We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
D.C. ponders the cost of digging underground power lines. Virginia Republicans prepare for a nominating convention in Richmond. And Maryland plays host to the Preakness Stakes, as the jockeying for next year’s gubernatorial race begins in earnest. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Sandra Mattavous-Frye People's Counsel, District of Columbia
- Marc Elrich Member, Montgomery County Council (D-At Large)
Inside The Studio
D.C. People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye discussed why she supports a $1 billion proposal to bury power lines across the city. Under the plan, 60 of the worst-performing feeders, based on the frequency and duration of outages, would go underground.
Politics Hour News Quiz
Test your knowledge of D.C., Virginia and Maryland headlines and happenings.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers who knows something about Virginia Republican conventions to nominate candidates because one of those is getting ready to take place even as we speak, Tom Sherwood.
MR. TOM SHERWOODThat's correct, big weekend in Virginia for the Republican Party, big cast of thousands running for lieutenant governor actually with, I think, four of the candidates are from Northern Virginia.
SHERWOODIt's the only contest. Of course, Ken Cuccinelli is going to be the nominee for governor and...
SHERWOOD...I think it's -- the attorney general race has not gotten a great deal of attention, but I think the lieutenant governor -- who would that person be? It's always like the stepping stone for governor.
SHERWOODUnless you're someone like Ken Cuccinelli, who is attorney general, stepped over the lieutenant governor, Mr. Bolling. So the party is ready to go. It's fired up. It would like to, you know, maybe forget about 2012 and some other issues and keep the Republicans in the major offices at stake.
NNAMDIOne of the reasons that Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling did not participate in -- or dropped out of the race for governor is because the candidate was going to be decided by convention rather than by popular vote, and he didn't think he had a -- much of a chance there against Mr. Cuccinelli. He is not supporting Mr. Cuccinelli. Indeed, Lt. Gov. Bolling has gone on to form a political action committee aimed at recruiting what he calls like-minded Republicans to run for office in the state. I take that to mean moderate Republicans because they seemed to be in short supply.
SHERWOODWell, I think mister -- Lt. Gov. Bolling would say that he's a moderate conservative.
NNAMDIThis is true.
SHERWOODNot moderate. It's almost like tilting liberal. He just say moderate.
SHERWOODSo I think Bolling thinks and believes that in vote-rich areas, like Northern Virginia and other parts of the state, where you have to do well to win, is that too many voters are turned off by the hard right opinions of some of those in the Republican Party.
NNAMDIAnd so he has formed his own political action committee. Onto the District of Columbia, where U.S. District Judge James Boasberg has said to schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson: Yes, you can close 15 D.C. schools. Or I guess more specifically he said: No to the group that was challenging those school closings on the basis of civil rights, saying that the changes -- the closures were disproportionately affect black, Hispanic and disabled children. Judge Boasberg saying, well, on -- that may be true, but on the contrary, they're going to better, less segregated schools.
SHERWOODEmpower D.C., which is the group that brought the...
SHERWOOD...suit, says that although they believe it's not necessarily the intent of what Kaya Henderson is doing as chancellor is that the impact, the effect of closing schools will disadvantaged African-American and poor students. Judge Boasberg, though, pointed out, as you just mentioned, that they are going to supposedly better schools, more organized, more resources.
SHERWOODAnd so he said he saw no evidence of discrimination in the decisions made by the chancellor and made no effort to stop it. Now, the lawsuit can continue, but he would not issue an injunction to freeze the closings of these schools. And they will continue as this case goes forward. It's a very serious setback for Empower D.C. You know, this is similar to the issue in Chicago where...
SHERWOOD...teachers are challenging the closing of 53 schools as that city tries to do something about its education process.
NNAMDIAnd I think a lot of this has to do with the feeling that people who support groups like Empower D.C. have that they are feeling disempowered, if you will, that even though they may acknowledge that the schools their children are going to are better, they feel a certain sense of powerlessness of not being able to impact the process more effectively because when the judge in this case asked them if they thought that African-American administrators would deliberately discriminate against poor African-American children, they shouted yes. We think...
NNAMDI...that's exactly what they were doing.
SHERWOODWell, being a particular race or not doesn't keep you from being a discriminatory person, but, you know, there are about 2,700 students who are affected here, and they do go -- I mean people want -- I mean David Catania, the chairman of the education committee of the Council, has said, you know, the goal ought to be to have every school that's open be good so that no parent wants to have his or her child go out of boundary to another school across the city to get a good education.
SHERWOODAnd so the 2,700 students are being moved out of their neighborhood -- essentially their neighborhood schools are going to other schools, and that is a disruptive thing.
NNAMDITommy Wells is going to be running for mayor. That announcement will come today or this -- maybe taking place even as we speak.
SHERWOODHe's on the tour de Tommy.
SHERWOODYou know, this -- it's -- that's what they're calling it, the tour de Tommy. Today -- he's doing several things today, but at noon tomorrow, off of H Street, Northeast, where the Starburst...
NNAMDIAnd I'll tell you how much the city is changing because that intersection used to be known as the triangle. I used to frequent an establishment there that was called the triangle.
SHERWOODI'd like to follow up with some questions about that but...
NNAMDIWell, it's a long gone establishment, but that was the area where I first had a meal with Tommy Wells as the area was changing in what used to be the triangle, which is now a different establishment, but the area has...
SHERWOODIt's been the Starburst for a long time.
