On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The Arlington County Board elected a new chair last month: Matt de Ferranti. He joins us to talk about the vaccine rollout and the county’s economic recovery. Plus, we’ll get his thoughts on Amazon’s HQ2 design.
Then, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson talks about how the District is working to eliminate geographic and racial disparities in vaccine distribution. And he tells us about overriding Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of two bills, including one which will break up the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
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 Sherwood is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everyone.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Phil Mendelson. He is the Chairman of the D.C. Council, but joining us now is Matt de Ferranti who is the Chair of the Arlington County Board. Matt de Ferranti, thank you very much for joining us.
MATT DE FERRANTIThank you for having me, Kojo and Tom. I'm thrilled to be with you.
NNAMDIBefore we get directly to Virginia, Tom Sherwood, the National Zoo has announced that its longtime partner of 63 years or more, FONZ or Friends of the National Zoo will no longer be in existence. The zoo says it simply can't keep afford to keep FONZ around anymore. For years, I thought FONZ was an organization completely independent of the zoo that they were just people who kind of put up their own money, but this was a function that was in fact financed by the National Zoo.
SHERWOODWell, yes, partially financed by the zoo. It's 18,000 current members of the FONZ and it has been identified with the Smithsonian Zoo for as you said 63 years. But, you know, like every other institution in town the zoo is having financial troubles. They've had to close for most of the last year. FONZ itself had a staff of almost 30 people and they've had to get rid of half of them. There are no events there to raise money, the concessions, the volunteers nothing to do. It's a little uncertain exactly why they are breaking apart after 63 years. I read the Post story and I read some Twitter about it, but I'm not exactly clear why they can't keep cooperating with each other and they're breaking apart to two separate organizations, but this is a developing story. So I'm sure we'll hear more about it.
NNAMDIOn to Virginia. Tom Sherwood, reporting this morning in The Washington Post that the Virginia House of Delegates has voted to abolish the death penalty. And, of course, Virginia has been carrying the death penalty for longer than any other state in the nation. But it would still be the first state in the Southern United States that would abolish the death penalty. But there's a slight difference between the House and the Senate versions of this that would have to be resolved, correct?
SHERWOODYes. Virginia has been the posterchild for the death penalty for all these years. And increasing -- this vote today by the House 57 to 41 was a good indication that if you thought Virginia was trending blue -- light blue, it definitely is much more dark blue.
SHERWOODThe difference in the legislation between the House and Senate will be worked out between the two bodies. But the House wants to retain a mandatory sentence of life without parole. That is not in the Senate version. Governor Ralph Northam supports ending the death penalty particularly, because it's racially discriminatory. But we don't know exactly how they're going to work out. It is a significant difference whether you'll send someone to prison with life without parole or allow someone whose committed terrible crimes a chance at parole. So that will be worked out. But the main news is just as you said. The Virginia General Assembly is getting rid of the death penalty.
NNAMDIChair de Ferranti, what do you think about this development? What does it say about Virginia today?
FERRANTIWell, I support ending the death penalty. It's a decision that our delegates and senators will primarily take, but it is part of my long held beliefs. And I think that it is an indication that Virginia is evolved. It's a different state. And is committed to some of the forward thinking ideals that I share and I've been all about.
SHERWOODWell, do you support the life without parole provision in the House or do you agree more with the Senate?
FERRANTII haven't looked at the precise legislation. But I at least initially I lean towards the life without parole in this in these cases. But I haven't looked at the actual -- all the details of both pieces of legislation. You can perhaps imagine that there's plenty of county business that's keeping me busy too.
NNAMDIWell, on to Arlington County. Chair de Ferranti, congratulations on being elected chair by your colleagues. You were elected to the board in 2019. And this is your first time as chair. So congratulations.
FERRANTIThank you. It has been a -- you can imagine, started January 2nd. It has been a very busy term so far, but I'm honored to have the support of colleagues and it is such a critical time to serve Arlington and try to serve it as well as possible.
NNAMDIThat ends the pleasantries. If you'd like to denounce the chair, the number to call is 800-433-8850. In your opening remarks when you were elected in January you said, "My top priorities for the fiscal year 2022 budget will be providing essential services to those most in need." Well, one of the focuses will be on so called missing middle housing speaking of people. And you said that county risks becoming as unaffordable as San Francisco if action is not taken. And the median income for white households in Arlington County is more than twice that for Black households. How do you intend to focus on policy changes that will directly address this disparity and how it impacts housing?
