Who will you pick for DC Council at-large on April 23?

Elissa Silverman

Elissa Silverman is a budget analyst and former reporter who lives in Northeast Capitol Hill near H Street. Most recently, she worked at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, analyzing the DC budget. Before that, she wrote for Washington Post and the Washington City Paper; for 3 years she authored the City Paper's "Loose Lips" column on DC politics.

Question 9

We asked the candidates:

DC is moving towards implementing a number of changes to its zoning code. To that end, where do you stand on eliminating parking minimums near transit; allowing residents to rent out basements, garages, etc. in low-density areas; and allowing more neighborhood-serving retail in residential neighborhoods?

Elissa Silverman responded:

The District is a different city now than it was in 1958, when our zoning code was written. So it makes sense that many of its provisions would need to be updated.

p>The update needs to reflect our aspirations as a growing, dynamic city that is inclusive, affordable, and sustainable. Yet it needs to balance that with an approach that respects neighborhood design and character. That's why it is critical for the Office of Planning to educate residents about choices and be open to finding better ways to meet the District's strategic land use vision. Here are thoughts on specific provisions:

  • I support ways to reduce car dependence, but I want to make sure that good mass transit is accessible to all household sizes and incomes. So in our most transit-accessible areas, I support the removal of parking minimums on the condition that developers create permanent, truly affordable housing in return. Underground parking not only is expensive and adds to the cost of a project, but also creates more parking spaces than is sometimes needed. Yet if we remove that cost the savings should be passed on to the community that shares the burden of possibly additional cars on the street.

  • I support the relaxation of single-use zoning that prohibits the conversion of residential houses into commercial uses but with restrictions. Primarily, I support limiting this conversion to corner houses. Corner stores are the most successful stores in residential communities because they are visible on two streets, and they limit the impact of conversion to a much smaller number of homes.

  • I support allowing residents to rent out a portion of their homes or accessory units, which I see as a way to create more affordable housing through additional supply. However, I want to make sure that neighbors are protected as well.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 8

We asked the candidates:

Last year DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that DC schools are suffering from a "truancy crisis." The DC Council is now debating a bill that would increase penalties on parents for kids who chronically miss school. Should parents be held to account for when their kids miss school? How can DC ensure that students attend school consistently?

Elissa Silverman responded:

Our kids can't benefit from the resources we're putting into school reform unless they're in the classroom. So I agree with Chancellor Henderson.as well as At-Large Council Member David Catania.that we need to focus on truancy. But a punitive approach of putting mom or dad in jail won't improve attendance, and, ultimately, achievement in school and beyond.

According to a recent Washington Post story, 5,000 DC students missed more than 20 days of classes last year. At some District high schools, two out of five students are missing more than 20 days. This is unacceptable for a very simple reason: We know that education is a key factor in future success. And we know that if kids don't come to class and eventually drop out, it sets them on a path in which the pipeline isn't college but prison.

Kids don't show up to class for many different reasons, and that's why I believe there's no one- size-fits-all-solution to this issue. I had a classmate in high school who didn't show up because she moved every few weeks to live with a different relative. Other children miss school because of mental-health problems, or because they have to stay home to care for a sibling. Some students aren't attending because of difficulties at the school itself, such as unmet special-education needs or because they feel unsafe. Each of these problems demands a different solution.

We need a District-wide vision and consistent leadership to tackle truancy. A decade ago, then-school board member Tommy Wells and now-Chief Judge Lee Satterfield created a citywide Truancy Task Force with representation from schools, police, social service agencies, the courts, the mayor, and the council.all the players needed to adopt and implement a shared approach to keeping kids in school. I will work with colleagues Phil Mendelson, David Catania, and Tommy Wells to use the legislature's oversight and budget authority to secure a comprehensive approach from Chancellor Henderson and the D.C. Charter School Board--and to see that it doesn't fall victim to turf battles or politics.

Parental "accountability" should not be a veiled way of punishing parents. A comprehensive truancy prevention plan holds all players — students, parents, schools, government agencies, and community providers.accountable. The school is responsible for ensuring that children who are not attending are identified early, that parents are contacted as soon as students start to show signs of struggling, and that appropriate services are easily accessible. Once services are offered, parents and students should be held accountable for not taking advantage of them, and reasonable steps to motivate compliance should be taken. Courts and other punitive systems should be used only as a last resort.

We have leaders committed to acting on truancy, but what we have lacked is persistence and application. I will use the tools at a legislator's disposal to make sure all the players are engaged, and I will regularly report to the council on actions taken to bring truancy numbers down and school attendance up.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 7

We asked the candidates:

Below are a set of proposals for ethics reform which some have advocated in recent years. For each, would you vote for or against? Further, you can explain any position in more detail if you wish and offer any additional ethics measures you would advocate for.

