new $36 million Walker Jones campus on New Jersey Avenue NW just south of New York Avenue NW.  Some have said, "it's a done deal." 

On first instinct, one might think, "what's not great about moving the students into a brand new building with an attached public library."  The school also has a new recreation center, athletic field, and playground.  Those favoring the consolidation may note that it would maximize the benefits of the new school, located in the Sursum Corda area, which is woefully under-enrolled -- practically empty.  The principal of Montgomery would move to Walker Jones with the consolidation.

Underlying this proposal is the likelihood that the Kipp charter school, which now shares the Montgomery building, would expand to occupy the entire space (there is also a likelihood that most of Montgomery's teachers would not have jobs in Walker Jones).  Kipp recently built and paid about $6.9 million for a 15,000 sf addition to the Montgomery Elementary School to house 3 pre-K classrooms 900 sf each, a 2,270 sf cafeteria, and a 6,885 sf gymnasium, along with restrooms and locker rooms.   DCPS has also made a substantial investment in the school, bringing the building and grounds up to par, resulting in a more welcoming environment.  DCPS removed old rusted grates and installed new windows; installed new fencing and lighting; painted the interior and installed new whiteboards, built a new playground, and paved and secured the back lot, among other improvements.

Teachers and parents opposed to the consolidation/closure have appeared at recent meetings of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association and Convention Center Community Association.  They raise strong points.
  1. Safety of the children.  There is significant crime in the barren Walker Jones area.  It is an elementary school with metal detectors.  Children would need to walk distances as far as a mile and a half and cross New York Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, or both -- the most most dangerous intersections in city. Crossing New York Avenue is entering another world.
  2. Montgomery is not under-enrolled.  At its peak, the school had 500 students.  It now has 500 students -- 200 in the public school and 300 in the charter school, which pays for its share of the space.  The public school's enrollment is limited by discontinuation of the 5th grade. The lack of a 5th grade discourages parents from sending their children to Montgomery because they will need to switch schools.  Fifth grade should be restored.
  3. A family, a history.  Over 50% of the students are not first generation at Montgomery.  Some of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents went to the school.
  4. Choice exists now.  Parents of students at Montgomery currently have the choice of sending their child to Walker Jones.  Most have chosen not to do so.  A survey of parents found that if Montgomery is closed, then 85% will send their child to another school in Ward 2, not Walker Jones. 
  5. Not our fault.  The city is, in effect, punishing Montgomery students for its own poor planning in building Walker Jones.  Montgomery has great facilities and teachers, and a strong community.  Its test scores and diversity have gone up in recent years.
  6. Give us time.  Montgomery parents would like one to two years to show that they can increase enrollment. Provide a goal and they will meet it.  They have four full pre-school classes that will work their way up.
I lean toward keeping the school open and find point #1 most persuasive.  There are strong points, however, on both sides.

Councilmember Evans, whose ward includes the school, has responded that he fully understands the concerns.  "New York Avenue is a river.  We might as well send them to Virginia," he said at a recent CCCA meeting.  Evans has pledged to "do what I can to help," but also noted that "I don't control the schools and can't guarantee results."  At a prior MVSNA meeting, Evans expressed a general hands-off philosophy regarding the school system, which he views as Chancellor Rhee's domain.  Some will remember, however, that Evans' had a different approach in regard to the proposed closure of Shaw Middle School just two years ago, which, when facing closure, he took credit for persuading Chancellor Rhee to retain.

Councilmembers Kwame Brown and Michael Brown both expressed a willingness at the CCCA meeting to convey the community's concerns to Chancellor Rhee.  M. Brown added, however, "She does not return my calls. She does not return my emails."  "If CM Evans has had no success," he said, "there's no way I will have success."

Mayor Fenty is expected to reach a decision on the consolidation after considering  Chancellor Rhee's recommendation by December 15.

What's your view?

The CCCA website includes contact information for the officials involved in making the decision.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Future of the Franklin School

The Franklin School, located at 13th & K Street NW, was designed by Adolph Cluss in 1869.  It is a National Historic Landmark. Photo: army.arch on Flickr.