FERRANTIWell, we've had -- we've been working on missing middle housing types, which is the focus of this study for over a year now, but we have much more to go. There have been changes to land use and zoning policies in other localities that have made it easier for folks to move up the income scale. And if we think of -- there's a famous recent book "Color of Law" in the history of homeownership housing policy. It has largely benefited white homeowners and not helped nearly the percentage of Black homeowners and Black families that we need.
FERRANTISo what missing middle would do is help create more of a ladder so that people as they build an income and as they build their career they can own. And it might not be a single family home. It depends on the circumstances for any one, any walk of life. But the possibility of moving up that income scale is what missing middle housing types can help us do.
SHERWOODI looked and saw a report in realtor.com that prices of homes and median price of a home in Arlington County has gone up 20 percent over the last two year, about 10 percent a year. And I want to tell you, I was out in Northern Virginia in Arlington on Washington Boulevard this week. I don't want to shock my friends here in the District. I went to the Casual Outdoor Adventure Store on the boulevard. It's been there for 70 years. It's a one story building. I stopped by Liberty Tavern nearby for a little beverage. And I saw Rocklands Barbeque and I bought some barbeque there. All of these were small buildings.
SHERWOODBut as I drove out Washington Boulevard, there is nothing but high-rises and high-rises under development. Is there any way you're going to really be able -- and it was places pretty expensive when I looked online. Is there any way you're going to preserve middle housing at least if it's going to be in condos or high-rise buildings? They all looked expensive to me.
FERRANTISure. So the types of housing that you may have seen that we're focusing on there's duplexes, triplexes. Arlington had a 25 year span where we did not allow row houses, which we can say that that was really unfortunately an effort to prevent the growth that we need. And really there was a discriminatory impact of that policy, but now we also have to preserve the garden style apartments that you may have passed by when you came to -- or drove by when you came to Washington Boulevard and Casual Adventure.
FERRANTISo there's duplexes, triplexes and then there's those small units of 8 to 12. That's a significant component of our missing middle housing study. And that's the type of home that some of them are getting a little older and we need to invest to fix up those homes, but keep them at a market rate affordable amount, which is less than median income.
FERRANTIKojo, you mentioned the high -- the disparity in income and there's certainly -- there are some condos that are certainly expensive in Arlington. But we're focused on a type of housing that really isn't most often condos. But instead the midsize units and zoning policies that can help those continue.
NNAMDIAmazon revealed its design for HQ2 in Crystal City or should I say National Landing.
SHERWOODIn Crystal City.
NNAMDIAnd since we're talking about housing, two people on the line have questions about that. I'll start with Richard in South Arlington, Virginia. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDHi, Matt. Congratulations on becoming chair. And I was wondering what sort of plans the county has to help with affordable housing that is aimed particularly at renters, because I know a lot of renters are really worried about being priced out of the county.
FERRANTISure. I think it's a really important question. And actually buried in the past month there was some news that probably didn't get a ton of attention regarding an investment Amazon is actually going to make in affordable rental housing in Crystal City in the Crystal House set of buildings. And they're actually going to put over the next five years through the Washington Housing Conservancy $381 million into keeping units affordable as we do -- we are concerned.
FERRANTIWe are very pleased with the investment and the office growth that will help with the counties investments and budget. But that is part of the work that we're doing. And we're thrilled. This was a voluntary step that Amazon took. And it will be essentially keeping rental units at 80 percent or lower. So that's part of our work.
FERRANTIThere's also a lot of work that we're continuing to do through an affordable housing master plan where we're investing. And we have actually significant -- we have a few pieces of land that we will do RPFs for to also increase the amount of affordable rental units, which we are very concerned about and is a big priority. Thanks for your question, Richard.
NNAMDIMr. Chair, when we come back, we need to talk about the vaccine roll out because one anonymous listener emails, "Can you ask why distribution of COVID vaccines for Arlington lags behind Virginia, Fairfax County and Alexandria? If you look at the Virginia Department of Health dashboard, residents have received vaccines at least one dose at a rate of 9400 per 100,000 population statewide with similar rates in Fairfax and Alexandria. But in Arlington that rate is about 7000 per 100,000." We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Matt de Ferranti who is the Chair of the Arlington County Board. And before we went to that break I was getting ready to talk about COVID vaccines. But quickly before that, Tom Sherwood wants to talk about Amazon revealing its new design for HQ2. Tom.
