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D.C. lawmakers cleared the way two years ago for new rules regulating how home and property owners can get rid of unwanted wild animals. Those rules became the subject of a national controversy this month when prominent conservatives charged that the District was in the business of “relocating” rats to Virginia. We chat with Mary Cheh, the D.C. lawmaker who authored that bill, about what it really does and why it’s become controversial.
- Mary Cheh Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 3); Chair, Committee on Public Works, Transportation and the Environment
D.C. Taxi Survey Results
D.C.Taxi Survey Results, from the office of D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, why Republican presidential candidates in the United States have fallen in love with the giants of Austrian economics, but, first, our member of the D.C. Council found herself in the crosshairs of the national conservative movement.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITwo years ago, Mary Cheh, a Democratic councilmember from Ward 3, authored a wildlife protection bill that later became law, a measure that requires exterminators to release some animals rather than euthanizing them and prohibits the use of certain body-crushing traps. At the time, some people, including the host of a certain local political broadcast that airs on a public radio station in Washington on Fridays, jokingly called it the save-the-squirrels act.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general of Virginia, wasn't joking in the slightest a few weeks ago when he declared that D.C. law now requires exterminators to relocate rat families to Virginia, even though the law doesn't apply to mice and rats. Long story short, Cuccinelli's comments started a brushfire of sorts on conservative talk radio. And Mary Cheh has since gotten the full Rush Limbaugh attention and everything that comes with it, which is one of the reasons she's joining us today to explain, for the record, what the bill she crafted actually does and does not do. Mary Cheh, welcome.
MS. MARY CHEHThank you very much.
NNAMDIMary Cheh is a Democrat who represents Ward 3. She also chairs the council's committee on the environment, public works and transportation. In the spirits of full disclosure, I cop to the fact that Tom Sherwood and I did poke some fun at you two years ago when you wrote this bill. But we were merely poking fun. Now, there's a narrative swirling at the national level that you cleared the way for the District to relocate rats to other jurisdictions, including Ken Cuccinelli's home state of Virginia. Can you explain what the law that you wrote does and what the law does not, in fact, do?
CHEHWell, the law is fairly straightforward, and it simply says that these companies that do extermination, that remove wildlife from your home or perhaps your yard, that they do so in a humane way. The idea is that, if the animals have come in the house, they should be released back in the wild, that you should trap them in a humane way, transport them in a humane way if that's necessary, and, if it's necessary to kill them, that they be killed in a humane way. The law specifically exempts mice and rats.
CHEHNow, when the attorney general of Virginia made his comments, I think he found himself getting carried away. He was responding to, as I understand -- I didn't hear his interview on the radio program -- to the rats that are proliferating or said to be proliferating...
NNAMDIBecause here's what he...
CHEH...in Occupy D.C.
NNAMDIHere's what he actually said.
ATTY. GEN. KEN CUCCINELLID.C. has a new law as of last year passed by Councilwoman Mary Cheh, was the sponsor of it, that doesn't allow them to kill the dang rats. They have to capture them and capture them in families. You go figure out how you're going to do that with rats. And then you got to relocate them. Well, that brings us to Virginia. If you don't relocate them about 25 miles away, according to experts, rodents will find their way back. Well, an easy way to solve that problem is to cross a river. And what's on the other side of the river? Virginia.
NNAMDITo what extent was Mr. Cuccinelli incorrect, and to what extent was he overreaching?
CHEHWell, he was entirely mistaken. And we exterminate rats. We don't protect them. We don't transport them. The law itself provides for an exception. Now, instead of simply saying, I made a mistake, what got this thing going beyond that is that he continued with his claims and he tried to back fill. The next thing we heard is that he said, well, the law doesn't specifically exempt rice rats. So that sent us to -- pardon an expression -- scurrying to find out what rice rats were.
CHEHIt turns out that there are some things called rice rats in Virginia. We don't have them in the District. And then he did some other research to look for certain kind of mice or whatever.
CHEHYes, deer mice. The rats and mice that we have are not included. They are not part of this bill. We don't protect them. We don't transport them. We don't ship them to Virginia. He should have just said he made a mistake, but then, apparently, Mr. Limbaugh picked this up and mentioned something about it on his show as well. And then that unleashed a torrent of emails to me from his listeners, not particularly civil or nice.
NNAMDII saw some of those emails.
CHEHYes. And so, now, we're in this situation. And I should tell you I had an email from a former student of mine, a G.W. law student. He must have been in town from New York for some business, and he dropped me this email. And he said, Prof. Cheh, he said, my ears perked up when I was in a cab, and I heard someone refer to you as that rat lover. And he said, what was that all about?