NNAMDIIt's been the Starburst because there are a lot more -- there's a lot more stuff going on there.
SHERWOODNo. But it's been that way for 20 or 30 years.
NNAMDIOh, yeah, well, I go back beyond 20 or 30 years.
SHERWOODBut anyway, Tommy Wells, second candidate in the race. Muriel Bowser is already in. He's -- and Jack Evans, everyone keeps saying will be getting in, in July. Mayor Gray twice this week declined to comment on what he plans to do, but as we all know, his campaign manager might be the U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen. It depends on what he does that could seriously affect what the mayor does.
SHERWOODAnd we just don't know that the answer to that is yet.
NNAMDIHowever, Muriel Bowser has already announced, and several other members of the City Council, maybe depending on what Mayor Gray decides to do, are expected to throw their hat in the ring in this race.
SHERWOODI think your, you know, David Catania has privately talked and is thinking about and considering and talking about running. But he would run in the November election, the general election, as an independent, not the April primary.
NNAMDIThat's true. How about Jack Evans?
SHERWOODJack Evans -- you might not have been listening. I just said he might open -- he might announce in July, but perhaps you were looking at your notes.
NNAMDIUh-oh. Well, I never listen to you is what the truth is.
SHERWOODBut anyway -- so we -- those are the four councilmembers. Some people are saying, well, just kind of shake up this kind of opportunity. Maybe someone outside like a Tony Williams might enter the race, but I don't have a name for you at this point who that could be.
NNAMDITime to get on to the guest who is sitting in studio with that -- if I have your permission to do this.
SHERWOODPlease do. She's listening. She heard me.
NNAMDIOur guest -- somebody in the studio has to listen to Tom.
MS. SANDRA MATTAVOUS-FRYEI'm certain I'm listening to everything.
NNAMDIShe is the people's counsel for the District of Columbia. Sandra Mattavous-Frye joins us in studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEOh, thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here.
NNAMDIThat'll change pretty quickly.
SHERWOODYou know, can I just say -- one of the reasons I was glad that the show booked her is because, you know, we're -- she -- we were talking about this big plan to bury power lines...
SHERWOOD...under the ground, 16 major power lines maybe, billion-dollar project, seven years and additions to the power bills. And at the press conference, Ms. Mattavous-Frye said, well, when we talk -- started talking about this with the Pepco people and how it was going to be done, who was going to pay for it, the idea was that individual residential power bills could go up 10, 20, $30 a month, and the agreement says they'll be up about $1.50 to $3. That is a huge change. Can we rely on those figures, $3, maybe in the range?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWell, let me start with a backdrop of this issue. I mean, as we all know, reliability has been a major issue in the District for a long, long time. And during the course of this period, we've had numerous studies, which have basically, you know, set forth a plan to increase reliability. But, you know, the problem has always been the cost associated with it. And, as you said, Tom, you know, we've had estimates that range from anywhere from 10 to 20 to $30 per month.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd that was -- that's totally unacceptable, especially when you think of the continuing rate increases that Pepco has been filing, you know, for the last five or six years. So when I went into the process, you know, and as I said at the press conference, I was very skeptical. Skeptical because, you know, the relationship that we have with Pepco has always been adversarial, you know, particularly in the regulatory process. So I wasn't sure that this was doable.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd my major focus, of course, was, OK, let's get this reliability level up, but at the same time, at a cost that didn't put an undue financial burden on consumers. So to answer your direct question, whether or not the projected amounts will be -- are reasonable and likely to occur and won't increase, yes, they will not. And that's because of what is really a unique and unprecedented funding mechanism.
SHERWOODOK. But that...
SHERWOODWhere in the ballpark? And it might not be exactly 325, but it won't be outrageously beyond that.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd that's -- yes, that's correct. And that's because there is a cap to the amount that's actually being funded. And that -- the billion dollars, it's really, as calculated today, a little less 936 million but, you know...
NNAMDIIn case you're saying, what the heck are they talking about, well, you should know that a task force commission to study plans to under -- bury under -- have underground power lines in the wake of recent storms rolled out that skeleton plan to bury those power lines strategically across the District this week, and that's what we're talking about with Sandra Mattavous-Frye, people's counsel for the District of Columbia. She expressed that she's had a healthy degree of skepticism about this.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. This plan focuses on burying those feeder lines in certain neighborhoods, mostly outside of the downtown area, instead of burying them all underground. What do you make about that part of the strategy?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWell, that's really what -- one of the reasons why the costs are contained and one of the reasons that I felt comfortable supporting it because those 60 feeders that have been selected are the feeders that have been the worst-performing feeders traditionally. And how that is assessed or calculated is based upon the frequency and the duration of their outages. They call them the SAFIE and SADIE indices.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEBut those measure, you know, how long people out and how frequently they are out and the selected underground -- the selected feeders are those that have been consistently and traditionally poor performing. And what has happened during the process is that we had -- Pepco is required to maintain its system. And these feeders have, in many instances, been repeat feeders, you know, where they're on the list continually, you know, repeatedly even though certain repairs have been made.
MATTAVOUS-FRYENow, you know, the studies have shown that particularly in those areas where these are overhead wires, they are subject to, you know, deterioration, and in addition, they're subject to being harmed or downed when we have severe weather conditions. And so by burying them underground, you mitigate that possibility significantly.