SHERWOODYes. Mr. Chairman, you called it quote "interesting" unquote. A lot of people have something else about it. They said it looks a soft serve Dairy Queen style ice cream cone. Others say it looks like the poop emoji on social media. Other people say it looks great. It's going to be open to the public maybe. People will be able to walk up it. What is your thought about that radically different building in the county? It basically has boxes everywhere.
FERRANTIWell, I would add -- I would describe it as innovative and interesting. You're right. There's been a lot buildings historically. There have been buildings that we're rebuilding and that were evolving. I'm thrilled with National Landing as its changing and growing. But historically we had a lot of government federal style office buildings. And so this building is a significant departure. I actually like the way it looks.
FERRANTIPart of why I try to be a bit circumspect in describing the building is that we have a pretty lengthy process of public engagement that will occur this year on that building and the entire site plan. So I didn't -- I don't want to preempt that process. I want to let that process play out, but if you look at the renderings, we certainly could use some innovative different looking architecture in the area. And there's, of course, a view from across the pond there on George Washington Parkway that is pretty striking. So I think it has potential. But we got to get to process.
NNAMDIYou heard the listener email about Arlington lagging behind the State of Virginia and Alexandria and Fairfax with its vaccine roll out. What's the problem?
FERRANTIWell, there's a couple of reasons why we think that we're actually much closer to that per 100,000 number. First there's some data that we need to gain from our hospital, Virginia Hospital Center that we're not sure that all of the data has been inputted, but we're working to get it inputted. The Virginia Department of Health is helping on that. That's one component that we think the data doesn't quite reflect all that we've done.
FERRANTISecond is that we're -- Arlington has -- all localities have a lot of federal employees. We have a pretty high number. And so there's some data there. But I will say that on Tuesday we had a work session and this is a metric that we watch closely. And I've had conversation with our county leadership and staff on this one. We are on par with one of our neighbors in Prince William. We like Fairfax and Alexandria, but you can imagine I want to be first on per person doses in arms, because it is a burning critical priority.
NNAMDIWell, Beth from Arlington called, but couldn't stay on the line. She says, "Has the board prioritized the COVID vaccine for the hardest hit communities?" Chair de Ferranti, how are vaccines being distributed throughout the county? And what kinds of challenges are you seeing?
FERRANTIWell, we're focusing on a couple of groups that are consistent with -- governor have gave us some guidance. One is over 75. And the guidance that the governor said is half of your doses need to focus on those. Sixty-five and above it was direction not -- so the 75 is a component of that. And we know that most fatalities are 75 and above. And our other group has been essential workers in a few categories, our firefighters, police, our homeless shelter workers. So that second group is also important.
FERRANTIIt's a challenge because there's greatest need to prevent additional loss of live and then there's also greatest need where you see the greatest number of cases, which honestly has been amongst our Latino population. And we have been driving testing resources and will be driving vaccine doses as we have more supply to help our communities, who've seen the greatest incidents of cases. There's a difference between cases and fatalities. So we're thinking deeply about this through an equity lens and we've got more to do.
SHERWOODLet me ask you about Arlington schools. You have about 28,000 students, 2200 teachers. Governor Northam just this morning announced he had sent a letter to all the school systems in the state saying that he wants the schools to reopen by March 15th. Alexandria, Loudoun County, Fairfax County has said that they will be meeting this. They said this before the governor's statement. But Superintendent Francisco Duran in Arlington said he wasn't quite ready to make that commitment.
SHERWOODWhen can parents in the county expect that the schools will be reopened again? Let me just point out the CDC this morning in Atlanta declined to say whether schools should open before all the teachers are vaccinated. They said they'll have guidance coming out on that, but that's another big issue. Should all the teachers be vaccinated first?
FERRANTISure. Well, let me start with that second question. We have been working to vaccinate teachers and our Arlington Public School staff as well as childcare workers. So a significant chunk of our Arlington Public School staff have been vaccinated once with the first dose. But we need to keep working through that list. So that's a component of what we are doing. I guess big picture on the governor's order or the governor's press conference today I think those with primary authority are our school board for this, but we stay in close touch.
