Quality of life issues, broader public policy among Thirtieth Legislative Meeting action

At the Thirtieth Legislative Meeting of Council Period 20, and the Committee of the Whole meeting that preceded it, the Council took action on a diverse mix of legislation.  As is frequently the case, legislation directly impacting the daily lives, and quality of life, of average District residents attracted a degree of attention from Councilmembers rivaling if not exceeding that paid to more heady public policy issues.

Among the measures on hot-button public policy topics that passed the Council unanimously: technical amendments to the District’s new gun law and its budget for FY 2015. Also passed (some on first reading, some on second and final reading) with strong support:

  • An expansion of the District’s medical marijuana law
  • The sealing of criminal records for past non-violent marijuana convictions (in light of the Council’s recent decision to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of the substance)
  • Improvements and expansion of special education services in the District
  • Rent control, affordable housing, and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act changes

A more nuanced debate on issues impacting the daily quality of life of District residents ensued among the members.  Among these topics:

  • Repeal of Prostitution Free Zones:  Supporters of the original bill, passed in 2006, argued it was a useful tool in fighting prostitution in areas where such offenses are concentrated.  Opponents argued that the law was used as a proxy to battle loitering and to target certain individuals of interest to law enforcement.  In the end, after it was pointed out that Chief Cathy Lanier was not opposed to the bill, and that many, including DC’s Attorney General feel that anti-loitering laws are potentially unconstitutional, the measure passed 10-2-1
  • Snow Removal: In what has become an annual ritual, the Council again tackled the question of if, and how, to reform the District’s snow removal laws.  As currently written, if snow is not removed from a sidewalk within eight daylight hours of it falling, the District government can remove it and bill the removal cost back to the owner.  The proposed revision would replace this system with the imposition of fines on those who don’t shovel. After a discussion of whether fines would target owners vs. tenants, and whether seniors would be worse served by being fined for snow removal that was beyond their capacities, or by being stranded at home due to an inability and fear of walking on uncleared sidewalks, consideration of the bill was postponed until the next legislative meeting, on October 28.
  • Vehicles-for-Hire: The discussion that likely drew the most social media attention, and the most actual attendees to the Council Chamber, focused on the regulation of vehicles-for-hire, namely services such as UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar. The legislation aimed to regulate the drivers, vehicles, nondiscrimination, accessibility, and other aspects of such services.  Additionally, the bill created a 1% fee on all such rides that would be used towards a consumer service fund for the passengers of such services. Finally, due to the improving quality of taxi vehicles, it reduced the number of annual inspections from two to one, deregulated cab fares for any rides that were generated through a digital dispatch service, and mandated that cabs post a notice in all vehicles that they are required to have functioning credit card machines in ever cab. After much discussion of whether the new regulations would privilege vehicle-for-hire drivers vis-à-vis cab drivers, the measure passed by a voice vote, with one councilmember voting present.
  • Grocery Store Covenants:  In current practice, if a supermarket chain sells a store location for redevelopment, they often insist that a covenant be put on the land to forbid the future use of that land as a grocery store, for example by a competitor. In light of the potential closure of a Safeway store in the Palisades neighborhood, and subsequent redevelopment of that site in a manner that could be limited by such a covenant, a bill was introduced to no longer allow these covenants.  Being the most late-breaking item on the agenda, the bill generated a fair amount of discussion, but in the end passed on an emergency basis by a voice vote.

Due to a conflict with Election Day on November 4, the Council’s expected November Legislative Meeting will instead be held on Tuesday, October 28, with a Committee of the Whole meeting at 10AM and a Full Legislative meeting to immediately follow.