NNAMDIBut we know people who live in areas where parts of the grid are already underground, and they complain about service problems. And now people have been calling me this morning saying, what about flooding problems in those areas where the grid is underground?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWell, first of all, the city is about already 60 percent underground, and those -- and so when you look at it, when you think of the outages that we've had, what you have is that 40 percent that's really causing the problem, the overall problem in the city. So you need to, you know, this identifies those and makes it a subset of that 40 percent where the problem is increasing.
MATTAVOUS-FRYENow, undergrounding is not going -- it's not panacea for every thing, and there are problems associated with undergrounding. For example, one -- if there is a problem underground, is it usually more difficult to restore or to repair it. It's -- takes longer.
NNAMDINot as easily accessible. Yes.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEYes. It's not as easily accessible, traditionally. Now, that's been mitigated somewhat by advances in technology, particularly with the new undergrounding sites. You know, there have been advances in technology where they will be able to, you know, repair the conduits or repair the problem going through manholes and, you know, things of that nature, plus the equipment that's being put underground will be newer and less likely to malfunction.
SHERWOODAnd from the consumer point of view, I mean, I live in neighborhood in Southwest Washington where the lines are underground, and it's terrific 'cause every time we have these storms and the power is out, people are yelling and screaming and cursing the gods.
NNAMDIOK, OK. Stop boasting. Let's go ahead with the question.
SHERWOODI say, OK, well, anyway. But -- I almost lost my train of thought.
SHERWOODBut I think it's important for people to understand now, these are burying major service lines on the streets and the four-foot trenches that Terry Bellamy, the director of transportation, talked about. But this is not where people are going to come to your street, dig up your power lines on your street and the lines to your home.
SHERWOODWe're talking about major feeder lines in areas on the edges of the city where there are lots of trees, where the tree canopy is quite heavy. And that's what it is. That's when it's not downtown, and it's not every individual street. But Mr. Bellamy did say that there would be some disruption on some major road ways when they build these four-foot trenches to put the lines under.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEThat's correct. The plan targets the primary lines, which are the main lines, as you'd mention, Tom, and also the lateral line. So the primary lines are the lines that come directly from the substation. And the reason that those were selected is because they service the most people. When those are down, everybody's down. And then also the lateral lines, which connect to the transformers.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEThey will not be undergrounding the lines that go directly to your houses. But as you said, there will be some disruption. But one of the things that the plan proposes is to make certain to take of, you know, take advantage of the synergies of the construction that's already going on, particularly where the government is going to do something to the streets.
SHERWOODAnd this is timely because, you know, the last year, June was when we had the derecho that caused all of these problems that led to the task force in this moment.
NNAMDIOur guest is Sandra Mattavous-Frye, People's Counsel for the District of Columbia. And you don't have to limit your calls to the Pepco underground line situation because she is the advocate for consumers on other utilities like gas and telecom. So if you have questions about any of those things, you can call us now at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIEven if we're only talking about a dollar to $3 a month increase in our Pepco bills, well, why should consumers be on the hook for this kind of maintenance at all? This is a company that, according to The Washington Post, has paid a negative tax rate because it's so effective at claiming tax credits. They're making -- it would be appear -- a boatload of money. Why should we be on the hook for this?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWell, Kojo, that's, you know, the question that most consumers ask, you know, why should I pay anything for this? This is Pepco's business. This is their fault. This is a cost of service, and it is a element of what we pay as consumers. Now, we have been paying these costs for a long time. Now, what this plan does is finally, you know, will get us to the level where we are getting what we're paying for.
MATTAVOUS-FRYECurrently, we're paying, you know, a rate that doesn't include, you know, and we're still getting poor service. This, hopefully, will result in improved reliability at a reasonable cost. And when you think of cost, Kojo and Tom, you have to also consider, you know, the non -- the other economic cost, the cost of being out, you know, the cost of losing food.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEYou know, these are costs that consumers pay anyway. The cost of restoration, you know, the cost that is recovered from all consumers as a result of Pepco having to do major restoration because they are out for so long. So when you...
NNAMDIYeah. The cost I've spent staying in a hotel the last time there was a major snowstorm while...
SHERWOODWhere you in the same hotel...
NNAMDI...while I sure would still have power.
SHERWOODThat was in a very -- I was warm and toasty. Thank you.
SHERWOODThe mayor was in a hotel. Were you guys in the same hotel, by chance?
NNAMDINo. We were not.
SHERWOODHe was in a hotel for five days.
NNAMDIWe were in the same hotel.
SHERWOODBetty Ann Kane is a former councilmember, who is the chairman of the Public Service Commission, and you're the people's counsel representing the people. I asked this at the press conference. What about the people from outside the process who don't know you but just know you and your job that you guys actively worked on this plan and then stood there to support it? How can we depend upon you to dig your heels and then fight if it starts changing to the detriment of consumers?
SHERWOODBetty Ann says, she pointed out -- I shouldn't call her Betty Ann -- the chairman, Ms. Kane, pointed out that the Pepco Holding Company has to make a profit. It's a private company, makes profit. And the Public Service Commission has to make sure the service is delivered. And you try to make sure it's delivered at a good price. But having been in on the genesis of this plan, how can you then stand back and safely monitor it so that we feel comfortable? You can, as I said at the press conference, blow the whistle, if you have to.
NNAMDI(unintelligible) Betty Ann.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd I, you know, that's a wonderful question, and it's a question I've heard before. And as I said then that I have a statutory responsibility to represent consumers, and I take that very seriously. I was active in the process, the beginning process, but that established just the framework for what we would like to achieve. And although, you know, some people have referred to it as a love fest between the parties, it was not, and it was actually a very contested...