FERRANTII was in touch with the school board chair yesterday. And I think that Superintendent Duran wants to wait until -- he had wanted to wait this week and into the coming weeks until we can get further along on the vaccinations. But also until -- based on the metrics that the school board uses we're close. I think that March 15th is a reasonable deadline based on what I've seen of Governor Northam's work. But I should reemphasize we're partners on the county board. The actual authority for making that decision is in significant part with the school board.
NNAMDIHere is Fitsum in Arlington, Virginia. Fitsum, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FITSUMThank you. Thank you, the chair for allowing to me to ask this question. I'm calling about a little known Arlington County code called 14-216. It's a traffic violation, which also is a misdemeanor carrying some max of 10 days in jail. This law or this code is affecting a lot of people's lives like Uber drivers, Lyft drivers and other who are living -- whose livelihood is driving. And neighboring counties Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria and Prince William they also have the same regulation, but it doesn't carry jail time. So this code is a misdemeanor in Virginia and it's affecting a lot of people's lives.
NNAMDIFitsum, what's the nature of the violation you're talking about?
FITSUMFail to pay full time and attention. It's a simple traffic violation on its face, but has a lot of consequences. So is the chair going to look into it or is the county planning to amend it because it's disparately affecting the people of color and immigrants or others who their livelihood is their driving.
NNAMDIOkay. Chair de Ferranti, have you given this any thought?
FERRANTIThis is actually one that I have not heard before. I'm happy to look into it. And it's not one that has come up. I certainly will talk to our county manager and acting police chief about it. But I don't have much background so I can't go further. Certainly we are committed to equity and do not want disparate impact in any of our practices or policies.
NNAMDIAnd we only have about a minute left. Felicity emails, "Two new redevelopment projects have been announced and starting soon. These projects are increasing density. What is the county doing to plan for the increase in the number of families and children that will accompany this increase in density?
FERRANTIIt's a good question. Our staffs -- 10 years ago, Arlington Public Schools and Arlington County staffs did not work together nearly as closely to understand the student generation impacts of development. Now they are and every project that we see before the board has a number associated with it of the estimated number of children that will result from the project. That's an indication of what we're doing to try to manage growth and understand that how we grow as a community matters. We want growth to be healthy and enable folks to thrive at different income levels and different stages of life.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Given the law that we just heard about with the distracted driving, Tom Sherwood promises to stop every time he's going to look at a building in Arlington from now on. But, Matt de Ferranti, thank you so much for joining us.
FERRANTIThank you, Kojo and Tom. Thank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the D.C. Council. If you have questions or comments for him, call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Phil Mendelson. He is the chairman of the D.C. Council. Chair Mendelson, thank you very much for joining us.
PHIL MENDELSONGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for inviting me.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, everybody seems to want the FBI headquarters in their jurisdiction in this region. Governor Hogan wants it in Prince George's County, others want it in Fairfax, Virginia. And, of course, I guess the District wants it here. What's going on?
SHERWOODWell, this is a long morning melodrama...
SHERWOODMr. Chairman, I think he was speaking to the analyst. (laugh)
MENDELSONThe analyst, okay.
SHERWOODI think you -- but just let me -- I'll give the summary then you can help us out. Back in, like, 2011 the FBI building in downtown Washington was said to be obsolete and beyond its useful use. There's been an effort ever since then to find a new headquarters for the place. Everyone thought it would be going to Maryland. But when President Trump came into office, he put the kibosh on anything happening, and so it's been sitting.
SHERWOODThe senators and legislators in Maryland and the governor want it in Prince George's County. They have two sites. Virginia leaders want it in Springfield, Virginia. There's a site down there. Mayor Bowser, this week, stepped in and said she always wants the building to stay in the District. She didn't say where. Everyone wants it to move off of Pennsylvania Avenue. That land can be developed, but maybe it can go out to St. Elizabeth's on the west campuses in there. Maybe the chairman has an idea. If the city could keep the FBI building, where would it go, Mr. Chairman?
MENDELSONWell, to tell you the truth, I haven't looked at where it would go.
SHERWOODDid the chairman hang up?
MENDELSONWhat I remember is the discussion a few years ago that we were fine with it vacating Pennsylvania Avenue, that there were actually better uses that were better for the city for that space on Pennsylvania Avenue.
NNAMDIOh, okay. And...
