On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Maryland’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee met this week to review policing bills ahead of the 2021 session. Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery County), who chairs the committee, tells us how it went. Plus, the contractors building the Purple Line are packing it up. How will Maryland continue the construction?
And D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) joins the show to talk about the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Plus, we’ll recap this week’s legislative session, where lawmakers addressed Vision Zero, renter protections and Big Brown Bats.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to The Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everybody.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, she represents Ward 3. But joining us now is Will Smith. He's a Member of the Maryland State Senate representing District 20 in Montgomery County. Senator Smith, thank you for joining us.
WILL SMITHGood afternoon. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIWill Smith, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee met virtually this week to consider 15 policing bills since this is not a special session. But many progressive advocates in Maryland as well as a few General Assembly lawmakers, I don't think you were one of them, called for a special session to address such issues like policing and other pressing issues brought on by the pandemic. Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Majority Leader Adrianne Jones have said they will not call a special session. What is your position on this?
SMITHSure, well, they said -- we just completed three days of hearings on 15 bills as you mentioned on police reform issues, over 15 hours of testimony and public comment. And before that I had established two working groups that were to produce recommendations and policy prescriptions so that we can deal with our housing crisis and rental assistance. And then also for our courts and our correctional facilities throughout the state and they produced two reports there. So my position has always been that I want to put our committee in the best position to have recommendations and well-fought out policy prescriptions if we do go into a special session or when we do reconvene. Go ahead.
NNAMDII know Tom Sherwood would have questions on that. But I omitted to mention a few very important issues that we'd like to get to. So hold your thoughts for a second while I go back to Tom Sherwood. And say, Tom, Virginia Governor and First Lady Northam have both tested positive for COVID-19. And apparently they're going to sequester themselves essentially for 10 days. What happened?
SHERWOODWell, short answer is they've apparently gotten the virus, and they've announced it to the world. They say they don't have any significant serious symptoms. But Governor Northam was saying that this a good example of how this virus, although, some people don't want to believe it, is very real, very contagious and that every jurisdiction in the country virtually and every citizen should be more careful. It's good news. But, you know, Governor Northam is a doctor so he kind of knows what he's talking about on some of these issues. But the point being anyone can contact this -- get this virus. And this is a good example to be careful with your own family.
NNAMDIAnd apparently a member of the House in the Virginia Legislature tested positive. Apparently he told people in his church, but he did not tell his House colleagues and they were, I guess, a little upset, right?
SHERWOODYes. That was the legislator Thomas Wright. He's from a little town south of Richmond. He managed to tell his church and, I guess, some of the people in his Republican Party. But he didn't tell House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who was very upset that he was away from the legislature not doing some of the work you'd expect him to do, and he never informed the legislature. And I think that's one of the things like Governor Northam, if you have this virus, if you are involved in public matters you need to both isolate yourself as the governor is doing and you need to contact trace and tell people with whom you've been around. This legislator didn't do that.
NNAMDIOur guest is Will Smith. He is a Member of the Maryland State Senate representing District 20 in Montgomery County. Now back to you Maryland, Tom Sherwood. The Governor of Maryland says he opposes a pre-election vote on the Supreme Court pick, which I guess makes him not go along with a lot of the Republican leaders, who approve of President Trump making that pick before the election. What's the politics here, Tom?
SHERWOODWell, the politics, once again, and I'd like to hear our guest, the state senator on this. The governor is kind of doing both-side-ism, me-too-ism. And he said that the Supreme Court should not be rushed in terms of who's going to be picked to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But also he says, you know, he hasn't been critical of President Trump, who is doing a historically extraordinary effort to -- what's the right word I'm looking for -- To cast doubt on the election we're having. Millions of people are already voting in the November 3rd election, millions more will be. And President Trump recently in the last 24 hours is suggesting that the election is not valid. So I would like to hear the governor speak about that a little bit stronger than his soft words he's spoken so far.
NNAMDIAnd I know that you wanted to kind of follow-up on the question, I was posing to Senator Will Smith about the fact that people were calling for a special session to address these issues. So you can go ahead and add to the question before Senator Smith continues to respond.
SHERWOODOkay. Well, Senator Smith, first of all, thanks for coming. I did watch most of your hearing yesterday. I'll admit I watched a video version of it so I sped through parts of it. But you are -- the District of Columbia moved fairly quickly this summer to impose some new changes on police maneuvers, choke holds and other matters. Virginia called a special session of the legislature to deal both with police reform manners and they'll get to it I hope, the budget worries out of COVID. But Maryland uniquely has decided not to call a special session.