SHERWOODSomeone told me, Sherwood, I will tell you the back story on how this came together, which suggested there was a lot more grief and anguish, and can you tell us about that?
MATTAVOUS-FRYECertainly. You know, as I said, you know, I walked in with a bottom line. You know, I knew that I would not -- I could not support anything that would, one, not increase the reliability level that, two, wouldn't result in costs that were unreasonable and, three, didn't lend itself to a transparent process, you know. So that this, again, will give us no -- and public comment.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd the legislation that is being proposed and drafted, which will support these recommendations, which are just recommendations -- the real meat will be in the legislation -- will have to be specific enough so that, one, as I -- as we said, it ensures that the reliability measures will be met, two, that the costs will not exceed what we have determined is appreciate, and, three and most important, that there will be an open, transparent process in which we will be able to comment as well as the public so that this will be subject to public notice and public comment.
NNAMDIBut -- OK.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEOne, there will be a financing order that the commission will determine is appropriate, which will give them the amount of money that's needed for a particular year, and then, two, a review of their estimates and the costs associated with that particular plan, and we will be involved in that at every step.
NNAMDIPlease put on your headphones because we're about to go to the telephone, so that you can hear the caller. Before you go to the headphones, however, you were very firm when Pepco came to the city and requested an overall rate increase a few months ago. The Public Service Commission, meanwhile, has not fully rejected a rate increase by Pepco in decades. What gives you reason to believe that, as Tom was suggesting earlier, that the Public Service Commission, if not you yourself, will behave any differently this time around?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWe are hopeful that the commission will abide by its statutory mandate to ensure that the rates are reasonable and just. We...
NNAMDIAnd yet so diplomatic. Yes, go ahead.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd we do -- we -- I present, you know, the case that I believe is most appropriate. And, you know, I'm hoping that the composition of the commission will play a role in coming up with a decision that's reasonable and that's just and that's adequate.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Dan in Ward 2. Dan in Washington. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANHi. First, Kojo, you raised the perfect and most important question. I'll leave it at that. My question to Ms. Mattavous-Frye and the great Tom Sherwood can chime in is there are, I believe, reward...
NNAMDIWait a minute. We have to take a 30-second break for Sherwood's celebration that you're calling him the great Tom Sherwood. But go ahead, please, Dan.
DANThere are two or, I believe, three wards that are going to be excluded from benefiting from this. There's Wards 1, 2 and another one.
DANBut why should they pay -- why should the people in those wards have to pay this cost when they're going to receive no benefit? And, believe me, we get lots of these problems in the severe rainfalls.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEHello, Dan. Yes, those three wards have been -- are not designated to receive the increase -- the feeders or the undergrounding. And for the most part, those wards are already underground. And, you know, the question as to whether or not they should pay, well, other rate payers have been paying for their undergrounding service for a long time. So it's really only fair now that the cost be shared.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd in addition, you know, we also need to think about, you know, as I said before, the, you know, their interest in ensuring that the overall reliability of the city is maintained. And just the District of Columbia as a whole, I mean, this is our home, this is the nation's capital, and it's important that we have a reliable electric system that supports the economy, that supports the tourist industry.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEYou know, clearly, the areas in Wards 1, 2 and somewhat 6, which are business districts, those consumers, those customers, those entities, you know, want a commercially viable environment. And certainly, one where there is a citywide outage does not, you know, lend itself to that. So I think that it is equitable and fair that they pay the cost associated with increasing reliability in the entire city. It's the...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEYou know, it's sort of the one city goal that we talk so much about, that we give lip service, too.
NNAMDIDan, thank you for your call. Tom.
SHERWOODWell, I think it's -- the mayor says one city. I'm not sure we all say one city. But, you know, Betty Ann Kane said at the press conference something interesting.
NNAMDIChairman Kane to you, sir.
SHERWOODChairman Kane. Well, if I say her full name, it's not quite so familiar.
NNAMDII get to call her Betty Ann.
SHERWOODWell, she said that -- she noted that a lot of the downtown area which is underground is because Congress in the late 1800s mandated that lines be underground. Is there a simple way to explain how is it and why did the power companies decided that putting lines overhead was the best way to deliver power? It seems like it would have been so much simpler just to put them underground at the genesis of this, not coming in at revelations and trying to change it.
MATTAVOUS-FRYETom, I really don't know the answer to that question.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd you, you know, probably, that say a business decision that the electric company made. The only thing that I would state or indicate is that it is always cheaper, less expensive to put in an overhead line, and maybe that was a cost factor that they considered.
NNAMDIHere is Melvin in Northeast, Wash. Melvin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELVINYes. Good evening -- good afternoon to both of you guests. My question is -- I don't know if you're aware, Pepco's energy rewards program, and I think...
MELVIN...they're engaged into some deceptive advertising because, one, this happened to me. I signed up for the program thinking that they were going to give me some information, then the next thing I know, I was having a meter or some kind of thermostat placed on my air condition unit in which Pepco have sole control over this summertime to cycle my unit up or down. Are you aware of this program and how it should operate and the kind of information that Pepco should be giving to consumers before they make...
NNAMDIWell, Melvin, not only is she aware of it, but she has asked for consumers to be able to opt out of the smart meter program that the company has been rolling out, correct?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEThat is correct, but this is a somewhat separate matter, and...