  • Ban or limit outside employment
  • Eliminate or constrain constituent service funds
  • Ban corporate contributions to campaigns
  • Ban "bundling" from multiple entities controlled by same person
  • Ban contributions by contractors and/or lobbyists who do business with DC
  • Forbid free or discounted legal services, travel gifts, sports tickets for councilmembers

Elissa Silverman responded:

When it comes to ethics reform, this election boils down to show and tell.

All candidates will tell you they are for ethics reform, but I can show you a track record of my commitment to reform and my leading by example.

Ban or Limit Outside Employment

I will vote to make the council a full-time job for all new members. I am currently on unpaid leave and running full-time for the council seat. I will resign from my job when I win and work as a full-time representative for the residents of the District. The D.C. Council is a state legislature that meets year-round; I think that requires full-time attention. Banning outside employment protects against not only potential conflicts of interest but also the appearance of any conflicts of interest that might distract a member or fuel resident cynicism.

Eliminate or Constrain Constituent Service Funds

I will vote to eliminate the current practice of constituent service funds being an opportunity to buy access to council members through private fundraising. Instead, I will vote for the creation of a council-wide fund that would be a budget line item. The use of the fund would be restricted to specific purposes, such as emergency rental assistance and burial assistance. This is a recommendation from an ethics task force put together by council member David Grosso, which I led.

Ban "Bundling" from Multiple Entities Controlled by Same Person

I will push to make into law Initiative 70, the grassroots effort to ban direct corporate contributions. I was a leader of this effort. The District has individual contribution limits, but the use of limited liability companies allows some individuals to circumvent the law. I think a ban on corporate contributions — already banned on the federal level and in almost half the states — is a simple way to reform the corrosive pay-to-play culture.

Ban Contributions by Contractors and/or Lobbyists Who Do Business With D.C.

I will vote to ban contributions from lobbyists who do business with D.C. and bidders for contracts with the city. A ban on such contributions guards against a pay-to-play political culture, in which contributions are given in return for help securing government business. This ban would also protect businesses that might feel pressure to give.

Forbid Free or Discounted Legal Services, Travel Gifts, Sports Tickets for Council Members

I will vote to ban council members from accepting free or discounted legal services, travel gifts, and free sports tickets. I do not need the council box to cheer on our winning Washington Nationals; I am part of a season ticket group in Section 205.

Part of our ethics woes stems from the council acting like an exclusive 13-member club, in which residents are largely left out of the decision-making process. Additional proposals I will push include using technology to make participation in our government easier and more accessible by making possible videotaped testimony or testimony via Skype. I will also support legislation enabling public financing of our local elections.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 6

We asked the candidates:

Residents who walk and bicycle often feel our streets are not sufficiently safe for them. Others feel that projects to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians have impeded quality of life for those who must drive. Is there a way forward that can bring peace among all road users? What would you say to each of these groups?

Elissa Silverman responded:

Two terms you will never hear me say are "pro-car" and "anti-car." I don't support the divisive framing of our policy discussions: drivers vs. bikers, job training vs. bike lanes, and so on. As a former budget analyst and reporter, I know these characterizations only cause division and don't move us toward productive solutions. We need to make the District safe for all modes of transportationfor travel by four wheels, two wheels, and foot.

I went without a car for six years in this city for primarily one reason: Owning a car is expensive. I wanted to save for a house, and I made the decision to squirrel away money by riding my bicycle everywhere possible. Last year I decided to be a car owner again for a variety of reasons; I must admit that weekend track work on Metro had something to do with it.

There are three basic facts we must deal with when it comes to transportation:

  • D.C. is growing fast. Right now, 1,100 new residents move into D.C. every month. This is good for our city and our tax base, but it also means more cars, more bicycles, and more pedestrians. I want to look at intersections where we have the highest number of accidents involving all of theseplus buses, motorcycles, and scootersand work with the MPD, DDOT, the Office of Planning, and other agencies to determine how we make these places safer for everyone. I will ask these agencies tough questions at their performance oversight hearings and demand data so we can make informed decisions.

  • Cars take up space. We need to be realistic: Many residents will want to own a car. But we should make every effort to create reliable, efficient public transportation so a household might find that only one is enoughor choose not to own one at all. That means we need to make good strategic investments in Metrorail and Metrobus, in innovative programs such as Capital Bikeshare, and expanding options for being car-free, such as Uber.

  • We need good communication, community engagement, and planning around transportation issues, none of which is happening consistently right now. Transportation studies shouldn't gather dust on a shelf; they should be key documents to inform decision-making. Steps forward must be tailored to each neighborhood, designed in consultation with each community, and followed through with consistent communication and education.