SHERWOODIn Prince George's County, Delegate Julian Ivy has been calling every day for a special session. But the legislature, it appears the Senate President Bill Ferguson and the House Speaker Adrianne Jones -- I'm asking you, should there be a special session, whether there is one or not. Do you think there should be one?
SMITHSure. I appreciate -- thank you for the question. And just following up, you know, I mentioned the steps that my committee has taken to make sure that, you know, we are in a good position whenever we reconvene to handle some of the issues that come under our jurisdiction and I'll just say that obviously the Speaker of House and the Senate President have come out and they have been very clear that there will not be a special session. There is several elements here that I think are worthy of consideration and a public explanation.
SMITHOne is that they've obviously made that difficult decision and the situation in Virginia is kind of a telltale sign there's a logistical issue, which is the public safety or the safety of the legislature there. And, again, I hope that the governor has a speedy recovery. And I read that this morning so I was really sad to see that. But it looks like they're coping with it well and hopefully will recover soon. So hearts and prayers out for that. But there's the logistics, right? We've got 141 delegates, 47 senators. You've got to pack them into a chamber. You've got then committees, the Committee works.
SMITHYou've got to figure how to basically isolate and socially distance from each other and what type of protocol for cleaning and sanitation you're going to have. So that takes -- there's some logistical hurdles there. But then also in Maryland, when we reconvene whenever it is we have to deal with several things right away and that's unique from Virginia. So for instance if we go in let's say tomorrow, we would have to deal with our veto overrides. And there is several significant issues that are -- that the governor vetoed like Kirwan, a fundamental restructuring and historic investment in public education that we would have to deal with right away.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Okay. I think that's a good explanation.
SMITHAnd all of this while we're facing a 3.4 billion dollar (word?) deficit.
SHERWOODI would also point out -- excuse me for interrupting. I would point out that in Virginia, the Virginia Democrats control the House and Senate just like Maryland. But they are disagreeing on the severity of the bills they are passing. So that's interesting. But when you get done, when you get into the legislature in January, you have 15 bills before your committee about police reform, do you anticipate introducing one singular bill an omnibus bill incorporating all that your committee considers or will they be several bills? It's kind of hard to keep track.
SMITHSure. Well first of all, just to wrap up tightly on this one. We're facing a $3.4 billion deficit. So there are lots of things to consider. Also unlike in Virginia, you know, they have a Democratic governor, who will not veto their legislation, works with the legislature. That's the situation here. We have a Republican governor that is intent on vetoing a lot of significant legislation.
SMITHSo going back to the 15 bills that are before the committee that we heard this week, the idea is that they would be heard separately each bill will rise and fall on its own merits. But to start now so that we can saucing out the details, have those tough discussions so that when we get back in January we're not staring a new. We've had those discussions. We've had that public comment and input. We've talked to the academics and the experts and other legislators to get this right. I don't know -- we're still very much in the midst of a pandemic and we don't know what session is going to look like, how long it's going to last.
SMITHAnd the last thing that I want to happen here is that we get to session, something happens, an unforeseen circumstance and we don't get to complete the work that we desperately need to get done now. So again, just putting our committee in the best position possible.
NNAMDIIf Kojo will allow me, one quick question just about the process. You did these hearings on Zoom, of course. I tuned in yesterday just in time to hear one legislator asking another legislator if that were a beer he were holding. And the legislator very quickly pointed out that, "No, no, no. This is apple juice that my wife made for me." Just very very briefly in less than a minute maybe even, what's it like trying to do this massive work we're about to talk about, police reform, in the Zoom setting? What's it been like for you?
SMITHYeah. So I'll be very quick. But we were just laughing about that last night, because the feed went live before (unintelligible) knew it was live and so, yes, you're right, but it was apple juice. I can confirm that. Yes, it's surreal. You can't read the room as well. You can't understand and kind of feed off the body language. You can't have some of those conversations that you'd want to have, but it works and it's going to have to work. I mean, a lot of our work in the future, in the month ahead and frankly ...
NNAMDIWe seem ...
SMITHSocial media platforms or platforms like Zoom and Teams and whatever. (all talking at once) we've made work.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of specifics to these bills that we may not have time to go into. But you received criticism from the ACLU of Maryland, which said that the package of bills you're considering is quote/unquote "insufficient." The ACLU also argues that not enough people directly impacted by the issues had a seat at the table. What would be your response to those concerns?