SHERWOODYes, that's right. But -- okay. We don't know where it's going to go, Kojo, but at least the subject is back up again and everyone who works in the FBI is happy.
NNAMDIWell, a subject that's making a lot of people happy in the District of Columbia is that that Wendy's, at what's called Dave Thomas Circle, will soon be gone. I don't know any resident of the District of Columbia who travels in a vehicle of any type who hasn't had a problem going around that circle at some point. And I suspect, Tom Sherwood, in your travails and travels as a reporter, you've encountered it a lot.
SHERWOODYes. I learned early on to avoid it. It's the intersection of New York Avenue and Florida Avenue, and it's a major developing area. There's a small circle -- it's not really a circle, it's an odd shape and it has a Wendy's there. It's been there since the '80s and it's been called Dave Thomas Circle for that reason, the founder of Wendy's.
SHERWOODBut finally the city, the District of Columbia has about $13 million. They are finally going to redesign and fix the traffic there. For anyone who travels in northeast D.C., all the commuters going out to Maryland and people just coming into town, and the chairman too, I know, it's quite the mess there. And so finally after lots of discussion, there's going to be a significant change in the coming couple years.
NNAMDIChair Mendelson, you'll have to stop going there for your frosties, I guess.
MENDELSONWell, I've actually never patronized that Wendy's. Nothing against Wendy's but, actually, I'm too busy trying to maneuver the traffic lanes to stop for a burger.
NNAMDIYeah, it really is a difficult maneuvering that has to take place there. The Capitol security fence had an unexpected affect, Chairman Mendelson. It prevented the District government from being able to deliver copies of its bills to Congress, which D.C. has to do under the Home Rule Act. But what -- I can't figure out, and others too, is how exactly did this play out? Did a District official try to get through the fence and was actually prevented?
MENDELSONWell, we have to deliver the -- the council's the one that delivers legislation to Congress because of the Home Rule requirement that all bills have to lay over in Congress for 30 or 60 days. And so we routinely send our bills -- have somebody from the council staff, the secretary's office, go up to the vice-president's office and the speaker's office to deliver. With the fences we're unable to do that. And there were, as I understand it, phone calls to figure out how we could get in and we couldn't. It turns out around the time that I...
NNAMDIBut why? Why?
MENDELSON...announced this that some arrangements had been made to meet almost clandestinely at a nearby hotel to deliver bills. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) But what was the explanation given for why council staff was not allowed inside the fenced area? I mean, there are hundreds of people going to work there every day.
MENDELSONYes, but we don't have Senator House employee badges. There was no explanation that I know of. It's just we couldn't get in.
SHERWOODWhy could you...
MENDELSONAnd when we called the offices, couldn't get in.
SHERWOODWell, what about our two shadow statehood senators? Don't they have some kind of Hill pass? Maybe give them some work to do for a change. (laugh) And also, let me ask you while we're on this subject...
MENDELSONBe kind, Tom.
SHERWOOD...you live on -- I think you live on -- yes, I will be, best I can. You live, I think, on part -- I think it's still called Capitol Hill. Has that big fence, which of course I want down yesterday -- is that fence interfering with your ability to get through town and around town? What are you doing about that fence personally?
MENDELSONWell, personally I know how to maneuver around it. I mean, I have to either go north of the Capitol complex to Mass Avenue or I have to go south to the freeway. As residents know, Constitution and Independence Avenues are blocked off. And even, I believe, Washington Avenue, which is southwest of the Rayburn House office building is inaccessible to residents. It's pretty outrageous. It should not be the case either for the federal government or for the city that this is happening.
NNAMDIWhy is delivering hard copies by hand still necessary? We have the technology to send things electronically, you know.
MENDELSONThat's not the way Congress wants it. They require that I have to sign each transmittal letter personally and that these bills be delivered by paper to their offices.
SHERWOODHow would they know whether you signed it or not?
MENDELSONI don't know. When I became chair I was told that my predecessor had used -- his staff had used a signing pen and that got caught and was told couldn't do it.
NNAMDIWell, the initial vaccine rollout in D.C. has been uneven with disparities among racial -- along racial and geographic lines. But here's Warren in D.C. with a question about that. Warren, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WARRENThank you, Kojo. Yeah, Chairman Mendelson, this has received less attention and the issue which pertains to me personally is about chronic conditions. People with chronic conditions have effectively been put in the back of the line by D.C. Health. And this is not consistent with the CDC guidelines for other states like Virginia and Delaware, but in those states I would now be eligible I likely would have received a vaccine.