Bill Gilcher from the Coalition for Franklin School - a new, ad-hoc group - will talk about the city's current move to redevelop this significant building at a meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F on Wednesday, December 2, 7:00 pm, at the Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle, NW. Help brainstorm how the building could be put to the best public use.

The next day, Thursday, December 3, from 10 am until noon, there will be a rare opportunity to see the inside of the Franklin School at an open house hosted by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED). Show your interest in the building and your support for educational and cultural use by showing up as part of the "Think Franklin Team."

The city is posed to turn the building into a boutique hotel.  I've said it before and will say it again... Franklin School should be put toward an educational purpose, as it was intended from the very start.  A community college campus?  A magnet high school for international studies?  A home for an innovative public school?  A satellite campus for undergraduate DC-semester programs?  Use of the Great Hall for guest lecturers on topics of interest to the public?  Let's bring life to downtown.  Let's turn Franklin School into the world class educational institution...once again! 

Past posts on the Franklin School:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MPD Chief, Councilmembers Hear Crime Concerns

"Have detectives called you to follow up," asked MPD Chief Lanier.   "No," said the Shaw resident, whose home was burglarized twice in two months.  "That's not acceptable," said Lanier, asking Third District Commander George Kucik to report back to her on the situation.

Another resident received a text message early one morning from her next door neighbor asking her to call the police because there was a man with a box cutter in the midst of burglarizing his house while he was home.  It took 15 minutes for the police to show, she said, as the man rummaged through the home at 10th and N.  "He even helped himself to a beer," said the clearly distraught resident, who attended with her husband.  Chief Lanier noted that she is in contact with the Office of Unified Communications, which handles the dispatchers, about the failure.  Such calls, Lanier noted, are to receive the highest priority, and, in fact, her officers responded within 3 minutes of actually receiving the call.

Another resident expressed frustration that he calls 911 in regard to the drug dealers in front of his house every day, but they have police scanners and often leave before the police arrive.  When the police get there, residents are told that the police cannot arrest anyone unless they personally view a drug transaction, even if neighbors are willing to provide witness statements.  Now, his family has installed cameras to videotape the activity, but even then the officers say the evidence is insufficient.  Commander Kucik responded that MPD prefers not to use resident videos as evidence in court because they can place residents at risk.  They prefer other means of gathering evidence.

ANC Commissioner Alex Padro expressed his disappointment that the police lieutenant for the Shaw neighborhood failed to show up for his own Police Service Area (PSA) meeting last month, exasperated with a history of dysfunction in the PSA.  In fact, no Third District officer appeared.  And that was on a day following two shootings.

"How do we address the revolving door," a resident who has had at least 3 shootings, some ending in murder, in front of his door over the short period of time he has lived near the 1200 Block of 7th Street NW. "There is not a single person that is doing that we have not arrested, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 times with a gun and who is not back on the street," responded the Chief.  "We just arrested someone for burglary that had 41 prior arrests."  The resident suggested mandatory minimums for gun-related crimes.  "Repeat violent offenders is who we need to focus on... Not locking everyone up," said Lanier, noting that the prisons are full.

So began the discussion of crime at Tuesday's Convention Center Community Association (CCCA) meeting, which included, in addition to police officials, Councilmembers Jack Evans, Michael Brown, and Kwame Brown.

CCCA President Martin Moulton turned the discussion to legislative issues, asking Councilmember Evans to discuss the re-introduction of his anti-gang bill, particularly civil gang injunctions, which I explained in an earlier post.  Evans noted that his proposal, which is used in other cities, has the support of five councilmembers and needs the support of two additional members to be enacted into law.  He noted that Councilmember Mendelson believes that the measure does not work and may actually be counterproductive.  Nevertheless, Evans says "try it" and let's see. He not even sure if Councilmember Mendelson will even schedule a hearing on the bill.

Chief Lanier noted that MPD already keeps a "validated" list of known gang members.  The police also maintain a list "known associates."  For example, with respect to the individual who killed 9-year-old Oscar Fluentes in Columbia Heights, Josue Pena, she was careful to note that he was a "known associate" of  MS-13, not that he was a member.  "MPD doesn't randomly label people," she emphasized.