SMITHWell, I appreciate the criticisms of the ACLU and look forward to working in partnership with them in the weeks and months ahead. But just saying that you got to start somewhere and this was exactly it. It was a starting point. And so yesterday we had over, you know, last week we had over 15 hours of testimony and public comment. We're going to have a lot more. And look forward to working with the ACLU and many other groups in partnership as we develop some of the pieces of legislation ahead. But like I would just say this is just a starting point and we will continue to engage the public and, you know, experts and academics and other legislators as we move forward.
NNAMDIWe're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Will Smith. He is a Member of the Maryland State Senate representing District 20 in Montgomery County. We got a tweet from one listener about the Purple Line, "This is ridiculous my neighborhood has been ripped up and we've been left with only one torn up entrance/exit as they close the other down. Construction markers block pedestrians and force them into the street for a good 20 - 30 feet on the East Highway at a deadly intersection." One of the issues we'll be talking about when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Will Smith. He is a Member of the Maryland State Senate representing District 20 in Montgomery County. Will Smith, you heard the outrage of one of our listeners talking about it's been ridiculous about what's going on with the Purple Line. The contractors on Maryland's Purple Line connect in Montgomery and Prince George's County are packing it up after a judge said they could leave the construction project over delays and cost overruns. Why couldn't this be avoided? And what does it mean for the project?
SMITHSo actually I'm very frustrated as well. I live in Silver Spring so right where the Purple Line goes through. And you're right. Two and a half years in delays, $800 million of overruns. You've got a billion dollars' worth of construction that's left undone. And so what's going to have to happen is the state is going to have to take it over for a temporary period of time while they figure this out, and it's extremely frustrating. And, you know, I know it's going to have a devastating impact on our local businesses, but also the quality of life for our residents.
SMITHSo what's going to have to happen is the state is going to play an oversized role in the short-term. And then we're going to have to figure it out and hopefully bring folks back to the table so that we can, you know, get back on track so to speak. But, you know, there are a few more weeks before I think that they're planning to walk off officially, you know, in the next three weeks or so. So we got a few more weeks to potentially work this out. We'll see what happens. But I agree.
NNAMDIWell, does this call into the question the whole issue of PPPs, public private partnerships that Governor Hogan has been pushing for? He also wants to use it on the widening of I-270 and 495. How would like to see that state handle these major projects going forward?
SMITHNo. I think it does. And it's something that frankly I'm wholly opposed to the 495 expansion. And it shows that the state really does need to play a central role (unintelligible) Purple Line project and then also in Baltimore City, the Red Line. These are state investments that need to be, you know, run and overseen by our state government so that there's accountability and strategic investment.
SMITHSo this is what happens when you have a P3. They sound great in theory. And we've seen what the end result can be. So, you know, this isn't the end of the book yet. We're still in the process of a few more weeks. We'll see what happens. But I think you make a fair point with the role that the state should have played here in the Purple Line and certainly with the Red Line.
SHERWOODThe politics of this is that Governor Hogan, who opposed it when he ran -- the Purple Line when he ran for office and then gutted state funding for it when he got into office. As best I can tell and I just checked online, Governor Hogan hasn't said a word about the Purple Line collapsing at this point. His officials have, but he has not. So I'd like to you address that maybe the Governor Hogan's silence. But also, I want to go back briefly to the police reform because the police officers bill of rights, which affects lots of police officers and state officials. There's some proposals to actually cancel that, to just repeal it completely or just to fix it. Can you tell us if you're looking towards fixing it or repealing it? But first Governor Hogan's silence.
SMITHSure. Well, Governor Hogan's silence is deeply troubling especially amid some of the other turmoil that's kind of engulfed his administration as of late, but in the terms of the fiscal management of his house. So this is deeply troubling and especially when he played such an outside role in opposing the Purple Line initially and then, you know, refusing to really invest those state dollars in a project that's going to be -- it's going to help the economic -- the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, Prince George's County, Montgomery Country are really the economic engine for the state. And this would have infused more vitality if you will and ability in terms of tax revenue that would be generated. So I thought it was really short sided and the fact that's he's being quiet is not unsurprising, but it is also very disappointing. With respect to ...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) The bill of rights for police officers.
SHERWOODExcuse me for interrupting.
