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A chat with DC Councilmember Tommy Wells

Cliff Keenan: Please tell us about Tommy Wells. We know that you spent the first 20 or so years of your career working in the area of child protective services, both with the city and as Director of the DC Consortium for Child Welfare. You went to law school while working, but didn’t go into the actual practice of law. You were elected to the DC Council in 2006 and have since been re-elected.

Tommy Wells: I lobbied hard for the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, because I saw it as a new opportunity to make an impact improving our city. I’ve chaired four committees and in all of them, I’ve delved deeply. Under the Committee on Human Services, I helped create the Housing First Initiative; I saw the fallout from the Bonita Jacks' case; and I helped rebuild the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). I have a lot to show for the four years when the city's child welfare system was in absolute crisis.

I also oversaw the Transportation Committee through which I doubled the City’s bike share program and made major improvements in Metro. With the Library Committee, I oversaw the plans for a new Martin Luther King Library downtown, and created the Parks Division for the Parks and Recreation Committee.

My 21 years of work in child welfare brought me in close contact with the Judiciary. I was the chief architect of the Family Division of the DC Superior Court. I worked on child welfare reform, overseeing the rewriting of child welfare laws and the creation of the neighborhood collaboratives. I was there when the Court adopted the best practices of the time – One Judge, One Family. I also worked with the Court on reorganizing the judicial calendar and rotations, and I helped create the magistrate judge positions out of hearing examiners that existed at the time. During those years, the highest number of adoptions was about 65 per year. Once the Family Division was created, the number increased to more than 300 adoptions per year. The legislation that established the Family Division was the only bill signed after the September 11th attacks, and has been one of the major changes to the trajectory of children’s lives.

I spent six years as a social worker and got to know the Courthouse. As well, I got to know the judges. And I’ve continued to take an activist role. I co-chaired a committee with Chief Judge Satterfield which created a Truancy Taskforce with a focus on elementary school children. Back then, we cut early childhood truancy in half.

So I’m a big believer in partnering with the Court. Each time I get involved, I learn new subject matter and am in a position to make change. And I believe that we can change people’s lives by making changes in systems.

CK: Did you know you would end up where you are today, possibly considering a bid for Mayor of the Nation’s Capital?

TW: No. But I believe that because of the systemic reforms I’ve led over the years, people have approached me to run. I’m still exploring it. But I support our current mayor.

CK: It’s been reported that you had requested to Chair the Judiciary Committee. On December 20, as the DC Council was discussing 2013 committee assignments, Washington Post reporter Mike DeBonis tweeted that the “(Judiciary Committee) is a pretty bum assignment … the stuff you deal with is either tedious or politically hazardous.” What’s your reaction to this?

TW: Some would see this Committee’s work as politically hazardous, but I see that as more reason to do it. I didn’t want to chair a committee I had already chaired, since I saw this as a leadership challenge. I want to make a difference with my oversight. And now I want to bring new eyes to public safety. I’m committed to looking holistically and systematically at problems, like the Metropolitan Police Department is doing in their new publication “Investing in Policing in the City,” in which MPD shows precisely where crime is happening, based on real data, with solutions crafted based on that data in terms of where the hot spots are located. So it may be politically hazardous, but I like to look at systemic reform.

The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety deals with two strong unions, the firefighters and the police. Recently, when a third of the firefighters didn’t report to work, instead of accepting this, I met with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, the Fire Chief, and the head of the union to make it known they would be held accountable. And already there’s been a backlash. So if this is politically hazardous, then that’s what it is.

When I chaired the Human Services Committee, 20,000 kids were not immunized. We went after the parents, and kept the clinics open, and made sure that kids got immunized. A message was definitely sent. We also did the same with the Bag Tax Bill, doing something about pollution in the Anacostia River.

So I’ve done politically hazardous things before, and I welcome the opportunity. Not everyone gets the chance to be in public office. I want to be able to look back and say I took full advantage.

CK: What’s on the horizon for the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee during your Chairmanship? What are your priorities?

TW: With the judiciary, it’s extremely important to be careful, since we don’t have budget oversight, and the judges are selected through a process outside of the Council’s purview. But I will have time to learn. I met with Chief Judge Lee Satterfield who is one of my favorite city leaders. He graciously agreed to swear me in to my current position. We previously chaired the Truancy Taskforce together and I hold him in high regard.

