Monday, January 4, 2010

Councilmember Phil Mendelson on Maintaining D.C.'s Openness

"I have always been interested in government, which I inherited from my mother and her side of the family. My mother ran for City Council twice in the suburb of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and lost each time. She was also active in the League of Women Voters. Her mother had been active in the Michigan League of Women Voters and served as its president. I thought that Washington was an interesting place and came here for college. I majored in political science and was involved in student government. I originally thought that I would go into the federal government, specifically Congress, when I graduated. Before I finished college, though, I moved to McLean Gardens, which had a very active tenant association because it was going through a series of battles with the landlord. The landlord wanted to evict everyone and redevelop the land with enormous rent increases and condominium conversions. Each time, the landlord was unsuccessful because the tenants were active. Through my involvement there, I got interested in D.C. politics and have been involved in D.C. issues, community activism and D.C. politics ever since.

"My involvement with McLean Gardens led me to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), where I served for twenty years. I got involved in zoning issues and promoting reasonable development in neighborhoods rather than allowing a private developer to redevelop a neighborhood without regard to a larger plan or context. Probably the most noteworthy struggle I was involved in with the ANC was the redevelopment of 4000 Wisconsin Avenue in the late 80's and early 90's. Along with a few other people, I organized a community organization that went to court and significantly altered the approach, or lack of approach, toward the planning of that space. The building eventually got built, but there were a lot of changes that we forced. From there, I went on to run for City Council.

"A striking thing about being on the City Council is that there is a lot of interesting legislation that gets passed and that does not get all that much attention. When I was first elected to the City Council, I authored and got through the Council the Urban Forest Preservation Act, also known as the Tree Bill. Environmentally, it was a big step forward for D.C., although I think what was ultimately passed wasn't as strong as it could have been. Still, it does a lot for the environment, specifically our trees.

"But, D.C. issues like the gun-control legislation get more attention because they are national issues. That's big-time stuff in terms of media attention, but it may not necessarily be the most important legislation for D.C. I am pleased with what we did with gun control because it's a very controversial issue. We were able to build a consensus and get through the Council, in light of the Supreme Court decision, terms that respect what the Supreme Court ordered, but, at the same time, constitute possibly the strongest gun control law on the books. We are far more restrictive in terms of weeding out people who will potentially misuse guns in violent ways than any other city. We have some other measures in place to weed out the more dangerous guns, like the cheap Saturday-night specials. We also have a renewal provision that will continue to keep our registration procedures up-to-date. After the Supreme Court decision, the police had to go and dust off gun procedures that hadn't been used in thirty years. In the process, they learned that the police had no clue where most of the people were who had received the 30-40,000 gun permits issued before the gun ban. It was rather embarrassing. Now, I think that we're making progress and have alternatives that are pretty good compared to other cities.

"Reflecting on my time here, there is one other observation that strikes me abut being in D.C. This city, because of the federal presence, is much less open than it used to be. There are far more restrictions on the ability to travel around and go into places.

"The most obvious example is Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. I think that's a metaphor for the direction this city has gone in, which is unfortunate. The city spends more time being frightened and, in its fear, restricts its citizens rather than remain open. That openness has always been a hallmark of this city. You used to be able to walk onto the White House and Capitol greens and have a picnic. We have slowly chipped away at that, which is unfortunate. Some of it, though, is pervasive across America, as we think we need to make things ever more inaccessible to protect ourselves against crazy people and terrorists. The remarkable thing about crazy people and terrorists is that what motivates them will motivate them to work around the restrictions we put in place. We ought to look at different approaches towards dealing with them. Rather than seal off areas and search people, let's look at alternatives that deal more directly with those threats and maintain the openness that has been a trademark of our society."

Councilmember At-Large Mendelson was first elected to the City Council in November 1998. He is the Chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary and is a member of four additional committees: Health; Housing and Urban Affairs; Human Services; and Libraries, Parks, and Recreation. Along with representing the Council at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, he is also the Immediate Past President of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO). Learn more about Councilmember Mendelson here.

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