Councilmember Kwame Brown indicated that he initially voted against the measure and that he wants to be convinced that it will stop crime before he will vote in favor of it.  K. Brown quickly shifted the discussion to what he viewed as more important, job training.  "Let's keep Phelps, Cardozo, and Hospitality High School open nights, weekends, and summers," he said, expressing disappointment that the District spends less than $3 million on job training.  "If there is a one percent chance. Let's try it," said K. Brown of the Evans' proposal.  "Now you have 6," referring to his willingness to vote for the measure, though he noted that he would also "want something on the front end."  "Kids graduate but still can't read and can't get a job."

Councilmember Michael Brown noted his opposition to the measure.  "In LA, nearly half of black men were entered into a gang database and that's going to impact their getting a job," he said.  He gave the hypothetical of his twin 16 year-old-sons, who take metro, and, if they happen to talk to a gang member they didn't know was a gang member, could get listed as a "known associate" of a gang member.  M. Brown stated that he could vote in favor of the measure on a temporary basis only if it included language to protect people from being wrongfully characterized.  "It puts young men of color at risk for the rest of their lives."

No one would suggest that civil gang injunctions are going to solve all our crime issues, but will they do more good than harm?  Are concerns that it will adversely impact young men of color justified?  As I understand it, keeping in mind that Councilmember Evans has not actually yet introduced his new proposal:
  1. Chief Lanier stated that MPD already keeps a list of known gang members and associates. So, apparently, this list is already in place and would not be created by the legislation. Has this labeling system ever hurt an innocent person? Is there evidence that backs the concern?
  2. Being included on the list itself would not appear to have any effect, legal or otherwise.  This is assuming that the law would state that the information is private, confidential, non-FOIAable, and particularly sensitive if it involves minors. How might it be used to hurt a person's chance of getting a job or going to school, as some councilmembers suggested?
  3. The mechanisms for enforcement of a civil gang injunction, as the name explicitly states, are civil, not criminal. There would appear to be little or no danger that a misapplication of the law would result in a criminal record.
  4. As the law was described, no enforcement would occur until a judge finds the individual in contempt after issuing an order prohibiting that individual from engaging in certain conduct. It would seem this gives the person classified as a gang members the ability to challenge the MPDs listing of the individual and avoid issues. If there is no mechanism to challenge inclusion, then the law should provide one.
In regard to the "revolving door" and the possibility of mandatory minimums for gun possession, I think that may or may not be needed.  What deserves close consideration is pre-trial detention - is this the flaw that that leads courts to immediately release those arrested for gun-related crimes back on the street as they await far-off trials that are ultimately pleaded down?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Abe Pollin Passes Away

Abe Pollin and his wife, Irene.  Photo: Verizon Center website.

Abe Pollin, 85, owner of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center, has passed away.  He was struggling with a rare brain disease.

Pollin invested in Penn Quarter area when few would do so, building the Verizon Center (then the MCI Center) with approximately $220 million of his own funds in 1997. 

“I had two goals when I decided to build this building,” said Abe Pollin. “The first was that if I was building in downtown Washington, the nation’s capital, it had to be the best building of its kind in the country. The second was to be the catalyst that turned the city around.” 

The large-scale investment in the area did indeed spark the current revitalization with restaurants, entertainment, retail, and museums.

In 2007, Pollin received a $50 million in public funding from the DC government to upgrade the Verizon Center.

In October, the DC Chamber of Commerce recognized Abe Pollin and Irene, his wife of 67 years, with its first-ever Lifetime Business Legacy Award.  As Pollin said at that event, ""When we decided to build the arena downtown we hoped to begin a revitalization of our great city, however we never imagined the remarkable growth that has occurred. We're thrilled we've been able to give back to the city that's always been good to us and deserves the best in sports and entertainment."

One of his legacies is the 6th and I Historic Synagogue, which he, along with developer Doug Jemal and others, rescued from being turned into a nightclub in 2002 and renovated and restored to its original use. 

Mayor Fenty named a day (December 3, in honor of his 84th birthday) and a street (Abe Pollin Way on the 600 Block of F Street NW) in Pollin's honor.

Housing Complex has a nice interview of developer Herb Miller on Abe Pollin.