NNAMDINot the same.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd we have been involved with this also. We -- my office received a number of complaints or consumer inquiries regarding Pepco's energy award program, and many of them indicated that they were being approached by representatives, and they weren't clear as to what they were signing up for.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEI subsequently contacted by letter of the president, Mr. Graham, and then brought this to his attention. He has responded, and he's indicated that they are taking steps to address that. Some of it may be attributed to independent contractors who may need additional training, but it is something that we are definitely looking at. I would suggest, you know, I would invite you to call -- contact my office at 202-727-3071, and we can follow up with you.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for you call, Melvin. I'd like to follow up on the smart meter question that I started out raising when I obviously mistake the two programs. You asked for consumers to be able to opt out of that program. It's supposed to be a greener, more environmentally friendly program. Some people have expressed concerns about privacy, others about potentially negative health effects from radiation. Are you simply pushing for this to give voice to those rate payers, or do you share their concerns about privacy and health?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWell, as you know, the City Council approved the proposal by Pepco to install and implement smart meters across the city. That has happened. The process was different in that it was done by the -- by legislative fiat, and we did not get an opportunity to totally explore within, like, the, you know, before the regulatory body. Some of the implications associated with concerns that the public was raising with respect to health and safety and privacy.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEThe -- we petitioned, subsequently petitioned the commission to allow for -- allow customers to opt out, and they declined to -- declined the petition and directed us to the public, to the legislature. We did contact and worked with the committee at the time, Yvette Alexander, and she wrote a letter to the public service commission requesting that they conduct a study and investigating the feasibility of opting out as well as examine health issues associated with that.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEThat process is in place. Subsequent to that, we've began to get a number of complaints from consumers saying that, you know, well, you have this proceeding pending, but they are taking, you know, they're putting their -- putting in these meters anyway. Why, you know, what's the deal with that? And I really, you know, was sensitive to the fact that, you know, once it's done, you know, it's very difficult to undo it.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd we again, asked the commission to put a stay on the implementation and to allow consumers who did not want the meters to opt out. They again, most recently declined the petition and directed us again to the legislature -- to the City Council.
SHERWOODSo well it's kind of -- I have -- I think we're running out of time.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEAnd let me just say that Councilmember McDuffie is -- has introduced legislation that would allow consumers to opt out.
SHERWOODTo opt out. OK. Is your staff -- given all this happening normally now with this big project, are you fully staffed? You're paid by fees out of the utilities, isn't that correct for your staff?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWe're paid by the consumers.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEIt's a fee that's recovered by rate payers.
SHERWOODAre you fully staffed?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEYes. I'm fully staffed.
SHERWOODAre you prepared to do all this work that's ahead of you?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWe're prepared. We'll put up with that.
SHERWOODAnd how do people contact your office?
NNAMDIShe gave out the phone number. I bet you might've been looking at your notes when she gave it up.
SHERWOODI wasn't. (unintelligible) Did you give out the phone number?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEWere you looking at your notes?
NNAMDIGive it out again.
SHERWOODI was calling to see if it worked.
SHERWOODDo you get a human being or voice or feel harmony?
MATTAVOUS-FRYEYou absolutely get it in a human being.
NNAMDIAnd I know we have to move on, but we do have one of the citizen members of the task force, Herbert Harris, on the line. I'm going to ask him to keep his comments brief. But, Mr. Harris, you're on the air, go ahead please.
MR. HERBERT HARRISWell, Kojo, thank you for taking my call. I just want to echo some of the comments that the people's counsel, Ms. Frye, has already (word?). It was a very, at times, contentious and difficult process and that it was a very large subject that has alluded us in the District of Columbia for sometime. And that one of the things that was central from the very beginning of our discussions was making certain that any and all contributions by the citizen was buttressed by a significant or measurable improvement and reliability.
MR. HERBERT HARRISDistrict rate payers have suffered a great deal under the current system, and I think, you have to go back almost a decade to the beginning of it. But I think finally, we are at a point because of the input of the parties in the room and having the decision makers and stakeholders who was vested in this process, I think we can move forward.
MR. HERBERT HARRISBut as an -- as the people's counsel has already alluded to, the debit will be in the details of the legislation going forward that will be subject to review by the City Council. But we have taken a significant step forward, now is a matter of implementing the plan and recommendations from the task force.
NNAMDIAnd we'll be continuing to look at it. Herbert Harris, thank you for your call. Sandra Mattavous-Frye, thank you so much for joining us.
MATTAVOUS-FRYEThank you. And we can also be reached by our website at opc-dc.gov.
NNAMDISandra Mattavous-Frye is the people's counsel for the District of Columbia. You're listening to the Politics Hour. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. One of the things that occurred during the course of the past week, Tom Sherwood, is that the city of Takoma Park, Md., the council has voted to allow 16-year-olds to be able to vote in city elections in Takoma Park, Md.
NNAMDITakoma Park, Md. used to have the reputation of being the most radical jurisdiction in the United States. Some people believe that reputation may have been slipping, but apparently that's not the case. They're trying to regain their reputation.
SHERWOODWell, you know, it's a very small town. What is it, like 20,000, less than -- fewer than 20,000 people in the...
SHERWOODAnd so I think the vote -- I tried to get the voter registration number before I went to the program, but I think it's just a few thousand people. So if you got some 16-year-olds who want to vote -- I don't know how many would be eligible at this moment, but, you know, a few hundred votes maybe could change an election, given the turnout. Was it -- The Washington Post reporter, her name I've -- she escaped me now.
