By Bob Summersgill, Smokefree DC board member
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown resigned yesterday in disgrace, after the U.S. Attorney filed felony bank fraud charges against him. I’m angry about the fraud. I am angry that he was ever on the Council. I am angry that he lied to us. He disgraced the Council and the District.
Kwame Brown claims to be a strong advocate for smokefree work places in D.C. He voted in favor of the smokefree workplace law when it passed the Council in December 2005 and January 2006. Back then, Smokefree DC supported him. However, his only votes on the law in the past few years have been to carve out exemptions for special groups and friends of councilmembers.
In June 2012, the “Special Event Exemption Amendment Act of 2011″ was added the Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Support Act of 2011 (BSA) to allow in-door cigar parties, once a year, at every hotel in the District. There were 79 hotels at the time, but more hotels are being built downtown and near the convention center. This exemption was pushed by Councilmembers Jack Evans and Michael A. Brown, but it could not have been slipped into the BSA without Kwame Brown’s approval. The amendment was not sent through the usual committee process because as Jack Evans told us, “If it went through committee, you would win!”
Instead it was slipped into the BSA without notice to anyone. Fortunately, smokefree advocate Councilmember Phil Mendelson found the exemption and attempted to remove it. He lost 12-1. Kwame Brown said he thought it was a limited exemption. He either both knew and didn’t care, or didn’t read it and believed Michael Brown and Jack Evans. Or it could be that he is just dim as several councilmembers have said.
A correction, the “Special Event Exemption Amendment Act of 2011,″ was placed into a bill to restrict the cigar parties to hotels “with a ballroom or special event space catering space with an occupancy of 500+.” As anyone who has been to a few hotels in D.C. knows, more than just two hotels meet these criteria. In fact, Smokefree DC found 25 hotels that would be able to have cigar parties under this provision. Every councilmember knew that this fix would apply to more than two hotels. Mendelson told them so. Only three councilmembers voted to repeal the exemption this time: Mendelson, Jim Graham and Mary Cheh. Fortunately, Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the bill, but for unrelated reasons.
The final “fix” restricted cigar parties to the two hotels for the groups that councilmembers said they wanted all along. The first is for Fight Night, which allows councilmembers to hobnob with celebrities. The second is for The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, of which Evans has been a member. The fix was not acceptable to Smokefree DC because the measure showed that councilmembers still found Council perks to be more important that the health of D.C. workers. It was nonetheless placed into temporary legislation by Kwame Brown, the “Revised Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Support Technical Clarification Temporary Amendment Act of 2011,” (B19-0408), which will expire on Saturday, July 14, 2012, leaving us with legal cigar parties in every hotel in D.C.
There was no question that Kwame Brown and every member of the Council knew this fix was temporary. “Temporary” is in the name of the bill. That they didn’t care it would expire is evidence that they just aren’t concerned about health of District residents when their friends want a perk. l forgive Councilmembers Mendelson, Graham and Cheh for not offering a third amendment to remove the exemption from the temporary legislation. They knew they didn’t have any hope of winning.
Kwame Brown could have stopped this. He didn’t. He told the Ward 3 Democrats—on May 24, 2012, in response to my question—that he supports Fight Night’s indoor cigar parties and would make it a permanent exemption. He is gone, and now we have a chance to have a Council Chair who isn’t a smoking advocate, and a chance to elect a new member of the Council who believes that the health and welfare of the residents of the District is important.