CHEHSo I explained it to him and said, you know, how weird all of this has become. The problem is, though, that once this was -- you know, I can't chase the mistake as far as it has traveled.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 if you'd like to join the conversation with Mary Cheh. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. What is your understanding of the Wildlife Protection Act? It is my understanding, Mary Cheh, that this law has not even gone into effect yet.
CHEHThat's correct. And our own Department of the Environment director said, when he was asked about, for example, this nonsense about rice rats, he said -- he had a great line. He said they're all rats. We don't check IDs. We just exterminate them. But, you know, the idea of this is simple. First of all, it doesn't even apply to the homeowner. It applies to these companies. And what we're asking is that they do their business in a humane way.
NNAMDIWhy did you think the bill was necessary in the first place? Was there -- were there indications that some of these extermination companies were not doing their business in what you would consider a humane way?
CHEHYes, for sure. We had reports from the Humane Society. And, even in my own experience, I had a woman tell me, for example, that she had a raccoon, and she called this company to have it removed. And he said that he would ensure that the raccoon would never come back. And she said, well, where are you taking it? I live in upper Northwest, where we are right now, and he said that he was going to take it to the Palisades section.
CHEHAnd she said -- this is her telling me. She said, well, gee, do they have some kind of, like, center over there or some place -- he said no, no. He said because they'll try to come back, and if -- I figure if they have to cross three major roads, they won't make it.
CHEHYeah. So, I mean, that's just one instance. Other instances came to the fore at the hearing that we held. And there's also a consumer protection aspect to this, which I'd like to point out.
CHEHUnder the law, these companies also have to advise the homeowner how the animal likely entered the home and what the homeowner can do to keep it from coming back. Because, here's the situation, animals, you know, particularly in winter, let's say, they might seek a warm place. Well, if you have a place where they can enter, they're trying to, you know, survive and so...
NNAMDIComing down through the chimney.
CHEHRight. Exactly. Or there may be a crawl space or something of that nature. And so the idea is to prevent them from coming back. Unless you have that advice or that knowledge, there may be other squirrels or raccoons or what have you coming into your house. So the law requires them to advise you the probable entry point and what you can do about it.
NNAMDIHere is Daniel in Brookland, D.C. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIEL WOLKOFFGood morning, Kojo, Councilwoman Cheh.
WOLKOFFFirst of all, I support your environment works. There are opossums behind my house. I feed them, not a problem at all. And we need to educate people about supporting urban wildlife, putting food out for birds, water. And I do email you quite frequently. It's Daniel Wolkoff. (sp?) Appreciate some response at some point. I never do get a response from you. And to encourage you...
NNAMDIThat's why we exist, Daniel.
WOLKOFFThank you, Kojo. I'd like to encourage Councilwoman Cheh. You've done some work on over-lighting. Over-lighting is a huge issue in our city. But you don't seem to be concerned with gas-powered -- equipment. Anybody can blow out blue smoke, blowing, you know, blades of grass around, leaves around and...
NNAMDIWhat are you recommending specifically, Daniel?
WOLKOFFWell, I've actually testified to the environmental committee when it was under Councilman Graham, and I have mentioned this to Mrs. Cheh. But we need to transition away from all this polluting, horribly unnecessary over-powerful lawn equipment. We can give coupons. We can give rebates. We can work...
NNAMDIHave you given any thought to that at all, Mary Cheh?
CHEHWell, actually, Daniel, thank you for your comment. And also, if you would give me your last name, I'm going to go back and check my emails. I try to answer all my emails. Sometimes, some do slip through, and I apologize if that happened to you. But, as to your point, that actually is in my mind. I have it on my radar screen. These two-stroke engines are very, very polluting, and I may be coming forward with something about that before too long.
NNAMDIDaniel, I'm going to put you on hold and ask you to give your last name and any other information you'd like to, to our telephonic facilitator, A.C. Valdez, over there. And Mary Cheh will get back with you on that. Let's switch gears for a second...
NNAMDI...to another subject that gets people running hot right now -- taxis. It's my understanding that you recently set up an online survey to measure public feelings about the city's taxi industry and that you're releasing the results today.
CHEHYes. And they are now released.
NNAMDIWhat did you find?
CHEHWell, it's quite interesting. First of all, the response was, I think, pretty amazing. I'm not a social scientist, but we had over 4,000 people respond. And I'm told that that's pretty spectacular. We found that a large numbers -- I'm trying to look for the particular numbers here, but a large...
NNAMDIYou can find it at our website, kojoshow.org.
CHEHYes, there you go. But something...
NNAMDIWe have placed a link to it.