SMITHYes, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights has been in Maryland's statute since 1974. It's the first of the nation on discipline and due process piece of the statute. And so a lot of the conversation is centered on whether were going to work within the statute or repeal it.
SMITHSo the conversation for me is not whether we repeal it or work within, but what do replace it with. So, you know, for me personally, I would love to see a repeal and then a replacing with a framework that raises the bar for discipline and due process throughout the State of Maryland and preempts local collective bargaining agreements and their ability to collectively bargain for things that run afoul of the public interest like, you know, disciplinary records and the disciplinary procedures that are implemented.
SMITHSo for instance in Montgomery County, the collective bargaining agreement allows for the review board of officer misconduct to be comprised of, you know, someone from the chief's selection, someone from the officer's selection and someone from -- mutually agreed upon. That is essentially a veto for that officer so that you don't really get an independent review of that conduct. These are the things that happen in the most progressive county in the state. So you can see where I'm going here, why we need a uniform standard and we need preemption. So, you know, working with our partners or developing what that framework would look like and I think that's where we need to go.
SMITHI'll just say very quickly that in Maryland we have 148 law enforcement agencies. And if you repeal the LEOBR the default position goes back to whatever they have on the books. So that's why it's important to have a uniform standard of discipline and due process that does not benefit officers, you know, more so than any other government employee. But you have to be keenly focused on what comes next. And I think that's where the conversation is now and I'm happy to see that. So I'm glad we got started early.
NNAMDIWhere did your committee come down on the issue of no-knock warrants, which has become very prominent since the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky? I know that your panel was considering a bill to eliminate them, no-knock warrants, where do you come down? When did it come down?
SMITHWe're actually very disappointed with the verdict there and happy to see that the protests have been, you know, peaceful and largely peaceful. And so I think it goes to some of the action we need to take in Maryland. And so for me personally, I think they should be eliminated. And because there aren't situations in which I can see that, you know, -- there are obviously so many exceptions already. If you eliminate them as a whole, there are exceptions, you know, like exigency exceptions that can be made for a no-knock warrant. But it's something that in Maryland we had a very vigorous discussion about it yesterday. And for me, I'm looking forward to eliminating that prospect in the future.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Sylvia who says, "I just heard in your introduction today that people can vote in Montgomery County online. I have an eligible voter stranded overseas and working on getting his ballot to him. It would be a lot easier if he could vote online even if someone has to transfer the information to a ballot. Is that a possibility?" We said in our billboard that if you voted online in Maryland then the machine wouldn't be able to scan your ballot that an election worker would have to do that himself or herself.
SMITHSo that's interesting. To my knowledge, you can request your mail-in ballot online. But voting online is not something I'm familiar with in Maryland. But you can certainly request your mail-in ballot. You can print it out. And then, you know, put it in the mail. There are a couple of key deadlines that everyone needs to be aware of. Obviously October 13th is the last day you can register to vote. You've got to put your mail-in ballot -- it's got to be received by October 20th. So that's another one. And then obviously we've got Election Day on November 3rd. So a couple of key dates, but in terms of online voting, not familiar with that, but I am familiar that you can print out your mail-in ballot online. So you can receive that online.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, we only have about a minute left.
SMITHVery quickly you said that in the hearing yesterday that there's still work to do. When will the public actually see another chance to weigh in and when will we see draft bills that will be going toward to the legislature. How quickly will we see the draft bills you guys approve?
NNAMDIGot about 40 seconds left, Senator Smith.
SMITHSure. So one thing is that we had actual draft bills of legislation that we are working on. Those are available on the MGA website. So now it's to the sponsors of those bills. So Senator Carter who's been working on these issues for, you know, decades and then Senator Sydnore from Baltimore County, they will go onto the communities, stakeholders, get feedback. Refine the legislation. And we hope to have it available a few weeks before we get back into session.
NNAMDIOkay. And that's about all the time we have. Will Smith is a Member of the Maryland State Senate representing District 20 in Montgomery County. Senator Smith, thank you for joining us.
SMITHThank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIUp next is Mary Cheh. She's a D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 3. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Mary Cheh. She's a D.C. councilmember, representing Ward 3. She's also a constitutional law professor at the George Washington University School of Law. Councilmember Cheh, thank you for joining us.
MARY CHEHMy pleasure, and hello to you both.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, before we get to the District of Columbia, either witnesses are not needed for absentee voting in Virginia, or they are. People have been getting instructions that apparently say both things.