I will hold DDOT and other agencies accountable and ask hard questions about the data involved in decision-making, as well as the commitment to community engagement and involvement. On something like the L Street bike lanein which I've almost gotten hit on my bike and almost hit a cyclist while driving my carI will push for outreach and education to ensure we all know the new rules of the road. And I will demand follow-up studies, which rarely happens today, to measure whether road changes had the promised results.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 5

We asked the candidates:

What do you think the District should do with its $417 million surplus?

Elissa Silverman responded:

I would put half the surplus in the city's savings account and invest half in our city's future, primarily into preserving and building high-quality affordable housing.

My job as council member will be to protect the city's financial health — to ensure we are spending responsibly and investing wisely. The recently announced surplus is left over dollars from Fiscal Year 2012; it could be used for "one-time" purposes but shouldn't be dedicated toward yearly expenses or expenditures that increase the annual budget or baseline. It is wise to save for a rainy day, but we need to use at least some of this money to build a brighter future.

By law the District is obligated to put end-of-year surplus dollars into our savings account, known as the fund balance. But our fund balance is now $1.1 billion dollars — equivalent to nearly 20 percent of our operating balance — one of the largest fund balances in relation to operating revenue in the country. I would support amending this law so that some of this unanticipated money can be put toward critical investments in our city, such as securing D.C.'s supply of affordable housing.

The Housing Production Trust Fund is one of our best tools for developing and preserving affordable units so the District can be a welcome place for residents of varying incomes. The Trust Fund has a track record of success, helping nonprofit developers including So Others Might Eat develop homes in places such as Wards 7 and 8.

I would also support putting funds into other capital needs that might be identified as high priorities by agencies, such as MPD and D.C. Fire and EMS. This pay-as you-go approach saves the city money because we are not paying interest on debt.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 4

We asked the candidates:

Mayor Gray has set a goal of growing by 250,000 residents in 20 years. Previous mayors had similar goals. GMU studies suggest we need over 122,000 new housing units (each of which might hold multiple people) by 2030. How can and should the District accommodate this growth?

Elissa Silverman responded:

This question gets at the heart of one of the biggest challenges we face in the District. Certainly we want to welcome new residents, who help grow our tax base, enrich our civic life and make our city dynamic and evolving. Yet we need to integrate these new residents in a way that does not disregard or ignore those residents and institutions who have been in the District for a long time, contributed for many years to our tax base and civic life, and have deep roots in our city that are meaningful.

As at-large councilmember, I will champion three areas to address this challenge.

  • First, I will make affordable housing a top priority in our city's budget. The District should have good housing options for all types of residents: interns out of college, families with or without kids and seniors who are living on a fixed income. I will protect and improve upon one of the best tools we have to do this: the Housing Production Trust Fund. I want to change the trust fund from being tied to the deed and recordation tax, which is volatile, to a budgeted line item. I also think we need to enforce our inclusionary zoning law and work with developers to build multiunit housing for all kinds of households, not just studios and one bedroom apartments largely geared to singles.

  • Second, I will continue to make a varied transportation system a top priority. We need to add residents without turning our streets into gridlock or a game of Frogger for pedestrians and bicyclists. We need to smartly invest in Metro, expand bus service, and continue to look for ways to get people out of cars.

  • Third, I will work with the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, the Department of Employment Services, and the Workforce Investment Council to make sure we have a strategic plan for jobs so that both newer and older DC residents benefit from the growth. This has been part of my work at DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and I'd love to serve on the council's workforce committee.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 3

We asked the candidates:

DC's education system has improved in recent years for many kids, but many schools remain inadequate to our children's needs. If you could design a better school system for DC, what would it look like? Would we have more teacher evaluations or fewer? More charter schools, fewer, or different ones? More or fewer kids going to local schools? How else would your school system differ from the one we have today?

Elissa Silverman responded:

I will work tirelessly to make the public schools in every District neighborhood high-performing.

That said, I believe the D.C. Council's role in education reform is largely one of oversight: to maintain our focus on educational outcomes and not on bureaucracy or ideology. We must not return to the days when politicians interfered in individual school decisions or when education decisions were made on any basis other than results. I also think the council plays a role in making sure that all city residents.including parents, neighbors, and advocates.have a voice in public school decision-making.

As a former reporter and budget analyst, I know how to ask tough questions to keep our focus on results-driven education reform.

I think we must grapple with the fact that we have created two public school systems: traditional public schools and charters. Children can move back and forth between the two systems, which presents facilities, funding, and other challenges. Some charters have proven to be laboratories of innovation, but some have not. If charters want to continue to be autonomous from the traditional DCPS system, they need to be transparent about educational outcomes. As a council member, I would ask about their high rate of expulsion and about how charters serve special-needs students.

