The D.C. Council is suing Mayor Vincent Gray and his Chief Financial Officer Jeffery DeWitt over a voter-approved referendum that was designed to give the District Government control over its local budget. The lawsuit was filed Thursday morning in D.C. Superior Court.
The Budget Autonomy Act was passed by the Council, signed by Mayor Gray and ratified by a large majority of District voters in 2012.
Congress had an opportunity to block it, but that never happened. Regardless, following the advice of his Attorney General Irv Nathan, Mayor Gray now won't enforce it.
In response, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Thursday he had no choice. He filed a lawsuit, on behalf of his Council colleagues, asking the court to "order Mayor Vincent Gray and his CFO to comply with [the Budget Autonomy Act].” The measure collected 83% of the vote when it was ratified in D.C.’S 2012 special election.
“We are much better off if we have local budget autonomy which affects only local dollars because we're able to pass our budget more timely,” Mendelson said. “We're able to align our budget year to the school year and we're not subject or vulnerable to the vagaries of Congress like the [federal] government shutdown last Fall.”
The Council's lawyers – working pro-bono on the case – said their arguments are strong. Attorney Brian Netter said, “We do not believe that there is anything in the Home Rule Act that prohibits the Council and the people of the District of Columbia from amending the charter to speak to the budget process.”
Mayor Gray supported the budget autonomy measure in 2012 but said at the time he had questions about its legality.
Even though Congress never attempted to strike down the law, he has decided to follow the advice of his Attorney General. Nathan deemed it invalid because he believes it violates the District's congressionally-set charter.
“We, two years ago, anticipated Congress challenging this new law,” said D.C. Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry. “We never expected for opposition to come from within the city.”
Despite the lawsuit, District leaders are downplaying any conflict and emphasizing their united support for budget autonomy.
Gray said, “I don't look at this [lawsuit] as adversarial at all. I look at it as a way to settle what is the proper path. I think we're all in agreement that we want budget autonomy. I have questions about the path that the Council has taken, obviously the Attorney General for our city does, as does the Government Accountability Office.”
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton released a statement after the suit was filed, careful not to take sides. "There should be no mistaking the Council's action for the usual adversarial lawsuit. Today's action is friendly litigation,” it read.
The attorneys have requested an expedited review and a decision in this case by May 28, when the Council is scheduled to hold its first vote on its 2015 budget plan.
The lawsuit and the District Government's approach to seeking budget autonomy and/or statehood could become a political topic in November's General Election.
Both Democratic Nominee Muriel Bowser and likely Independent candidate David Catania support this lawsuit against Gray.
Catania released a statement Thursday. "I would have hoped that the executive and the Attorney General would have staked out a position in support of budget autonomy and the will of the citizens of the District of Columbia,” it said.
Bowser's office did not release a statement or reply to a request for comment.