SHERWOODWell, hell if I know. (laugh) How do you figure it out? You know, in Virginia, there are several media people reporting, including Julie Carey of NBC4, is that some people were getting Fairfax County duplicate ballots, and then some differing instructions, whether you needed a witness, how you signed it, what you do or what you don't do. You know, we've had issues in the District of Columbia on balloting, and everyone's being mailed a ballot now for the November 3rd election. And, of course, Maryland's had its troubles.
SHERWOODI think, uniquely, this is a country that's -- which I think President Trump is trying to exploit -- there are so many jurisdictions trying to do mail balloting and get people to vote, because of the virus by absentee in some form. It's a horrible mess. And, unfortunately, I don't see anything getting better before and after November 3rd.
NNAMDII hear you. Councilmember Cheh, before we get into D.C. politics, I'd like to ask you about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week at the age of 87. You had the honor of being sworn into office by Justice Ginsburg. I'm assuming you requested that. Why, and what was that experience like?
CHEHWell, you know, I knew Justice Ginsburg professionally. We had served on some committees together, and she had been a law professor. And I also found out, at some point, that she had, believe it or not, actually read some of my law review articles, and even sent me a note about one. And so, we had kind of a modest connection, but I thought a good one. And I was always in awe of her and her career.
CHEHAnd so, you know this, Kojo and Tom, that when you're sworn in, the mayor or the members of the council at that ceremony, you have to go out and find your own judge. And so, I thought I'd drop her a note, and I asked her if she's be willing to swear me in and she said, of course. So, that's how that happened.
CHEHThe one feature of it that is amusing, in retrospect -- it was amusing at the time -- but as the two of you also know, the judge is supposed to walk up with you and administer the oath, and then that's it. And then the person actually speaks, and the judge goes away. Well, we were on the end, and we were called up. And, on the way up, you know, she was kind of frail and very, very soft-spoken. She said to me, she said, Mary, would you mind if I say a few words about you? (laugh) I said, Justice Ginsburg, you can do whatever you want.
CHEHAnd neither before nor after have judges actually, you know, spoken beyond administering the oath, but, I mean, it was so thrilling, you know, it's hard to describe it. And then for her to embellish it this way by saying nice things about me, I mean, I was over-the-top happy. So, yes, she did swear me in.
SHERWOODI looked for video for that.
NNAMDIAnd did you find any?
SHERWOODI could not find the video, but I will -- we should note that it was not the first time a Supreme Court justice has sworn someone in. In 1975, Justice Thurgood Marshall swore in the chairman of the council, Sterling Tucker, as the first chairman of the elected city government. Of course, Thurgood Marshall made a return appearance in 1979 when he swore in, then, the first-term Marion Barry. So, Mary Cheh, I guess, is in good company.
NNAMDIWell, there's those who should know that Justice Ginsburg was a specific trailblazer for the likes of Mary Cheh, because Justice Ginsburg was the first Harvard Law School -- in the first Harvard Law School class to admit women. And Mary Cheh also studied law at Harvard, so there's another connection there.
NNAMDIBut, moving on to politics, this week the D.C. council passed Vision Zero, legislation aimed at eliminating traffic deaths. You're chair of the Transportation and Environment Committee. D.C. adopted its first Vision Zero plan in 2015, but somehow traffic deaths are actually up. What's different in this legislation?
CHEHWell, you know, we try to keep identifying things that might improve the situation. And so, it's an omnibus bill. There are a lot of pieces to it, and it ranges from, you know, requiring sidewalks to be on both sides of the street if there's major construction. It limits right on red, because we found that there are some issues about turning right on red, where a driver may not see a cyclist or a pedestrian.
CHEHAnd, you know, there's that, you know, interval there that's supposed to let the pedestrian or the cyclist get a head start, so that they can be seen. But, even still, there've been issues with right on red. There's a piece of this that codifies something that I started years ago. I asked DDOT to give me statistics on the worst intersections in terms of injuries or deaths or collisions. And I would have site visits and go out there. And, you know, we'd invite the ANC people and the community and whatever and say, well, what are the problems out here. What can we do short term, long term?
CHEHAnd then DDOT ran with that for a while and was doing it on its own. And then this bill codifies that, you know, to try to identify, where are the problems? And we've increased -- and I know, Tom, you'll love this -- we've provided for increasing automatic traffic enforcement via red light cameras and speeding cameras and stop sign cameras and cameras to check and see whether people are violating those special dedicated lanes for buses.