WARRENBut what D.C. Health is doing -- well, in early January they said that persons with chronic conditions would start receiving their vaccines this week, the first week of February. They now deleted that entirely from their website and what they've done instead is add this huge list of persons that they deemed essential workers. It was originally just teachers, then expanded to grocery employees, childcare, lawyers providing individual services...
NNAMDI(overlapping) We don't have a great deal of time, but I guess your question is when will people with chronic conditions be able to get the vaccine, Warren?
WARRENYeah, that's the issue...
WARREN...and the lack of prioritization. It seems to be more about political power than about actual risk.
MENDELSONWell, the Department of Health would've made that decision, not the council. And as I'm sitting here, I don't know the explanation why they would've done it. It makes sense what you're saying. I will say the fundamental problem with the vaccine rollout is that there aren't enough vaccines. So our shipment this week was 11,000 doses. That's how much the District received. Our population is 700,000.
MENDELSONIn addition, healthcare workers who we have to vaccinate, many of them are nonresidents. So the total number is far greater than 700,000, and the number of vaccines we received this week was 11,000. It's not unique to the District, but it is the problem, that there aren't enough doses for -- to people who we want to get vaccinated first.
SHERWOODWell, I want to mention statehood for a moment, but in a different context. I know the mayor, I know you, I know all the council members, I know people say they want statehood for the District. And it seems to be having another moment, although support for statehood seems to go up and down like a thermometer.
SHERWOODThe members of the House and Senate and Congress, the senators have all supported statehood for the District. And I'm just wondering, do you really think that the suburban senators and House members will support statehood for D.C. when they realize that they will lose hundreds of millions of dollars? Right now, the District can't tax people who live in the suburbs and work in the city. That amounts to $1.4 billion a year, 800 million goes to Maryland, 600 million goes to Virginia. If we were to become a state, we would be able to tax those jobs, not the suburban states. Do you really think that the statehood has support among the suburban legislators?
MENDELSONI really think that they've made the commitment that they support it. And I think that what you're bringing up is not a secret or unknown to them. It's certainly not a reason why we are demanding statehood. We're demanding statehood because it's a basic fundamental Democratic right. And we are citizens of the United States, but we don't enjoy all the privileges of the citizens of the United States, like voting, like having representation in the Congress.
MENDELSONAnd what's especially exasperating is, as you now, Tom, that Congress routinely adopts legislation that affects the District. Like when they shortchanged us almost $800 million last year in coronavirus relief. But we don't have a vote at the table.
SHERWOODI understand that. I'm just trying to raise the flag here that some of the support that I hear, theoretical support for statehood, I worry it's going to fade away when they figure out what the economic impact on the suburbs will be. But thank you very much for that answer.
NNAMDIChairman Mendelson, last month the council launched an office of racial equity, which is charged with assessing how legislation will impact racial equity. What are your hopes for that office? What exactly is it going to do?
MENDELSONWell, the legislation that we adopted, which came through the community as a whole so I'm the one who moved it through the council, sets up a racial equity office in the council and a separate one in the executive branch under the city administrator. The council office is to look at all legislation that is moving to the full council for a vote, permanent legislation, and give us an equity analysis. In other words, force us to look at what we're doing through a racial equity lens.
MENDELSONYou know, there's not always a bright line on equity issues. A policy could both have positive effects and adverse effects on minority populations or on African-Americans. But we need to be more thoughtful and aware of what the effects could be. And that's what the office is intended to do on the legislative side.
MENDELSONOn the executive side, it's meant to look at how government offices, agencies actually do their business and how they can do it better to be more equitable. It's a very different mission than on the council side, because ours is policy and the executive's is on implementing the actual actions of government.
SHERWOODMister Chairman, on equity, there are some people, parents particularly, in the city who are very upset that you, in reorganizing the council for this two-year period going forward, eliminated the education committee, which is one of the most difficult issues in the city in terms of getting equity education throughout all eight wards. Why is it that you eliminated the independent education committee, which could focus full time on education, and leave it in what you call the committee of the whole which you chair and all 13 members are members. Have you downgraded education?