Thorpe v Moulton

Those involved in DC life have long known of Leroy Thorpe.  He served for nearly two decades as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner on ANC 2C, even when it extended to Logan Circle.  Some credit his crime patrol, COPE, with doing good, while others express skepticism.  There's a long history here and I'm not going to delve too far into the past.  Let's just say there have been complaints filed against police officers and neighborhood activists, a complaint against a successor ANC Commissioner, public officials called derogatory names and some astonishingly offensive statements.  There were also allegations of intimidation of witnesses and of misallocation of public resources.  Aside from Thorpe ultimately losing his long-held seat on the ANC, not much came of it all.

But on to today.

After leaving the ANC, Thorpe immediately became president of the East Central Civil Association, an organization that has represented Shaw residents for about fifty years.  Some feel that the organization is not open and welcoming to all residents and viewpoints.  Indeed, some residents have been literally barred from the meetings and escorted out by police.

In response, a group of residents started a separate neighborhood organization, the Convention Center Community Association, to provide another option to residents.  Martin Moultin was one of the founders of that organization and serves as its current president.

Moulton takes his responsibilities seriously.  He is often seen going door-to-door speaking with residents, publishes and distributes a newsletter and maintains a blog, organizes a full meeting agenda to discuss issues of vital importance to his community, plans neighborhood events, volunteers significant time at the local elementary school, and publicizes neighborhood businesses. 

Some may view Moulton's outreach and advocacy as a threat.

On September 30, Thorpe filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against Moulton.  In his handwritten complaint, Thorpe alleges harassment and that Moulton has been "stalking" him for four years. More specifically, Thorpe claims that:
  • "He has e-mailed me at home ignoring my request for him to stop." 
  • "He was barred from my civic [East Central Civic Association, ECCA) meeting via the DC Third District Police in 2008 for harassing me."
  • "He has come to my home in 2009 leaving flyers."
  • "He continues to come up to me at neighborhood public events in 2009 wanting to speak shake hands and take my picture without my consent -- while he laughs at me."
Thorpe requested that the court require Moulton to pay his $160 filing fee with interest and costs and that the court "grant me a stay away order regarding the defendant harassing me at my home and in the community. Also not to harass me on the internet."

And so began the latest abuse of the legal process.

Of course, entering a "stay away" order would have the targeted effect of placing Moulton at risk of arrest for contempt of court should he participate in a community meeting or event at which Thorpe is also present or even when he walks down the street.  (Moulton and Thorpe live a mere two blocks from each other).

Moulton hired a lawyer and filed an opposition.  On October 6, the court denied Thorpe's requested TRO.  Moulton filed a motion to dismiss the case.  Thorpe's opposition to the dismissal included several outrageous (and some strangely mundane) new allegations.  These include that Moulton:
  • is "obsessed" with Thorpe, adding that "Plaintiff Thorpe is a heterosexual married man."
  • is "mentally unstable and may cause harm to Plaintiff Thorpe, his wife, daughter, and mother."
  • helped set up a defamatory website,, against him.
  • e-mailed Thorpe asking for a turkey in 2007.
  • "pulled up along side of plaintiff Thorpe on a bike smiling at plaintiff Thorpe and wanting to talk" in June 2009.
  • approached Thorpe at a community picnic, greeted him, and extended his hand to him for a handshake to which Thorpe reacted by "cursing" Moulton.
  • included Thorpe on an e-mail related to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
  • approached Thorpe at a ribbon cutting ceremony (I believe this was for a new park at 6th and N) and extended his hand for a handshake to which Thorpe responded by telling him to stay away.
  • continues to pass out fliers to Thorpe's home/block.
On November 16, the court issued an order denying Thorpe's request for a preliminary injunction, but it also refused to dismiss the case.  Instead, the court provided Thorpe with a "do over," allowing him to attempt to amend his complaint to state a claim by December 11.  A status conference is set for February 19, 2010.  Meanwhile, Moulton has incurred thousands in legal fees.