CHEHSomething like 75 percent of the respondents said that they would rate the taxi service as fair or poor. That's fairly telling.
CHEHThe sample is skewed to younger people. The large majority were between 18 and 34, I believe. But they clearly found that there was a problem, or they think that there's a problem. They were very supportive of some aspects of a taxi reform bill that I will be considering at a hearing on Monday at the council. For example, they very much want to have use of credit cards.
CHEHAnd they very much want the idea of uniform signals on the top of the taxi to see whether you're in service or...
CHEHYes, there you go. Their reactions were also measured, in part, by comments. Now, in terms of the comments, one of the repeated kinds of comments and complaints that we got, which is very worrisome and it's something that we want to focus on in the bill, is that there are taxis that will not pick up certain folks and won't take them to certain parts of the city. And that's...
NNAMDIOf the city. And a longstanding problem.
CHEHThat is a longstanding problem, and it's certainly not cured. And a number of comments made references to that.
NNAMDIYour -- the former chairman of the D.C. Council, the late John Wilson, once told me that the reason he started wearing suits and ties was so that he could get...
CHEHTo get a taxi here in the District.
NNAMDI...taxies in the District of Columbia, yes.
CHEHWell, you know, I thought maybe we had resolved that problem, but apparently not. And then the other aspect of it is taking people to destinations, where the taxi driver may be concerned that he or she won't get a fare on the way back. So if you're trying to get a taxi from downtown and you want to go to Ward 8 or Ward 7, across the river, apparently, it's far more difficult than if you're going to other parts of the District, in Northwest, let's say.
NNAMDII, too, was somewhat surprised with the level of dissatisfaction with the taxi service. It turns out that most people in the survey indicated that they would also like the taxicabs in D.C. to have one color. They can't agree exactly on what that color should be.
CHEHNo. There was a lot of division about the color.
NNAMDIYou are not a big yellow person yourself.
NNAMDIYou like white.
CHEHYou know, when I was asked by the press when I first, you know, introduced the bill, the bill doesn't prescribe the color. There's going -- there would have to be a hearing. The commission would determine that. It must have been in my mind, which is still the case. When I was in Boston, they have a uniform color, which is white, and I thought it looked very smart. But that seems not to be that popular.
CHEHI suppose if, you know, my personal opinion -- again, this is not prescribed in the law. If I had to go to the next color, I would go to red. What's yours, Kojo?
NNAMDIWhite. White is mine.
NNAMDII once owned a white vehicle. They, surprisingly enough, stay clean-looking longer than any other vehicle, and that's crucial.
CHEHWell, you know, one taxi driver did comment to me, sent me an email and said, you know, I like white, too. I drive a white taxi, he said, but there is one feature about this. I haven't even thought about this. He said, you know, if you get into a little fender bender and you have to have, let's say, a panel repaired, it's very, very hard to match the color.
NNAMDIOh, I never thought about that aspect of it. It's hard to talk about the city's taxi system these days without getting into the controversy over the new company Uber, which is essentially a mobile booking service. The city's taxi cab commissioner conducted a sting of sorts this month to prove a point about whether Uber is violating D.C. laws. How do you feel about Uber, and where do you think a business like this fits into the regulatory framework we currently have in the District?
CHEHWell, it kind of falls between a taxi and limousine. It does -- it doesn't quite fit the regulatory framework. And my approach and my reaction to what happened was that we should just wait a minute. We should figure out whether this service provides something that people need and want, whether it fills a niche and what exactly might be the concerns about it, and then, if it needs some regulation, you know, for example, you know, disclosure of prices or whatever it may be, we should not squelch, you know, innovation and other forms of travel.
CHEHWe should think, you know, progressively. If this is something that people need and want, then let's figure out a way to make it work. That is my attitude.
NNAMDIDo you think the introduction of a company like Uber could force taxi businesses in the District to compete harder, to no longer be, as the survey indicates people think of them, mediocre and unreliable? And you currently share that opinion.
CHEHWell, that may be the case. I'm not sure. If that were the case, that would be an additional benefit out of this, but, again, my overall point is that we shouldn't be quick to just say, oh, this is a new thing. It doesn't fit. Let's stop it. I think this is a new thing, let's make it fit, and let's see how it works.
NNAMDIMary Cheh, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIMary Cheh is a member of the D.C. Council. She's a Democrat who represents Ward 3. She also chairs the council's committee on the environment, public works and transportation. And I have to tell you that she showed up today. She is not encumbered by wearing any cast whatsoever. Continued good luck to you.
CHEHThank you, Kojo. Thanks very much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a small break. When we come back, why Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. seem to have fallen in love with the giants of Austrian economics. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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