MENDELSONAbsolutely not. And I think what's lost by those who have raised this issue is that the committee of the whole, which I chair, which is all members of the council, has had joint jurisdiction on education for the last two years. So we're continuing with our oversight and jurisdiction.
MENDELSONDavid Grasso who was the chair of the education committee retired from the council. And so, you know, without him the -- and looking at the organization of the rest of the committees, it made sense to go back to the way the council was doing it from 2007 to 2013, which is the entire council, all council members are on, what is in essence, the education committee, the committee of the whole. So the commitment hasn't been reduced at all. If anything, I think we're going to step it up and do more oversight, press harder for educational improvements in our city.
SHERWOODOkay. I'll see. If Kojo will let me, I have another issue. You've support a bill that would break up the hated Department of consumer...
NNAMDIAh, wait, hold on a second. Hold on a second, please, because we have a caller.
MENDELSONYeah, hold on, Tom.
NNAMDIWe have a caller who wants to address that and then I'll go to Tom.
NNAMDIHere's Lynwood in Washington, D.C. Lynwood, your turn.
LYNWOODThank you, Kojo. Two quick questions. Council Chairman, holding slumlords accountable is a challenge for every city. In D.C., even enforcement through the courts process or receivership is lengthy and doesn't guarantee repairs will actually be done. So what are you doing to address that as a council? Are you giving additional resources to DCRA such as loans for property owners to make repairs?
LYNWOODSecond question, the break up bill doesn't provide a budget increase or new resources to conduct more rental property inspections or increase funding for abatement to make repairs that landlords won't do. So how will the breakup improve housing conditions? Thank you.
NNAMDIThe break up that Lynwood is referring to is that the D.C. council voted to override two vetoes passed down from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. One of them breaks up the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. A move that's been debated for years to address criticism like you just heard from residents and businesses. Now, Council Chairman Mendelson, or Tom Sherwood, you wanted to come in first.
SHERWOODWell, I just wanted to point out, as I understand it, correct me if I'm wrong, that although the council has overridden the mayor's veto with the breakup of DCRA, there is no money in the budget to do the transition. It would take several million dollars and some period of time. Are you going to find money in the budget right now, this current fiscal year or the next fiscal year, to break up DCRA, pass the legislation that it isn't funded, as I understand it.
NNAMDIAnd please keep in mind Lynwood's question also.
MENDELSONWell, the short answer is, yes, Tom, that's the plan. You know, the caller sounded critical that there was no funding associated with the bill, but this was not an appropriations bill. And although this gets a little wonkish, the fact is that the council can't fund something outside of a budget. We'll be getting a budget at the end of March.
MENDELSONSo, you know, folks just need to understand that this is the process. We established policy, in this case, to break up the agency. And then when we have the budget we will look to fund it. I think it's unfortunate the mayor isn't supporting this. In a way I understand, because, you know, she doesn't like -- maybe she doesn't like the council trying to reorganize the executive side of the government.
MENDELSONBut the Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs was created 35 years ago as a reform by consolidating something like a half dozen different agencies. This was going to be a one-stop shop for all kinds of permitting and housing code enforcement. And what happened is that what we've seen over 35 years is that the agency doesn't work. And so, you know, we can continue with a practice that just has not worked or we can try something different.
MENDELSONWhat I think, and what the council agrees, is that by having a smaller agency that's focused on construction, including illegal construction and housing code enforcement, that we will get better outcomes.
SHERWOODAnd you'll fund it?
MENDELSONYes, that's the plan.
SHERWOODOkay. That's what we'll be watching for.
NNAMDIThe number of homicides in the District is higher now than this time last year. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White wants the District to declare a state of emergency to combat gun violence. He said that fatal shootings would've received more attention from District officials if the victims were white. What action is the council taking to address this violence?
MENDELSONWell, the council's done a number of things and the most current and relevant is that we have a police reform commission that's going to look at how we can improve policing. And while that's not directly about violent crime, it is going to touch on that. How can we have better and more effective policing?
MENDELSONOver the years wee, the council has adopted initiatives that are alternatives to typical traditional law enforcement, namely like trying to do violence interruption. Cure the Streets is the name of one of the programs. We've actually got, I think, three programs in place on the executive side. It is disturbing that violent crime is up.