But it doesn't end there.  On October 19, Thorpe apparently noticed Moulton delivering fliers on his block (this is, in fact, noted in Thorpe's opposition to the motion to dismiss his complaint) and called 911.  According to Moulton, he specifically avoided Thorpe's house and delivered community newsletters to every other house on the block.  MPD reacted swiftly, sending two cars within moments of the call to tail Moulton, and, after watching him and briefly speaking with him, let him continue on.  According to a chronology of the call released by MPD, the complainant identified and described Moulton and invoked a "civil protection order."  Of course, that order didn't exist, as the court had very clearly denied the requested TRO on October 6.

Thorpe was arrested on November 20 and charged with filing a false police report.  As the Superior Court docket shows, he was assigned a court-appointed attorney and released on the condition that he "shall not assault, threaten, stalk, harass or physically abuse M. Moulton. Stay away at least 10ft from M. Moulton."

The irony.

A court date on the criminal matter is set for January 13, 2010.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lost: Vacant Property Tax

Have you seen the vacant property tax? After having a substantial positive effect across the city, it was last seen entering the Wilson Building, where it was eliminated to give a tax break to derelict property owners rather than to help revitalize DC neighborhoods.

In September, the DC Council killed this vital tool for addressing crime and moving unused properties back into productive use. It replaced the vacant property tax with a tax that applies to "blighted" properties. Six weeks into the new tax cycle, however, it is unclear how DCRA intends to implement and enforce the new law. Its website continues to cite the now repealed vacant property law, criteria, and list of vacant properties.

[UPDATE: Following my post, DCRA posted the new blighted property law.  It is available here.]  

I won't get into all the benefits of the tax, but suffice it to say that entire blocks of undeveloped property and vacant historic homes are back in productive use directly as a result. In the worse case scenario, these properties are used for drugs, prostitution, and facilitate other crime, become dumping grounds, and are known for turning into urban jungles. But even when the most responsible of owners properly maintain vacant properties, they still contribute to a lack of eyes on the street, a loss of vitality on the block, and an atmosphere that contributes to crime and neglect.

The original "Class 3" tax rate was at $5 per assessed $100 value (compared with 85 cents for occupied residential properties), but then, during the last election cycle, the DC Council got tough. It brought the vacant rate up to $10 per $100 value, while attempting to tighten the frequently abused exceptions. That led to push back. Some came from honest people who were swept up in the higher tax combined with greater enforcement by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. A few owners who actually lived in their property found themselves hit with an excessive tax because it was misclassified, and then they needed to jump through hoops to have the error corrected. Slum property owners (as well as developers who had decided to put off work on their properties during the recession), however, saw it as an opportunity.

At first, it seemed a majority of the Council was posed to simply return the vacant property tax rate to $5. That's fine because the more significant issue has always been consistent and proper enforcement of the law, not whether the $5 rate was too low. Instead, the Council eliminated the vacant property tax entirely and applied a $10 rate only to something new -- "blighted" properties.

In theory, that sounds reasonable. It's the "blighted" properties, the nuisance properties, that are the ones that are unsecured, used for drugs and crime, overgrown with weeds, covered in trash, etc.

But DCRA already has fines it can impose when a property is unsecured, overgrown, or covered in trash... and it does so more often in recent years. In addition, if a property poses a danger to public safety, then the Board of Condemnation can condemn it and require the owners to make repairs or, if the owner does not do so in a reasonable period of time, the city can repair the property and bill the owner.

So then, what does a "blighted property" tax do?

Well, it eliminates most vacant properties from being subject to any higher tax at all. That doesn't reflect the additional cost that such properties place on its neighbors and encourages owners to speculate rather put properties into productive use.

The change in the law would also appear to discard all of the good work that DCRA, working with neighborhood organizations across the city, have done since 2006 when it was charged by law with maintaining a vacant property list. There are 2,221 properties on that list, 655 of which have been granted an exception from the higher tax.

One also has to wonder -- why, in the midst of a budget shortfall, when the DC Council is cutting programs and services, would opt to give vacant property owners a $10 million a year tax break? Interesting priorities.

