Behind the Cameras: District of Columbia Council

Today, City Council Chronicles unveils an exciting new feature: behind-the-scenes tours of where the magic happens!

First stop: the District of Columbia. A.K.A. Washington, D.C. A.K.A. The Great Bambino.

My tour guides to Room 500 in the John A. Wilson Building were Josh Gibson and Jamaine Taylor, the lucky ducks who attend every council meeting because they work for the council secretary’s office. And speaking of Room 500…

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Here’s the view from the throne. That table in the middle is where the general counsel, budget office, and council secretary sit. The chairman calls on each of them to give a thumbs up on bills before the council approves them. (If they give a thumbs down, the chairman pulls the special “trap door” lever for their chair.)

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Feast your eyes on the TAIDEN®. Enhance!

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Like something out of “Star Trek,” the TAIDEN® is for turning on mics, browsing the Internet, looking at council materials, as well as some unexpected features. See that text messaging icon? The council members can actually text each other at the dais. (Jamaine and Josh had no comment about whether the text messages were always work-related.) They can also text staff members sitting in the room.

The VOD icon lets them watch what’s going on in the three other hearing rooms–or, in theory, watch themselves on camera here. So if they want to run downstairs to question a witness, they monitor the video feed from their seat. It’s a weird vortex where the D.C. council watchees become the D.C. council watchers.

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This is a wider view that shows the long dais. Earlier this year, Google put a Street View camera inside the building, so you can actually look at the whole council room yourself. I told my tour guides that of all the city councils I have seen, the D.C. council has probably the second-nicest chamber, after Baltimore. “Don’t ever say that,” Jamaine warned.

I asked if I could touch the gavel. Josh said go for it.

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Here’s an odd thing: the microphones are controlled at this desk here by the council. But the CAMERAS are controlled by the MAYOR’S office. So in theory, she could pick a fight with the council by shutting off their cameras, right? “It’s like us and Russia. It’s mutually assured destruction” contradicted Josh. I’ll take that to mean “unlikely but possible.”

I asked my guides if they thought council members behaved differently on camera. “I don’t think so,” Josh said. They still joke and argue when they know people are watching. And of course, they all have cell phones to pull out absent-mindedly. “It’s not like, ‘oh, we’re on camera. Let’s act like we’re in church.'”

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This is the chairman’s conference room, where the council has a meeting-before-the-meeting. They try to get consensus on things before going in front of the cameras.

Naturally, I asked what was the most absurd thing they saw happen at the council. Jamaine mentioned the time anti-Wal-Mart protesters threw ping-pong balls with the company’s smiley face at the council members.

Josh told me that during one meeting, activists crawled out onto the ledge of the building–five floors up. “Basically they were in a place where they couldn’t be removed,” he said. This forced the city to put up the high glass barrier at the end. Not that I would ever protest a council meeting, but I’d definitely use the ping-pong method WAY before I tried suicide-by-ledge.

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Stay tuned for more council tours!

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