SHERWOODRight. Wrote that, well, the -- there are some young people who want to pass some marijuana laws...
SHERWOOD...and that would help bring back the People's Republic of Takoma Park's reputation.
NNAMDIWell, I think a lot of people will now be watching to see what happens in Takoma Park.
SHERWOODWell, you know, if they can vote -- I mean, that's a classic thing. I mean, if you can vote, if you can serve in wars -- of course, at 16 you don't, but if you can drive a car, why can't you vote?
NNAMDIThis is true. We'll see how that evolves. According to the Examiner newspaper, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans is somewhat frustrated by the gotcha rules and the tightened ethics regime that regulates the conduct of the elected officials on the Council. Apparently, Jack Evans is saying that there's a Council rule that forces members to disclose when they accept free admission to specific events as part of their official duty. He said he'd like to get rid of it tomorrow if he could get six people to agree with him, but the...
SHERWOODWell, it's not the most timely thing to say when you're thinking about running for mayor when the city is aflutter over ethics issues and ongoing. And I do think it gets back to the issue of disclosure. I mean, really, if you -- I think if you just disclose what you're doing, then, you know, citizens can have a right to decide whether your acceptance of baseball tickets or Ted Leonsis -- I mean, I think you should be fine if you went to the last Caps game, but -- that horrible loss.
SHERWOODBut, you know, if we just -- I just want to know -- disclose what people are doing as elected officials, in the name of being an elected official, and then we can decide.
NNAMDIAnd then the voters make their own decision.
SHERWOODIt seems to make sense. But for Jack -- I mean, he will have to get six other council members to agree with him to pursue some of these issues. I think in...
NNAMDIAnd in the current environment...
SHERWOODIn the current environment, it just seems like it's not the best time -- thing to do, but maybe he's talked to enough council members about it.
NNAMDIWell, we are joined in studio by a resident of Takoma Park, Md. We will have to find out whether he is now eligible to vote in Takoma Park. Marc Elrich is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He's a Democrat who holds an at-large seat, and finally you'll be able to vote in your home city.
MR. MARC ELRICHI've managed to maintain my youthful attitude, so perhaps this will get me in.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about the Council passing the law allowing 16-year-olds to vote?
ELRICHI have really mixed feelings. I just think that, you know, people don't pay taxes. They are not exactly grown up in an environment where they're aware of political consequences and the meaning of government and what it does, and I'm not sure whether this proves anything. And I think if your issue is to motivate people to get involved in politics, maybe having a little better political system in general would do the trick rather than this.
SHERWOODYou were on the Council for 10 years?
ELRICHTen terms, 19 years.
SHERWOODTen terms. It seemed -- it probably felt like 10 years. How long is a term?
ELRICHTwo years. This is about 19 years.
SHERWOODThat's -- oh, Lord.
NNAMDIThere's a bit of a philosophical war that has erupted in Montgomery County's Democratic circle. Last week, labor unions orchestrated a protest of the county Democratic Party Spring Ball to make a statement about recent moves to curb certain kinds of collective bargaining. You did not cross the picket line, but you didn't join it either, and you said hurting the party was ultimately not in the interest of labor. How so?
ELRICHWell, I think labor doesn't have many places to go. The first thing is they, you know, they certainly have not indicated any willingness or ability to build a separate labor party. And so if you're not building a party, then your choice is to work with one of the two parties. And obviously that rules out the Republican Party, so you're down to one. So the question is, what's your relationship with the party? I get some of the grievance 'cause it wasn't all about the things we did on contractual stuff, all of which I...
NNAMDIWell, talk about the things you did on contractual stuff because you approved -- it was approved by voter referendum, the -- limiting the effects bargaining that the police union can enter into. Why did you feel that was the right policy for the county when it was pushed last year?
ELRICHWell, all the unions, including the police, still have effects bargaining, and they have effects bargaining on things that affect scheduling, which was their big issue. I mean, they didn't want to be subject to arbitrary moves by a police chief. They, a number of years ago, got this special effects bargaining, and...
SHERWOODPre-clearance effects bargaining.
ELRICHYeah. And I felt what they had done is basically abuse the process, that, you know, that their displeasure with the chief allowed them to turn the effects bargaining into an ability to muck with everything. And when they did things like bargain over who gets a ticket writer, or bargain over whether you're going to look at your email once a day, and at the end, they were like, well, that's all trivial. We could have done it, you know, in a day if we just wanted to. It's like, yeah, you could have, but you didn't. And...
SHERWOODWas that protest successful in your mind? The party raised some money, I would guess. Didn't they raise it?
ELRICHYeah, but they didn't raise it as much as they were going to, which is a bad thing. And -- but other people are stepping up now to offset some of what they lost. I don't think it was effective in terms of opening a dialogue, and I would have rather opened a dialogue. Personally, I would have traded off the picket for let us protest and give us 10 minutes to address the assembled about what some of our concerns are.
SHERWOODTo be clear, this was the -- it was a unanimous vote by the Council, 11 -- how many votes...
ELRICHIt was nine of us.
SHERWOODNine. A unanimous vote, taken to a referendum and...
SHERWOODSixty percent voted for it. And the union is not here to respond, can't answer this question. Why did they think this would be a good thing to do to move forward? Are they going to boycott other things?
