Commentary: Don't Hamper D.C.'s Soon-To-Be-Elected Attorney General | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Commentary: Don't Hamper D.C.'s Soon-To-Be-Elected Attorney General

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Walter Smith is the executive director of D.C. Appleseed.
Walter Smith is the executive director of D.C. Appleseed.

Next year, D.C. residents will elect their attorney general for the first time in the city's history. In advance of the election, the current attorney general, Irv Nathan, has proposed legislation that would transfer some of the attorney general's authority to the mayor. In a commentary published yesterday, Nathan argued the changes are necessary to prevent an elected attorney general from undermining the mayor's programs. But commentator Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, opposes the legislation, and says it runs counter to the wishes of the District's voters.

In 2010, D.C. voters passed a charter referendum making the city's attorney general elected rather than appointed by the mayor. Mr. Nathan is concerned that the elected attorney general will disagree with the elected mayor on various issues. He therefore proposes to take authority away from the attorney general and give it to the mayor. He proposes to do this in two key ways.

First, his plan would transfer oversight of all D.C. agency lawyers from the attorney general to the agency directors. Second, it would establish a mayor's Office of Legal Counsel to coordinate those agency lawyers. Since the mayor would then control both the agency directors and the agency lawyers, this would remove the attorney general from supervising the legal advice being given to each agency.

There are at least three problems with this proposal.

First, the whole purpose of having an elected attorney general was for the city's legal advice to be accountable to the public—rather than the mayor. Mr. Nathan's proposal effectively requires agency lawyers to serve the mayor's policy agenda.

Second, the plan would reverse 15 years of efforts to improve the city s legal services. Before 1998, agency directors controlled their own counsel, similar to what Mr. Nathan is now proposing. This system posed problems with the professionalism, coordination and unity of the District's legal operations. The D.C. Council fixed these problems by consolidating legal services under the attorney general. This consolidation is the most effective method of managing the District's legal services and represents the best practice from among the 43 states that elect their attorney general.The new proposal would be a step backwards from these best practices.

Finally, the plan is inconsistent with the people s choice in the 2010 referendum. The referendum was presented to voters as a way of making the attorney general and the city's legal services independent of other officials. Transferring authority from the attorney general to the mayor undermines this. And downsizing the office in this way will also discourage the best candidates from running for this very important position.

The council should let voters elect an attorney general with all the duties and responsibilities that currently exist. If the new attorney general acts in ways that are harmful to the public interest, there will be time to make adjustments later. But for now, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Smith is the executive director of D.C. Appleseed.

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