Irv Nathan is D.C.'s Attorney General.
Next year voters in D.C. will elect an attorney general for the first time. The city's mayor currently appoints the attorney general, but voters approved a referendum in 2010 to make it an elected office. The D.C. Council is considering changes to the structure of the District's legal team in advance of the transition — transferring some of the attorney general's authority to the mayor. This week we'll hear commentaries on both sides of that debate. This morning we hear from Irvin Nathan — D.C.'s current Attorney General, who says these changes are necessary for an effective District government.
As the current appointed Attorney General, I hope to see good candidates running in next year's election — lawyers who have the legal and managerial skills to direct a large office responsible for a wide range of important functions. To be sure the executive branch of the District runs smoothly after the election of the attorney general, it is imperative that the D.C. Council enact legislation that clearly defines the duties of the attorney general so they do not encroach on the powers and functions of the mayor.
Mayor Vincent Gray has introduced critical legislation that would ensure that result. His bill has been endorsed by former Mayors Barry and Williams, as well as by the Washington Post. The bill would ensure that the general counsel of the various agencies, such as the police and fire departments, continue to report in the mayoral chain of command. They do so today through the appointed attorney general, who in turn reports to the mayor.
If the legislation is not passed, the 150 lawyers who work in the general counsel's offices of the agencies would be hired, fired, and directed in their daily activities by the elected attorney general, who may have a different agenda from the mayor and may indeed be a candidate to replace the mayor. With that cadre within the agencies, the elected attorney general would have the ability to stymie or undermine the mayor's programs, for which the mayor was elected and for which the mayor is accountable.
A system in which lawyers in the mayor's agencies would report to a separately elected official would run the risk of officials in D.C. government getting conflicting signals from two different elected officeholders. Most states with an elected AG use the arrangement we propose, including New York, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. It is also the system that works well for the federal government.
The attorney general's office would continue to handle all litigation for the District, and render definitive legal opinions binding on all of the agencies.
The resulting changes would leave a very strong attorney general office, with over 200 lawyers to litigate on behalf of the District and to render binding legal opinions. As the Washington Post said, "the plan allows for a strong elected attorney general, but doesn't weaken future mayors."
The council should enact Mayor Gray's legislation to ensure an effective functioning D.C. government in the future and should do so promptly so that candidates for the job can prepare their campaigns and accurately inform the electorate of their plans to run the office.
Irv Nathan is D.C.'s Attorney General. Tomorrow we'll hear a commentary from Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, who argues these proposed changes would run counter to the wishes of D.C. voters.
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