Phil Mendelson was first elected to the Council of the District of Columbia in November of 1998 as an At-Large Councilmember. He served the District in that role until June 2012 when following the departure of the previous Council Chairman he was selected by his colleagues to take over that role. In November 2012 District voters elected him as Chairman of the Council. In 2014 Mendelson was elected Chairman of the COG Board of Directors a position he also held in 2004. An active regional leader Mendelson has served on and led several other COG committees including the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee. He has also served as COG President.
What got you interested in public service?
It runs in my family. My grandmother was active in the state League of Women Voters in Michigan and had been an appointee of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My mother ran for city council in Cleveland Heights Ohio.
What brought you to this region originally and what made you stay?
I’m originally from Cleveland and I came [to this region] to attend American University. I got very interested in local politics and became active in the McLean Gardens Residents Association of a very large residential property on Wisconsin Avenue. I got involved in the advisory neighborhood commission—we have elected neighborhood commissions in the city—and that’s why I stayed.
This year under your leadership the COG Board is focusing on infrastructure. Why is it so important to our region’s future?
I recommended it because the COG Board of Directors is comprised of the many jurisdictions in the region and I believe that those of us who are elected need to better understand the unfunded infrastructure costs that each of us have. Infrastructure is one of those significant aspects of government that are typically unfunded and under-appreciated by everybody until something goes wrong. Very few people think about the water pipes under the streets the sewer lines the capacity at Blue Plains [Wastewater Treatment Plant in the District] or even our highways. We want our streets repaired but we don’t think about how many lane miles there are and how frequently they should be resurfaced or reconstructed. And so these costs get deferred and they total in the billions. I think it would be very helpful to all of us to take a year to focus on the different kinds of infrastructure and what the unfunded cost is.
How does the District benefit from its participation at the Council of Governments?
The District is the core of the region and it has to be involved in virtually every regional issue. Unfortunately too often District representatives don’t always appreciate that. My experience of over 15 years at the Council of Governments is that we benefit tremendously from participation and the regional relationships that are established. Last year one of our committees on the Council of the District of Columbia came up with a very small revenue measure to fund some transportation improvements. It involved increasing a fee related to commuter bus transportation. Our Virginia friends got very upset and because I know them they were able to talk to me and I was able to understand the issue and step in and resolve the situation. We deleted [the fee increase] from the budget. That was able to happen very quickly and be resolved without major controversy because of the regional relationships.
Tell us about a project or initiative that you’ve contributed to while serving at COG that makes you most proud.
Because of the relationships at COG the District Prince George’s and Montgomery County were able to increase the minimum wage in each of their jurisdictions working together. And that’s a big deal! Other than Seattle we are going to have the highest minimum wage the country at $11.50 an hour. We announced our coordination at COG. While it was not a COG event [the minimum wage hike] very definitely came out of COG relationships with [Prince George’s County Council Member] Andrea Harrison a former COG Board Chairwoman and [Montgomery County Councilmember] Marc Elrich who serves on the Transportation Planning Board. Another example is working with Frank Principi on trying to develop a commuter ferry across the Potomac from Prince William to the District.
It’s been ten years since you last served as COG Board Chairman. What do you see as the most significant changes in the region since 2004 when you last led COG?
The progress we’ve made on air quality which has very much been a regional initiative. Even though we’re grossly underfunded I think we’re making progress on transportation—the region is working better together. We’ve had less of the issues that led to weighted votes in the past and instead we are recognizing that we need to prioritize based on funding. Also we need to be creative in trying to find funding. When I was Chairman before at the COG Board of Directors retreat in the summer we talked about Metro funding and at the end of the year we adopted that Blue Ribbon Commission Report on funding which resulted in the proposal that brought the federal government in and the regional commitment. Each jurisdictions agreed to $50 million more so that was a significant increase in Metro funding. Based on that WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) has become more aggressive in identifying what its capital needs are with Metro Momentum. We absolutely have to acknowledge that we are grossly underfunded both in highway and public transit but we have actually made a lot of progress in funding nonetheless particularly in regard to Metro.