According to the new law, the “Blighted Properties Abatement Reform Act of 2009," a "blighted property" is:
"a vacant improved real property which upon the determination of the Mayor constitutes a threat to the health, safety, or security of neighboring properties or persons. In determining whether an improved real property is blighted, the Mayor shall consider multiple conditions existing within a six month period from the following:
(A) The property has had the utilities, plumbing, heating, or sewage disconnected, destroyed, or rendered ineffective for at least six months so that the property is unfit for its intended use;
(B) The property has multiple building code violations posing a severe and immediate health or safety threat and the owner has failed to abate after notice by the Mayor;
(C) The property is boarded up or there is the presence of graffiti;
(D) Exterior doors, windows, skylights and similar openings are either broken or missing;
(E) The exterior is not maintained in good repair and not structurally sound so as to threaten the public health or safety;
(F) The property is a fire hazard and otherwise dangerous to the safety of persons on the property; or
(G) The property is not kept substantially free from accumulation of debris and excessive vegetative growth. For purposes of this subsection, “debris” shall mean
(i) Construction or demolition waste that is not stored in a rodent proof container and not removed after 14 days or longer;
(ii) Yard waste and branches that are not bundled and set out for waste collection, but not yard waste placed in a properly maintained compost pile;
(iii) Garbage and solid waste.”

[UPDATE: The version posted above was the legislation as introduced.  As DCRA's website now shows, the final law, as amended, varies significantly.  It is even more of a mess.  Stay tuned for an additional posting that attempts to explain the new law.  The information below, however, continues to be accurate.]

First, it would seem that vacant lots (unimproved), no matter how severely "blighted," are not subject to the higher tax at all. Ironically, it would also appear that an absentee owner of a vacant historic house can avoid the vacant property tax by allowing the house to eventually collapse.  No house, no vacant property tax.

Second, how is DCRA to enforce this law?

And what will DCRA do with its current vacant property list? I have urged DCRA not to throw the list in the trash heap, but to use it as a starting point for the "blighted property" tax list. It should only remove properties from the list upon a showing from the owner that the vacant property is not "blighted" within the terms of the statute.

So far, it is unclear how DCRA and the Office of Tax and Revenue will implement the new law, which applies to the tax year that began on October 1, 2009.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Maryland Capitals?

I was driving along on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway a few weeks ago when I noticed a vehicle in front of me had Maryland plates with a Washington Capitals logo.

It irked me.

After all, the Caps play in Penn Quarter/Chinatown, just four blocks from my office and eight blocks from my home, not in Maryland. Nevertheless, Marylanders are sporting special Caps plates, while DC residents are not.

Apparently, the Capitals announced an agreement with both Maryland and Virginia to offer special plates about a year ago. There's a $50 charge for the plates in Maryland and $25 charge in Virginia. A significant portion of the money collected goes to charity.

Why not make special sports team plates available for all of DC's teams? Perhaps a portion of the fee could go toward supporting programming at recreational centers, a summer sports camp for youth, or some other good cause?

Yes, this would mean an alternative to the standard "Taxation Without Representation" plates, but, in my view, this is also a Home Rule issue.

I am not aware of any reason why DC could not provide the specialized tags. The District already provides for personalized tags and certain "organizational tags," such as for various fraternities, DC Fire Fighters Local 36, and, believe it or not, the "Bad Boys Club."

Legislation is likely needed to authorize the tags, fee, and use of the revenue. I've suggested that Councilmember Jack Evans introduce the necessary legislation given that many of our teams play in Ward 2 and his interest in sports issues.  His response was that it sounds like a good idea and that he would have the Committee staff look into it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bobbleheads With Campaign Funds?

D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans had 100 of the 7-inch tall statues made. (Mark Segraves/WTOP Photo)

In case you missed it, last week, WTOP's Mark Segraves reported that DC Councilmember Jack Evans now has his own bobblehead, funded by campaign donations.

"I'm giving them out to select people." Evans tells WTOP. Evans' bobblehead has him sporting a black suit and a black and white striped tie. The likeness is pretty good, although the bobblehead has more hair and fewer wrinkles than the real Evans.
I'm confused. According to DC law, surplus campaign funds must, within 6 months of an election, be: (1) donated to a political party; (2) used to retire campaign debts; (3) returned to donors; or (4) transferred to an authorized constituent services fund. I missed (5) used to purchase bobbleheads with the Councilmember's likeness.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Lift Off" at 5th & K: Your View?

