Councilmember Wells talks ethics reform, campus plan and more

At an event hosted by DC Students Speak last night, D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) addressed approximately twenty students about a variety of issues facing the District and the Council, including Georgetown University’s 2010 campus plan, the use of RFK Stadium, and ethics reform.

While he spent most of the evening addressing District issues, Wells also discussed the vitriol that has defined the 2010 campus plan process. After lauding DC Students Speak for getting students involved in local politics, he compared the campus plan processes at Georgetown University and George Washington University. While GWU has an aggressive building plan that neighbors have sometimes disliked, its campus plan approval has not been a difficult fight. Wells credits this to the make-up of their leadership and their engagement with the community. “GW has local influential people on their Board of Trustees,” Wells pointed out. GWU also employed a communications firm to interact with neighborhood groups to ease the process.

Wells contrasted this success story with Georgetown’s own efforts:

Georgetown did everything internally, and their board is not a board of local civic leaders, so they were isolated when they came out, so there wasn’t really a counterpunch to the neighbors that said, we don’t like this, guys. There wasn’t other neighbors or other influential folks to stand up and say, well we can compromise but we’re not going to give up our campus plan. There wasn’t effective pushback and the groundwork was not done.

Wells also relayed a lovely anecdote of his own interaction with the Office of Planning, which had recommended last year that Georgetown be mandated to house all of its undergraduates on campus offer housing (on or off-campus) to 100% of its undergraduate population by 2016 if it wanted to maintain its current enrollment cap:

I asked the person who’s head of the Office of Planning, why did you say Georgetown needs to do this—this isn’t realistic, no other universities are being asked to do this in terms of the number of students to be housed on campus and she essentially said, we just don’t like their attitude. And I said, well you don’t get to have that opinion, this is about planning. You can’t change based on attitude.

Wells’ take on luring the Redskins into the District, ethics reform, and Kwame Brown’s Lincoln Navigator after the jump…

On attempts to attract the Washington Redskins into the District proper, Wells clearly articulated his opposition to the Redskins moving to RFK:

My perspective is about rebuilding the urban area through smart growth—I think taking that chunk of land for a football stadium and all the acres of paved parking lot is a stupid, bad use of urban land. It has nothing to do with how bad I don’t like the Redskins owner [Dan Snyder] or anything like that. It’s just that we see there has been no economic development around the [current] stadium related to football.

Speaking about his recent removal from the Transportation Committee, Wells defended his report that criticized Council chair Kwame Brown for his excesses:

Talking very candidly—the story of why I’m no longer on the transportation committee, I had worked hard to get our new chair elected, and the new chair… made some bad decisions about what vehicle he decided that the city should provide for him. And the first Lincoln Navigator was not what he asked for and he sent it back, and asked for another one… It just really became not the right symbol for government.

Wells described the process by which his report came into being, and made clear that he was not accusing Brown of any criminal behavior: “I’m not saying that the Chair broke any laws, but certainly he encouraged the executive branch to provide him something that was not consistent with D.C. law.”

For several months, ethics reforms has dominated the Council’s, and Wells’, agenda. His proposals have included an end to contractor donations to political campaigns and constituent-service funds (which Wells’ called “our slush fund”), and more stringent disclosure requirements. Condemning the “pay-to-play system” that creates “relationship[s] of expectation,” Wells called for his fellow council members to “do a better job in how we run our campaigns.”

While the Council has voted down Wells’ measures, he is now taking ethics reforms to the voters themselves, aiming to put an initiative on the November ballot to end all corporate contributions to campaigns for city office. “It’s the kind of thing probably people will vote for,” he said.

Photo: Jackson Perry

6 Comments on “Councilmember Wells talks ethics reform, campus plan and more

  1. how can tommy wells be against corporate bundling while at the same time accepting bundled donations? did anyone ask him about this?

  2. “Engagement with the community” is not quite the right phrase. More like co-option.

    First, GW is a landholding behemoth and bought up large chunks of Foggy Bottom before anyone could stop them. As a result, there are simply far fewer entrenched residents to opposite them than GU faces.

    Next, as CM Wells correctly noted, GW made certain to put some rich and influential locals on its board, folks who have the ear of the Mayor and councilmembers. That is who they spent most of their time listening to – the local power brokers with whom they can “do bid’ness” to mutual benefit. You think maybe Charles E. Smith (he of GW’s Smith Center) had some conversations with DC government officials over the years on GW’s behalf? Yea, seems likely.

    The real purpose of that communications firm GW hired was not to “interact with neighborhood groups” – it was to put on a good and highly polished show for the Zoning Commission, the mayor (a GW alum, which doesn’t hurt), the Council, and the courts if need be. GW is more than willing to throw money at this, as well as pay for significant lobbying. Meanwhile, Georgetown lamely tried to throw some money at Vince Gray by contributing $5k to his inauguration fund, which ended up looking like a pittance when compared to the $25,000 Howard U contributed.

    I’m surprised Wells was willing to be as frank about what OP told him as he was, but the reality is that it’s not about Georgetown’s “attitude” – it’s that the university hasn’t been willing to “pay to play” the way that GW has.

  3. Good write-up, Jackson. I’m curious from the quotes: did you record the meeting? If so would it be possible for you to transcribe the section where Wells discussed recent campus plan developments and the involvement of the Mayor’s office? I didn’t completely catch what he said but it was potentially very interesting.

  4. On another note: WordPress is being really pissy about comments right now.

  5. If Wells says that no neighbors spoke out in favor of the plan, then either he hasn’t been paying attention or he’s not telling the truth. There were many decent people (including longtime resident and former ANC rep Grace Bateman) who spoke in favor of it. Most people in the neighborhood have not given any opinion on the plan. It appears that he’s listening to a small group of dishonest extremists like Stephen Brown and Lenore Rubino.

  6. This was really an excellent summary and quoted the high points, thank you.

    My impression is that GW gets through the campus plan office by skipping the local engagement and going straight for the Wilson Building, GU doesn’t like engaging with anyone and tries to get by with lawyers and luck, and AU engages with community groups in a weird give-and-take to avoid Wilson.

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