ELRICHI -- you know, some -- I've heard it said that they say, OK, we're beyond this now, and we need to move forward. I think it's really important that we move forward. I mean, I do get the feeling that, you know, labor really isn't part of the discussion of what the party agenda ought to be. And some of the other things they cited like our massive tax giveaways to people is money that could be available for other things.
NNAMDIWell, they say, you turn to us for votes. You turn to us for money. But as you just pointed out, they don't feel included in the process of setting the legislative agenda. If that's the case, what's the way forward, in your view, to resolve these concerns? By the way, if you're just joining us, we're -- shame on you. We're talking with Marc Elrich. He's a member of the Montgomery County Council. If you have questions or comments for him -- he holds an at-large seat, he's a Democrat -- 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
ELRICHSo I think it's hard to figure out what exactly the way forward is. We've got a Democratic Party Central Committee. They basically only take positions now on a few ballot issues, so long the bulk of what goes on in the world of the county, the Central Committee doesn't have positions. I think in other places, the local party has more active role in terms of at least setting standards or setting a sense of what we're going to try to accomplish.
ELRICHEven if fall-elected officials don't adhere to it, at least there's a discussion about it. Some of the stuff labor raised, I mean, it frustrates me because it would be nice if they would raise the issues when they're in front of us. I mean, they're not sitting there saying, don't give away this tax break. They're not sitting there, you know, in advance, getting involved, for example, in the Wal-Mart issue, so it would be nice -- if you're going to play and you want in, then you've really got to seriously engage all the time. It's not a part-time sport.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to those people in the county who actually feel that labor has too much influence on Montgomery County politics? It's not like you've got too good of a shot in any election if you're not endorsed by the teachers union and on their apple ballot.
ELRICHI'm not sure that's an effect of just labor or just the general view, and Montgomery County's not an anti-labor county. I mean, we generally think there's a value in having people who earn a living wage. And, you know, I'm not interested. I don't know what Montgomery County would look like if we figured out how to depress people's wages to the point that they couldn't live there.
ELRICHI mean, I think most people in the county accept a kind of social compact, and labor doesn't get everything at once. I mean, the votes that the Council took were 9-0 votes to cut wages, cut benefits, do a whole bunch of stuff that none of us would have wanted to do. But economic reality sometimes trumps, you know, you -- what you want to do. I always tell people like, this is what my belief system is. My belief system has not shown me where the printing press is for money.
SHERWOODWhat is the impact of private -- not government union, but private unions -- in county, Montgomery County?
ELRICHThe impact is they don't play very hard. I mean, most -- 'cause most of the issues aren't with us. So, you know, their issues are, you know, state misclassification, which is a problem, the ability to get work on jobs with, you know, some...
SHERWOODThat the Metropolitan Labor Council doesn't have a big voice or say that...
ELRICHNo. They're not a big factor in the county.
NNAMDIWell, they were involved in the protest, however, even though they're not a big factor in the county. If you say, look, there are issues -- as you've just said, there are issues of which we would like you to come to the table earlier. Indicate you have a broader interest in what's going in the county. You say that here, but can't you say that to the labor leaders who have supported you in the past? And how have they responded to you?
ELRICHLook, you know, I'm probably somebody who's done it frequently. I mean, I've -- part of, you know, you know my positions on things like growth and development and making sure developers pay. I have been in front of the unions for as long as I ran and said to them, these other decisions matter to you. If I grow at a pace where I cannot raise enough tax money to pay for the infrastructure and the cost of government, that money is only going to come out of one place, and that's going to be out of labor.
ELRICHSo what we do affects everybody, and it's wrong just to look at your job as how much I'm going to get in a wage increase. Whether or not I can even fund the wage increase depends on the overall health of the county. So I've pushed for a long time to asked them to take a broader view of things.
SHERWOODCould -- what's your view on the transit, this transit center mess in Silver Spring? Your -- I was looking at your bio here. You've been involved in lot of transportation issues.
ELRICHYeah. So my first reaction is I was looking for someone to blame, and I thought it would be easy to find. And I've got to say that, you know, Foulger-Pratt is a legitimate construction company. So I looked at Parsons Brinckerhoff and, good news, I mean, they're an international design firm so it was nothing...
ELRICHRight. So it's not (word?). And I thought Balterre. I said to myself, I never heard of Balterre. So I looked at Balterre on the website. They did the Pentagon. They do airports. They do things that dwarf the project in Silver Spring. So it's really frustrating because if the government had done this and messed this up, they would have said, how dare you this? You should've hired professionals. So they hired professionals and they still messed it up.
ELRICHAnd I don't know. I cannot figure out. I'm not in position to asses blame. But I'm looking -- if you look out my window is my county office building. We're building a courthouse that cost more than this, and we don't have any of these problems. So it's not like the county can't do something. It's -- something went wrong here.
SHERWOODIs it incompetence, malfeasance, something worse?
ELRICHWell, the design was definitely flawed. And I think that's one of the big points, is that our engineer or our staff said this design is wrong. The wall needs to be separate from the pad. And they did, like, a monolithic port. Mistake number one causes the cracking. I looked at the pictures of the WMATA study, which is even, I thought, better than the KCE study in some ways. How people didn't see the exposed cable -- it wasn't like it was, like, lurking beneath the surface. They've got pictures in there of large sections of exposed cable and big cracks. So how people missed that, I don't know.