I want to learn more about corrections. The District needs a new jail and I want to figure out what that might mean. I know that this is a politically sensitive area.

So in terms of priorities, I want to learn and get as engaged as possible. I’m looking for legislative efforts that others are already working on, since I don’t feel like I’ve got to tackle new or original areas. I want to go where the energy is and work with people and organizations already engaged. But corrections is a priority area. In addition, I want to make sure that the Metropolitan Police Department labor contract is approved. The City is dependent on safe communities and the police need a pay raise.

CK: Staying with the subject of your priorities, I watched a hearing you held back in November dealing with the very difficult issues of truancy and the trafficking of school-aged children, issues which I’m sure continue to be of high importance to you. Do you see your position as the Judiciary Committee Chair giving you more ability or authority to address these issues?

TW: Absolutely. Part of my inquiry was based on requests from advocacy groups to look into these issues. I won’t do it de novo, but rather continue relying on other groups who are already involved in these matters. With the recent charges of the mishandling of sexual assault cases by the police, I will start by not assuming anything. I don’t want to begin with a hearing, but instead I will seek advice on the assertions found in the Human Rights Watch Report. I may engage a law firm pro bono before I take any action. On the other hand, with the eyewitness identification bill introduced last fall by Chairman Mendelson, it’s highly likely I will hold hearings because the subject deserves a full airing of the issues, and people feel strongly on differing sides. Since enough time has passed where jurisdictions elsewhere have implemented reforms in eyewitness identification, their best practices will be important to take into consideration.

CK: The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee is a member of the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the CJCC, which brings all of the criminal justice and related agencies, both city and federal, to the table on a regular basis. Chairman Mendelson was very involved with the CJCC, attending the various CJCC meetings, many of the subcommittee meetings, and even the monthly GunStat meetings. Have you had a chance to formulate your perspective on the Judiciary Committee Chair’s role vis-à-vis the CJCC as of yet?

TW: The CJCC is a place where things are really happening. My current plans are to be an active member, although I’m not sure to what degree I’ll be involved on a subcommittee. I’m interested in gun statistics. What I can say for sure is that the CJCC makes a difference.

CK: On July 13, 2012, you and Chairman Mendelson sent a letter to me, in my capacity as Chair of the CCE Misdemeanor Arrest and Pretrial Release Project, about the status of our work on recommendations about the post-arrest process in DC. Specifically, you appeared interested in a possible committee recommendation looking at “minor criminal offenses that might be outdated [and those] that might be worth de-criminalizing.” Is this still an interest of yours? Why or why not?

TW: Yes, I’m still interested, and I would like to see changes in the law not necessarily from the intriguing trivia side of rewriting antiquated laws, but I don’t want to see such laws used inappropriately. So I look forward to seeing what the CCE Committee has come up with.

CK: CCE has a strong history of working with the DC Council Judiciary Committee: the Probate Reform Act under Jim Nathanson; the Office of Administrative Hearings Act under Kathy Patterson; and the Criminal Record Sealing Act, Disorderly Conduct Amendment Act, and the Reentry Facilitation Act under Phil Mendelson, to name just a few. What issues do you think CCE should be looking at in the years ahead?

TW: Frankly, I’m not qualified or prepared yet to say. I’ve worked extensively with CCE on child welfare issues, and have used CCE to work on reform issues related to legislation like “Speedy Trial.” I’ve been at the table with CCE for most of my career and I like CCE as a resource. But to me, it would be presumptuous to say what the organization should be focusing on in the future. I’d like to hear from stakeholders about what should be modernized. Reform ideas come from different places. Overall, I take a systemic approach and do my best to not begin from an ideological position. I will bring education into the issues. I will listen and learn. But I’m not afraid of taking on the big issues.


Cliff Keenan is a long-time Civic Director on the Council for Court Excellence Board, and chairs the Criminal Justice Committee’s current project on reevaluating pretrial release criteria. Since 2012, he has served as Director of the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia, and was named that agency’s Deputy Director in 2005. Cliff has also held positions in the Metropolitan Police Department and the US Attorney’s Office in DC.

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