The D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole discussed student related agencies and flavored tobacco at a recent budget hearing. (Courtesy Photo)

By Carl Thomas
Special to the AFRO

D.C. Council committees were busy this week with a full schedule of budget hearings across various categories. Each year the budget, which originates with the Executive Office of the Mayor, is presented to the Council of the District of Columbia for approval in mid spring. For several months each of the committees sanctioned by the Council convene hearings for the public to provide feedback in support of or against proposed budgetary expenditures.

The committees hear testimony and develop recommendations based on the arguments offered. Ultimately, after hundreds of hours of testimony, the Council hopes to deliver a budget that is balanced, fair, and has taken the recommendation of both the Executive Office of the Mayor and the residents of the District of Columbia into account.

This week’s hearings began with the Committee of the Whole (COW), which met to receive government witness testimony from the District’s student related agencies such as District of Columbia Public Schools, Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), D.C. Public Charter School Board, and others. 

The D.C. State Athletic Association (DCSAA) was due to meet, but the agency and the District at large were mourning the sudden death of DCSAA Executive Director Clark Ray just days before the hearing. Due to Ray’s passing, the DCSAA testimony will be rescheduled.

The COW operates under the procedures of a committee, but comprises all the members of the larger body organized under the leadership of the Chairperson. The Chairman was not present to begin the hearing so Council member Brooke Pinto (D- Ward 2) acted as interim Chairperson until he arrived. Government testimony is largely uneventful as they are generally arguing in support of budgetary appropriations that already exist- which was the case in this hearing.

The Committee of the Whole also convened to hear government testimony on the budgets of the Office of Zoning (OZ), Office of Planning (OP), and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

In the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety (with comments from the committees on Health and Business and Economic Development) the Council took a first vote on a fairly controversial bill that will ban flavored tobacco sales in D.C. Several Council members voiced concerns about the impact of the ban on the flavored tobacco and hookah industry’s largely African American owner base. After much discussion from both sides of the issue, Council member At-Large Christina Henderson (I) introduced an amendment that would exempt hookah bars from the ban.

The question of racial equity came up several times and the Council was able to take into account the findings of the newly formed Council Office on Racial Equity (ORE). The racial equity impact assessment conducted by ORE concluded there are both positive and negative impacts associated with the bill. While this bill can advance racial equity by improving overall health outcomes, there is also the negative impact of enforcement in an industry where a large portion of its owners are African Americans.

The ORE specifically took into account the variant of outcomes when law enforcement interacts with African Americans, which can vary from mildly inconvenient to fatal. Council member Charles Allen (D- Ward 6) was adamant that the Metropolitan Police Department should not have enforcement authority.

“In Ocean City they explicitly give the police enforcement authority. Very intentionally we do not,” Allen said. Allen was responding to concerns raised by Council member Janeese Lewis George (D- Ward 4) who cited the now viral incident in Ocean City where a 17-year-old was tased by police enforcing a vape ban. Lewis George was among those who voted against the measure. Eventually, a vote was taken and the bill passed, as amended 9-3 with 1 vote of present.

Other portions of the hearing covered testimony from the official representatives of each agency, but there were no public witnesses and were, therefore, largely procedural requirements. Unless otherwise stated, the assumption is that an agency is performing as reported and very little is done to increase oversight or make changes to budgetary expenditures. 

To find out more about the budget hearing process, watch current or archived hearings or to sign up to provide testimony, visit