No swearing rule highlights D.C. council tensions

February 21, 2012
Liz Farmer
Washington Examiner Staff Writer

The D.C. Council has banned swearing from all its public meetings after a dustup last week between two members at a council retreat led to outrage from some residents.

But the swift action pushed through by Council Chairman Kwame Brown on the matter has some people saying the ban is just meaningless posturing.

At-Large Councilman David Catania, whose expletive-laced outburstlast week at Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry prompted the change to the council code of conduct, said he's still not apologizing for swearing at another member -- although he did vote in favor of Tuesday's resolution.

F-bomb heard 'round the city

> At last week's D.C. Council retreat, David Catania's outburst was fed by his assertion that Marion Barry has not fought to save the United Medical Center, a hospital in Barry's Ward 8. Catania, who chairs the health committee, has made the hospital a priority for his office. So when Barry asked a question about the center following a presentation at the retreat, that was all it took. "F you, Marion," Catania shouted, rising to his feet. "Your agenda is so transparent."

Rather, Catania said serving on the council has been increasingly frustrating. He said it is "certainly fascinating we can have a code of conduct on language," but noted that last June when the District Attorney General sued then-member Harry Thomas Jr. for stealing from the city, the council as a whole was silent on the issue.

"I've dedicated a decade-and-a-half of my life to this city and have always tried to do so with the utmost integrity and public spiritedness," Catania said. "And I'm watching it backslide. It started a couple of years ago. The body is devolving into a place that I don't like."

Privately, some members have called the effort by the chairman meaningless. But it passed unanimously. At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson, who described himself as "the victim" in a shouting match last fall, called the resolution "an effort to make a difference."

The resolution applies to all open meetings held by the council, essentially expanding the rules of decorum beyond the dais. The shouting incidents over this past year between members have all occurred at such proceedings -- twice at a council breakfast and once at last week's retreat.

If a member does swear publicly, that person could be censured by the other members. But censuring a colleague is rare -- the only case in the council's 38-year history was in 2010 when it censured Barry for taking a portion of a $15,000 contract he steered to his then-girlfriend. But a censure alone, while embarrassing, does not strip a member of any rights.

Civic activist Terry Lynch predicted Tuesday's action likely wouldn't change some members.

"You have extremely strong personalities, personas, political legacies on the council and ... there's no real teeth here, per se, that's going to change that," he said.