NNAMDILet's talk about county business for a minute. The Council approved the $4.8 billion budget yesterday that asked residents to pay stiffer property taxes. You agreed with it even though you felt the budget could have done more to pay for county priorities. What priorities did you feel were left off the list? And how do you think the county should have been paying for them?
ELRICHWell, I was willing to leave some of those things on the table in the name of I'm not dipping into our OpEd (sp?) payment. OpEd pays for any future employees...
SHERWOODWhat is OpEd?
ELRICHFuture employee retirement benefits. And so it's money we've been putting aside. We were like every other jurisdiction in the world probably, which neglected to do this when we should have been doing it. So for the past, you know, several years, we've been putting major amounts of money into this fund. And so I thought, you know, if you dip into it now, just the first of the day you have to pay it 'till later. And I'm maybe a little bit more pessimistic than some people about next year.
ELRICHMy, you know, a lot of people are saying, look at your rising income taxes and rising housing prices. I'm saying, you haven't seen the effects of the sequester. You haven't seen the effect employees in the Fed getting 10 percent wage cuts if they take all these furlough days. So I'm like, I'm not sure I wanted to take money away from next year.
ELRICHBut if you were going to go in there rather than give a tax break to homeowners, which amounted a whopping additional 65 cents, we were already giving them a 5 percent cut, which gave them 65 cents. This next 5 percent gave them another 65 cents. I was looking at counseling services, youth services, the working family income supplement. There are things that really would've made a difference.
ELRICHAnd, you know, frankly, I don't believe my neighbors -- if I said 65 cents a month for you, or let me fund some of these youth services, let me fund some of these other programs that help people in need, that my neighbors would've said, give me the 65 cents. That's not Montgomery County.
NNAMDII want to talk about the Purple Line for a second because you have been on this broadcast on several occasions, expressing your enthusiasm about bus rapid transits, which -- for which some people might infer that you're not overly enthusiastic about more expensive projects like the Purple Line light rail.
ELRICHThe Purple Line was a decision that the state has already made. This is what they wanted -- this is what the state wants to do. The Council has voted for it unanimously. It's got, you know, a fair amount of support in the community. They think they can make it work. The governor has lined up some money, notably not enough money 'cause now they are saying we have to have a private partner. But they put that in there.
ELRICHSo, you know, I think that's -- I do think that the bus rapid transit network is important because it connects a lot more people to a lot more job centers. In fact, it connects people to three critical job centers, which the county is kind of banking on for future economic development growth in the county. So I think, you know, we got to figure out a way to do both.
SHERWOODIs the Intercounty Connector successful yet?
ELRICHThat road is a joke. I drive over...
SHERWOODThe road is a joke, you just said.
ELRICHYeah. Yes, I did.
ELRICHEvery time I drive over it, I just stare at the lack of cars. And I'm thinking, we (unintelligible) spend $3 billion for this road. And the problem is, as soon as enough cars get on that road, the local road is unloaded enough that people say, why would I pay this much money to save a couple of minutes? It's sort of the problem they're having in Virginia a little bit with the toll lanes. As soon as the toll lane absorbs enough traffic off the other lanes that they worked, people don't go over there just to pay a toll. You'll only go over there if you're suffering. When you're not suffering, why pay?
SHERWOODIs transportation the biggest regional issue that this -- I mean, Maryland and Virginia, I don't think you do anything together. I mean, there's discussions about whether to have another cross Potomac bridge. I don't -- called an outer beltway or something like that. Are we going to have any kind of cooperation on transportation? Are we just going to be in gridlock?
ELRICHWell, I take heart that, you know, there was discussions with Virginia about running a bus -- restoring a bus service from Montgomery County to Tysons Corner. And it was ran once before, but once you got to Virginia and off the Beltway, Virginia provided no accommodation for it. Now they're saying we'll provide accommodation for it.
ELRICHAnd that would a make a difference because once you got to Tysons Corner and got mired in traffic, it was, like, pointless. But if you genuinely make it work, I think that's hopeful. But, you know, that we have no cooperation. All the different jurisdictions live in different political worlds, and it's hard to get things done.
NNAMDIIke Leggett was on this broadcast a few months ago. He's had to put together budgets to a string of lean years for the county. He says he's proud of the work he's done. He believes he's made hard decisions that have put Montgomery County on sound footing through the recession and the financial collapse. How would you measure his work as executive? And would you support him, if Ike Leggett runs for another term next year?
ELRICHI've said repeatedly that I'm supporting him if he runs again. I think that what he did went against the grain of a lot of people. I think people assumed recessions were cyclical reciprocal and that we go through tears of misery and then we'll be back to business as usual. And the executive said from the beginning, I don't think this is going to be normal. We need to start preparing for a downsizing. He made decisions that lasted years. I don't think other people would have done that.
ELRICHAnd I think, you know, one of the reasons that we've been able to do some of the stuff for employees this year that we're doing is that we hit them really hard in the beginning because of the severity of it. And other people, I think, kind of did it around, and now they're still paying the price and they're not out of it yet.
NNAMDII guess we're going to have to find somebody else to beat up on Ike Leggett. Marc Elrich is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He's a Democrat who holds an at-large seat. Marc Elrich, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter, a columnist for The Current Newspaper, whose power never goes out.
SHERWOODThat's correct. And I'll go see what kind of power Tommy Wells has at noon tomorrow for his kickoff to see what that's like, and we'll discuss it next week.
NNAMDITommy Wells for mayor of the District of Columbia. Thank you all for listening.
SHERWOODHe got a promotion.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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