CHEHThere's a whole lot in here, but the idea is that it's a package trying to identify more things that we can do, because, you're right, Kojo, the effort has not only, to this point, been not successful, but it has sort of backtracked in terms of the number of deaths and injuries that we have on our roads. So, you know, we're trying to figure out what to do, and this is a bunch of things that were thought to be possibly improvements.
NNAMDIBefore I get to Tom Sherwood, we have a listener, a caller who is particularly concerned about this. Pat, in D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATThank you so much, Kojo. Hello, Councilmember.
PATI appreciate the words you just said about what you're doing for Vision Zero, but I remain concerned. You've been spending a lot of time cracking down on scooter use in the District. And we're about to -- we've already passed the number of pedestrian deaths due to drivers compared to 2019. Why are you so concerned about scooter use in the District and not protecting pedestrians from dangerous drivers in the city? Thank you.
CHEHWell, the premise of the question I don't think is correct. It makes it seem -- okay, you're myopically focusing on scooters and coming down on scooters. No. You have to take a holistic approach. If I could wave a wand and have what I would most desire, it would be that pedestrians would have the sidewalk, cyclists and scooters would have their protected path, and cars would have theirs. We have to separate the users.
CHEHBut the effort now has to be, you know, aiming toward that. But to do things in the meantime, you know, to make everybody safe, it's designed to make everyone safer. And with respect to scooters, I did have a hearing recently and I am moving a bill, but the issue is not a singular issue. It's all of a piece.
SHERWOODWell, you know, that caller kind of stole my question. I was going to ask what some people are calling the scooter lady, but I will move on. You know, Councilmember, we're going to solve the car-bike battles right after we solve global warming. But the mayor has done something recently, which a lot of drivers in the city don't seem to know about. And that's that the miles per hour in the city has been reduced from 25 to 20, except where it's noted otherwise.
SHERWOODHow much of this car war stuff do you think the council should be doing? Obviously, we're a crowded area. Charles Allen, the Ward 6 councilmember whose bill this was, says this is just the start to get control of the streets so that we don't have the kind of 1950s mindset that everything is for a car.
CHEHWell, as I said before, you know, we have to provide for each user. Each is entitled to have access, you know, to our public spaces, but we have to protect all of them. Because this intermixing without protections for each group -- and, you know, the cyclist, the scooter riders, the pedestrians, they're the vulnerable users. And so, you know, we have to keep them uppermost in our mind.
CHEHAnd, in that regard, the lowering of the speed limit has that in view because there's data that shows that, you know, for each additional mile or five miles of speed, if there is a collision between, let's say, a car and a pedestrian or a car and a cyclist, it enhances -- which is probably not the word -- it aggravates the injuries and perhaps leading to death. So, the thought behind that was, in a dense urban area with multiple users, that to bring the speed down on some of the smaller roads -- not obviously highways or other major roads -- that that would potentially be among the things that we're doing to minimize injury and death.
SHERWOODOkay. Let me just, very quickly, you mentioned my name when you said this is will be more automated traffic...
CHEH(laugh) Yes, I did.
SHERWOOD...enforcement. And I wanted to say, people should know that I actually support all of the more automated traffic enforcement. In this city, there's plenty of clear warnings -- or should be, if there's not -- on the streets where these cameras are. So, if you're speeding, you're going to pass by warning signs before you get a ticket.
NNAMDICouncilmember Cheh, Mayor Bowser said she wants to give all D.C. students the option to return to in-person school by November 9th. And she said she wants to bring small groups of students back into schools by the end of September. We got a tweet from one listener who says: As a DCPS school nurse, bringing children back into the school during cold and flu season and a pandemic is terrifying. This is irresponsible and negligent of Mayor Bowser. Children, while not as strongly, are affected by the virus, and certainly can transmit it to adults.
NNAMDIYou signed onto a letter with three other council members asking the mayor to provide details on specific steps the District will take to reopen schools. What details do you want the government and DCPS to provide before students return to school?
CHEHWell, you know, there has to be safety, and the health of the students and the staff, everyone involved, to be assured, and that all of the people who may be involved, whether it be nurses or teachers or the students themselves, the parents, we have to have confidence that what we're doing makes sense. And even though, you know, the mayor -- and, by the way, I think the mayor has been very cautious and careful in general with respect to dealing with the health crisis. So, I would expect her to continue that, you know, in terms of schools.