I have many other questions, too.

  • We have a policy of pre-kindergarten for all, but is the program high-quality and available to all residents? Why has the Office of the State Superintendent certified nearly every pre-K program as "Gold" when so many 5-year-olds are still entering DCPS unprepared to learn?
  • Why is D.C. the only major urban system that fails to break even on the federally supported school lunch and breakfast programs? Why has the chancellor ousted a well-regarded director of food services?
  • Are we spending more than we should per square foot for the buildings being renovated with funding from the School Modernization Act of 2006?
  • Finally, and most importantly: Why are the educational outcomes of low-income children improving more slowly in DCPS than in other urban districts, particularly in reading proficiency? What are we doing that is not working, and what is the plan to close the achievement gap that is widening faster in D.C. than in any other urban district?

I will also make sure that the council reopens the office of the Ombudsman for Public Education, which was closed in 2009. Parents must have an advocate who is empowered to answer their questions and resolve their concerns, regardless of which public school their children attend.

As your at-large council member, I won't confuse my role with that of schools chancellor or school principal, but I also won't rubber stamp something just because the word .reform. is attached to it. I'll provide the critical oversight that parents across the city expect from the council, ensuring that results-driven real reform continues and that educational outcomes for all children improve.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 2

We asked the candidates:

Chief Lanier and Mayor Gray have made a lot of the drop in homicides, but other crimes — assaults, robberies — remain stubbornly high. How should DC police deal with those challenges, and do you have an opinion on how many officers MPD needs?

Elissa Silverman responded:

A visible and trusted police force keeps all of us safe.

When D.C. residents feel unsafe in their homes and neighborhoods, even a positive trend in crime statistics — such as the drop in homicides — doesn't change that. To maximize the effectiveness of our hard-working officers, we must 1) use data to drive deployment, 2) promote visibility of officers with foot or bike patrols in crime hot spots, and 3) ask commanders to maintain communication with residents. When crimes do occur, the focus should remain on solving cases quickly to deter repeat offenses, so victims can feel closure and a sense of justice.

I support Chief Lanier's efforts. From my days as a reporter covering the murders that get two-sentence mentions in the newspaper, I know she works hard for all city residents. D.C. has the highest ratio of police officers to residents of any big city in America, but not enough are serving visibly on our streets where they can deter robberies and assaults. It is politically popular to call for more officers; as a budget analyst and former Washington Post Metro reporter, I know the real solution is to use our current force more strategically.

As a council member, I will drill down into the MPD budget and ask hard questions about deployment. Do we have the right balance between patrol and investigation? I will work with Chief Lanier and the Fraternal Order of Police to put as many sworn officers as possible on patrol. I will push for regular reports that analyze police staffing, and, if the results point to hiring more cops, that will be one of my top priorities. Public safety is too important to hide behind buzz words.

I also will push for strategic focus on truancy, literacy, and job training so crime isn't a last resort.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Question 1

We asked the candidates:

The District has changed a lot since 1993, and will likely change much more by 2033. What are 2-3 changes you hope to see by 2033, and how will electing you to the DC Council help bring them about?

Elissa Silverman responded:

My campaign is focused on three foundations upon which we can build D.C.'s future.

Investment: I will push for strategic investment in our greatest civic asset: our residents. By 2033, I want every D.C. public school and D.C. public charter school to be high performing and D.C.'s achievement gap to be closed. I will push for high-quality pre-kindergarten in every school, committed teachers who focus on intellectual and emotional development beyond test scores, and principals who lead as well as manage. I will also champion continued investment in our physical infrastructure, including transportation options that decrease car traffic such as Capital Bikeshare and Metro.

Accountability: I will focus on oversight, making sure we spend tax dollars efficiently and effectively. By 2033, I want D.C. to have the lowest unemployment and poverty rates of any major U.S. city. I will watchdog federal and local funds for workforce development, using data to make sure the dollars we spend turn into jobs and careers for residents. I will focus on expanding our tax base through smart economic development and diversifying our economy. I will encourage small business growth through incubators and by making agencies such as DCRA (Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs) engines of—not barriers to—opportunity.

Integrity: I will focus on honesty, transparency, and responsiveness. By 2033, I want D.C. teenagers to believe they have the best local government in the country. By then a ban on direct corporate contributions, which I proudly support, will be 20 years old.

Here is how you rated the candidates' responses:

Whats next

We will be asking the candidates more questions, and will post their responses to one question each week on Tuesday. In addition, after voting ends, we will analyze the results and post a summary of your reactions.

Enter your email address in the sidebar to get a notice when we have a new question or new results!