MENDELSONI'm looking at the data this year to date compared with last year to date. There's one more homicide than a year ago at this time. Still 18 is 18 too many, and it has been a steady increase over the last half dozen years. It is disturbing the amount of gun violence and I'm hopeful that with a new chief of police and with the recommendations of the police reform commission and our continuing with alternatives to traditional law enforcement, that we will see that this trend turns around.
SHERWOODCan we go back to schools?
NNAMDIOne second, please. Here is Mona in Washington. Hi, Mona. Long time no hear. How you doing?
MONAI'm just fine, Kojo. Thank you very much. Especially before I go, I just want to make two things but Noelle and (word?) said to wish you a happy birthday.
MONAThe next thing is, you know, I live here on Capitol Hill just four-and-a-half blocks away from the House of Representatives. So I drive around and we've got a new name for where we live now. It's called fortress Capitol Hill D.C. And I just thought I'd say that. Do you love the barbed wire and waving at the National Guardsmen.
MONAAnd then the other thing, real quick, is can't believe we're doing this with the vaccinations. I feel very put upon by having my zip code be the mark by which I can get the vaccination. I'm 68 but almost 69, but don't tell anybody I said that, and I do have medical issues. Technically, since the 11th of January I found out I don't go to sleep. I get on the computer half an hour before and I click and click. Guess what, this morning I got one. Today is the 5th of February. There, that's all I wanted to say and it's lovely to hear your voice. We still listen to you all the time.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Chairman Mendelson, people who live in areas that have certain wards or zip code are having a greater difficulty. And I guess that's a part of the city trying to bring some racial equity into the distribution of vaccines, correct?
MENDELSONYeah, I mean, the challenges that we've -- we've targeted -- the government has targeted zip codes where there's a higher incidence of the vaccine or higher incidents of fatalities from the -- not the vaccine, the virus, or higher fatalities from the virus or lower uptick of getting vaccinated. And I think that's a good thing. And the mayor's announcement, she's going to, I think, start sending folks out door to door to try to increase the uptick in the vaccine.
MENDELSONBut, you know, the caller, what she pointed out and what my staff told me, was that there were 1800 units available -- vaccine units available this morning. And they were all taken up within six minutes of becoming available. It speaks to there not being enough vaccine.
NNAMDIIt certainly does. Tom Sherwood, we only have about a minute left.
SHERWOODOkay. The Kojo Show, we reported first this week that the mayor went into court to get a TRO, a temporary restraining order to keep teachers from striking or doing a job action. Nothing has happened with that TRO. I checked with the attorney general's office this morning. It's sitting there. Do you support the mayor going into court to have a temporary restraining order against the Washington Teachers Union to help make sure the teachers show up for work?
MENDELSONWell, the restraining order was to prevent the teachers union from calling for a strike or all but calling for a strike and calling for a sick out.
SHERWOODDid you support that?
MENDELSONThat would be in violation of the collective bargaining agreement if they were to strike or have a coordinated sick out. So the restraining order was nothing more than to enforce the existing terms of the collective bargaining agreement. And, yes, I support that.
NNAMDIBut this despite the fact that the head of the Washington Teachers Union and, for that matter, the head of the American Federation of Teachers both said that they were not, in fact, planning a strike.
MENDELSONIn which case there's nothing to restrain.
NNAMDIExactly. Well, I'm afraid that's all...
MENDELSONThen there's no problem.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have.
MENDELSONI want to say one thing...
NNAMDIYou got to say it in ten seconds or less.
MENDELSONTen seconds, and that is when we talk about statehood, remember that it was the District that bailed out Congress on January 6th when we sent our police up there to help them restore order. And it was our National Guard that we were desperately trying to call out.
MENDELSONThe District -- really I think showed...
NNAMDIAnd now they don't want our council staffers to go in there. Chair Mendelson, thank you for joining us. Today's Politics Hour was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, Dr. Leana Wen joins us to answer your questions about the vaccine rollout. And then Dr. Wen stays with us to hear what's on kids' minds when it comes to the coronavirus. It's Kojo for Kids, of course.
NNAMDIFinally, save the date, Tuesday February 16th is our next Kojo in Your Community Event. We'll discuss local efforts to dismantle systemic racism including a Maryland legislative leader's proposals for a black agenda and the founding of a new black party. Go to WAMU.org/events to register for this virtual event. Thank you for listening and have a great weekend. You too, Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODYou too. We may have snow on Sunday.
NNAMDIThis is true. I am Kojo Nnamdi.
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