Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry stripped D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson of his vote on a controversial bill Thursday, prompting a furor among the measure's opponents and instigating doubt about the vote's legitimacy.
Facing a close vote during a committee hearing on the proposal to protect ex-convicts from discrimination, Barry abruptly called a recess, and the leading dissenting voices -- Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells and Mendelson -- left the room.
But Barry, who chairs the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, quickly called the meeting back to order and asked for a vote.
When Mendelson, who isn't a member of the committee but as chairman is allowed to participate on any panel, returned and attempted to cast his vote at 4:47 p.m., Barry replied, "Mr. Mendelson, you can't vote. You're not yet sworn in."
Mendelson, who took office in June after Kwame Brown resigned, was due to be sworn in at 5 p.m. after winning a Nov. 6 special election to fill the remainder of Brown's term. Until Barry's outburst, Mendelson's authority to act as chairman had gone unchallenged.
Taken aback, Mendelson replied, "That's not a correct interpretation."
But Barry insisted that Mendelson could not cast a vote since he wasn't a committee member, and the bill, which was designed to protect ex-offenders from housing and employment discrimination, cleared the committee.
"I overruled Mr. Mendelson as an at-large member of the city council. He cannot vote with the committees until he's sworn in," Barry told reporters afterward. "He'll be sworn in today at 5 p.m."
David Zvenyach, the D.C. Council's general counsel, declined to comment on the episode, but Mendelson said Barry's ruling was wrong.
"It's a little unfortunate when somebody would resort to a claim like that, which is just completely unfounded," Mendelson told The Washington Examiner. "The issue ought to be considered on the merits. Clearly, this was a way to avoid the ordinary process."
Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, who supported the bill, also said he disagreed with Barry's decision.
"[Mendelson] was the chairman," Graham said. "He was entitled to vote."
Mendelson declined to say whether he would schedule the measure for a vote by the full council.
"I can't speak as to what's going to happen," Mendelson said.
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