CHEHBut the discussion about returning to schools without giving the council -- which is predicate of that letter to her -- but also the residents, more importantly, the basic information about what's being done. For example, I always have these school readiness tours that I conduct before the start of school. I go to the schools. I, you know, look at all of the facilities, talk to the people involved. This time I did it virtually.
CHEHAnd I have two things that I focused on with the principal and the other, you know, school officials. One was, are we ready for virtual learning? You know, do we have the hardware, the software, etcetera? But the second was, to the extent that we do return to school, maybe even as early as November, do you think your facility is ready? And I found out some things that were quite disturbing.
CHEHFor example, there was one school which has all of its windows nailed shut, okay. You can't even open the window. And then there were concerns about the HVAC systems, which may not have been operating so well, anyway, and now we're going to put students in school without having assurances about proper ventilation?
CHEHAnd then, of course, there are the physical changes. You know, would we have Plexiglas set up between rows of students? I had asked on one of the mayor council calls, why couldn't we plan for more outdoor education? You know, and I know the weather will change, but we could have tents and heaters and things of that nature, and it would be in the open air.
CHEHI was told, well, the principals have to come up with a plan, each of them for their school, and it has to be within the building. If they want to do something outdoors, that's an add-on and, you know, we'll see about that. But there's no clear answer to whether we'd actually be ready to have students -- and we're talking about perhaps six weeks from now.
CHEHAnd, I'm telling you, I hear from parents, I hear from constituents, and I hear from teachers. There's great anxiety there, great anxiety. And so that letter was part of an effort to prompt the executive to say, maybe they have the most wonderful plans in the world. I don't know. That's the problem. We don't know. And so, we need to know. We need to have the details. They need to be publicly available and understood, otherwise, people will lack confidence in sending their children back to school.
SHERWOODWell, Madame Councilmember, I don't think I heard you -- maybe you did and I was distracted for a moment - I don't think I heard you say Chancellor Ferebee's name. Did you not miss it? I mean, he's the head of the school system. Isn't he letting the council members and various organizations know what they're doing? Where is he?
CHEHWell, you know, we copied him, and so, of course, you know, he's a key player here, of course. And so, yes, we want...
SHERWOODYou have a telephone. You could call him.
CHEHYeah, we want answers and we want the plan. You know, when I did my virtual readiness tours and I did speak to school officials, they said, well, you know, we have heard from the Department of General Services that they'll be coming by to assess things. And, even at that point, you know, which was earlier, it was a promise that they're coming by.
CHEHHere's the thing. If you need a major overhaul of your HVAC system, you can't do that in a day. That's going to take, you know, some time. If you need to make physical changes at the schools, you know, what are we asking the Department of General Services to do?
CHEHI'm just -- I'm feeling quite insecure and perhaps just reflecting, you know, parents' and teachers' approach to this. But, you know, because my children are grown and, you know, I don't have to directly face the choice, but I'm just worried for those who do, that they don't have enough to give them confidence that everything will be in order.
SHERWOODI think you're right that the mayor and the whole administration is under tremendous pressure to get so many things right about the virus. I mean, they're doing some really good work around the city. But it just seems to me that Chancellor Lewis Ferebee should be a little more public about what's happening. If the mayor wants to open schools in any way, he should be out publicly letting us know what's happening.
NNAMDIHere is Maura in Washington, D.C. Maura, you're on the air. God ahead, please.
MAURAI just would like to see everybody have more of a can-do attitude about this. I mean, everybody, the council, the mayor, Ferebee, teachers, parents. We have to get kids back to school, and we have to do it sooner rather than later. So, let's stop the nitpicking and just figure it out and do it. Other cities are doing it. We can do it, too.
NNAMDIMaura, I suspect that's easier said than done, but allow me to have Mary Cheh respond.
CHEHWell, Maura, I agree with you. I would love to have our children back in school. We know that, especially kids who are struggling in any event, are going to be left further behind. But the point about this is, and forgive me, but I don't regard it as nitpicking. All I'm saying is that in order to get the kids back in school, we need to have a plan, a good plan, one that we can have confidence in, and it needs to be communicated to parents and teachers so that they understand how it's going to work. That's all I'm saying.
NNAMDIMaura, thank you very much for your call. Councilmember Cheh, former City Administrator Rashad Young was fined $2,500 for his involvement in brokering a deal with Howard University while in talks with the university for a job. What do you think about all of this decision, which comes from the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability?