Over the past week, a sculpture called "Lift Off" was installed at 5th and K Streets NW. It's not yet finished, but it is nearing completion. According to the artist, David Black, “The sculpture was inspired by children flying kites on the national Mall.”

I'm all for public art and I'm not a professional art critic. My first impression of this piece is that it is just a bit too massive for the space. It practically blocks the entirety of Bus Boys and Poets from view from the street. It also reminds me of a piece of unfinished building construction, clad in in taxi cab yellow, on steroids. But maybe it will grow on me.

What's your view? Vote in the poll on the top right corner of the blog.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Violence in Shaw is not a legislative problem"

Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, at a 2008 hearing. Photo credit: thedccenter on Flickr.

It's a statement that is a bit troubling, particularly when it comes from the official who chairs the DC Council's Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, Phil Mendelson.

It came in response to an e-mail from a concerned resident who wrote his elected officials asking for help after two daytime shootings on Wednesday. The first occurred at 4pm at the Shaw metro stop located at 8th and R Streets NW. The second occurred just two hours later near 7th and N Streets NW. My understanding that no one was hit in either shooting, but falling near a metro stop and a school, it's just sheer luck.

Few, if anyone, would disagree that crime is far more than a legislative issue. Solving gang violence requires sufficient police resources, committed officers and detectives, and a clear strategy. It requires effective prosecutors and judges who don't accept insufficient pleas for violent crimes. It requires a community that is not willing to tolerate those involved in the shootings. It also requires creating an environment that does not attract crime -- by addressing vacant properties and well maintaining the streets. In the long term, reducing crime requires improving our schools, providing job training and work opportunities, providing positive recreational options, and formal and informal mentoring.

But addressing gang violence is also a legislative issue. It is the DC Council that is responsible for giving the police the tools they need to most effectively do their job and providing prosecutors with the leverage to obtain pleas or convictions that keep violent offenders in jail. Obviously, as residents of my neighborhood face day-to-day gunfire, something is not working.

The recent anti-crime bill included several tools to address gang violence. Some passed. Other important elements did not. For instance, Councilmember Mendelson led a vote against civil gang injunctions, which would have allowed prosecutors to obtain court orders prohibiting "known gang members" from engaging in a range of activities, such as associating with other gang members. Some cities have enacted such laws, which have begun to have an impact. Councilmembers who agreed with Mendelson expressed concern that it would give too much discretion to police, might lead to racial profiling, and would label kids as gang members forever. Alternatively, Councilmember Barry suggested continuing to give millions away to groups like the Peaceoholics, you know, the organization that received $10 million of taxpayer funds and a fire engine to the Dominican Republic in recent years, among other infractions, with no accountability for results.

But that's not all. During deliberations over the bill, Councilmember Mendelson also expressed reluctance to support an amendment that would have made it easier to keep in prison those who are charged with gun crimes while they await trial. He showed his utter lack of understanding of what is happening in our community when he claimed from the dais: “It’s not clear how real that revolving door is." It's quite clear from my front door, however. Fortunately, the Council passed that measure.

In his e-mail to the concerned constituent, Councilmember Mendelson also restated his opposition to enacting an anti-loitering law for DC, saying it is plain 'ol unconstitutional. True, ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Chicago law because it was too vague and provided too much discretion to police, but that law has since been rewritten. DC's version of an anti-loitering law are those "drug-free" or "prostitution-free" zone signs. They give the police the ability to order those lingering about and who appear to be engaged no good to move on. But their impact is highly limited to a small area for a few days at a time. I often hear the question, "why isn't it always a crime free zone?"

Several members of the Council support enacting a broader anti-loitering law including Jim Graham (Ward 1), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7), Kwame R. Brown (At Large), and David Catania (At Large). That's six of the thirteen member DC Council. Having the chair of the public safety committee on board could make the difference.
Finally, for good measure, it is also worth noting that Councilmember Mendelson was a proponent of reducing, then eliminating, the vacant property tax that was finally, FINALLY!, having an impact in moving vacant row houses and lots that plague Shaw back into productive use. More to come on that in a future post.