NNAMDII guess the point was made that the former city administrator, according to the order, inadvertently committed a technical violation when he rejected amendments to increase the tax rate on July 14th, hours after the university president spoke to him about creating a job for him. It seems pretty messy, doesn't it?
CHEHWell, it's actually quite messy. And, you know, you talk about a technical violation, I wouldn't quite, you know, treat it that way. It's true that there was no quid pro quo, and that would be the worst-case scenario: Give me a job, I'll help you out with your tax situation. So, that wasn't the case. But top administrators, including the city administrator, should know -- and I think Councilmember Silverman said this at the time, she said, this is Ethics 101. You do not engage with an entity for a job at the same time you're involved in arrangement whereby the city is going to do something for that entity.
CHEHI think anybody should know that. So, when you say a technical violation, that's not a technical violation. And even though there was no quid pro quo, apparently, it's an obvious, straight-up violation and it doesn't, you know, inspire us to think that, you know, people are aware of what their ethical violations are.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about the $2,500 fine?
CHEHI think there had to be something, because, after all, it was a violation and it's actually quite stark a kind of a violation. And folks like the city administrator, being at the top of the executive service, if he doesn't know what would be a violation, then we better get some better training, because it seems almost self-evident.
SHERWOODLet me just add to this. The action that he took though is interesting. At the same time he was being offered the job, the Howard University asked the city to grant it something like 80 million-plus dollars more in tax breaks. And the city administrator turned that request down, thinking that was the right thing to do, when, of course, the right thing to do was that since he was involved in a job negotiation, he should not have said one way or the other, saying yes to those tax breaks or no. And I think that's where the fine came, and it's called kind of technical.
SHERWOODBecause if he had given Howard University an $80 million additional tax break, I think this would've been terrible. Can we move on to another quick question?
SHERWOODAll right. The Capitol Hill Church has sued the city because it says in the COVID crisis here in town, the city is allowing public protests, hundreds, thousands of people to gather in unsafe conditions, but their church on Capitol Hill, I think it's a Baptist church, they cannot have their parishioners come to worship. What're your thoughts about that, as a lawyer? Why can't people go into their church, if they want to? Maybe they should call it a protest and just go into the church?
CHEHThat’s an interesting idea. You're thinking like a lawyer, find a different way. No. You know, the issue about how far mayors are heads of executive departments, whether they be governors or what have you, can go in terms of emergency orders for the pandemic has been litigated. There's been one court, one federal district court that said, you know, some of these closures are not reasonable and, therefore, they shouldn't be applied. But I think most courts that have taken up these things about mayoral power or governor's power, have upheld them, because the emergency is of a nature that it would justify, give a compelling justification for the things that are put in place.
CHEHHaving said that, the issue that you raise is one of treating fairly different groups, and, you know, the idea about the protests, the approach the executive has taken is to say, look, we want to encourage people to socially distance. We want to encourage people to wear masks and, you know, take these other steps. But what we don't want to do is we don't want to have confrontation and potentially, you know, violence and that sort of thing, to make sure that they're wearing their masks and keeping socially distant.
CHEHAnd so, what we're going to do is we're going to try to do the best we can to encourage them to behave in a sensible, appropriate way. And I think, for example, the civil rights march was pretty successful, in that regard.
NNAMDII think so. I think so. I do have to interrupt though because we're running out of time very quickly, and I need to know this. The D.C. Council signaled its initial approval of making the big brown bat D.C.'s official mammal. Do you have any reservations about these small creatures representing the District?
CHEHYeah, I'm losing your -- I'm losing your -- I can't hear you. I heard something about the big brown bat, which is something...
NNAMDIDo you agree with it being D.C.'s official mammal?
CHEHYes. This was something that it bubbled up from these Girl Scout troops and Charles Allen wanted to...
NNAMDIOkay. That's it.
CHEH...wanted to, you know, satisfy them. But my question was what about the little brown bat and did the big brown bat...
NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time -- I'm afraid we're out of time, Mary Cheh.
CHEHWell, wait, I want to...
NNAMDINo, we don't have enough time. Today's show was produced by...
CHEH... (unintelligible) what happened.
NNAMDIComing up Monday, a recent federal court ruling further threatens temporary protected status for immigrants. We'll talk about that and video game designer Andrew Phelps joins Kojo for Kids to explain the art and science behind the games kids love. That all starts at noon, on Monday. Until then you, Tom Sherwood, have a wonderful weekend. Everyone else, you do the same. Stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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