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Quest for Quiet on H Street Hits Snag

A bill to control the noise from street preachers who are causing a ruckus on the H Street Northeast corridor has run up against some last-minute resistance, delaying it from going before the full D.C. Council.

The D.C. AFL-CIO is mounting a last-ditch effort to thwart the legislation, which was marked up and approved by a council committee on Jan. 29.

The day after the markup, the AFL-CIO fired off a letter to Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D), claiming the public was not given adequate notice of the vote. The union asked Gray to send the bill back to the Public Service and Consumer Affairs Committee.

The markup “caught us by surprise,” AFL-CIO political coordinator Rick Powell said. “We thought this bill was dead.”

The AFL-CIO opposes the bill’s restriction on the volume of noncommercial daytime speech because it could limit union protests.

D.C. AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams wrote Gray that “although it appears that the committee technically followed the council rules requiring 24 hours notice to committee members before action is taken, there was no public notice of the markup in the council’s ‘Calendar of the Week.’”

But Gray’s chief of staff, Dawn Slonneger, said last week that Gray investigated the complaint and determined that the markup was handled properly. She said the bill, introduced by Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), will move forward.

Williams did succeed, however, in getting Gray to keep the legislation off Tuesday’s council session agenda. It will now go before the council on Feb. 19, giving the labor union an additional two weeks to lobby against it.

Powell called Wells “extremely disingenuous” and charged him with “trying to get this done in the dead of the night when nobody knew what was going on.”

“We are going to vigorously oppose passage of this legislation,” Powell said. “Councilmember Wells’ stature has been diminished with this [AFL-CIO] council. He did not do us the courtesy of calling to let us know this bill was being marked up, and that’s something we won’t forget.”

Wells’ chief of staff, Charles Allen, disputed those charges, saying that as Wells was working out compromise language with the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO withdrew from the discussions.

“We sat down with them over and over, and they said, ‘We don’t think any change should be made [to the existing law],’” Allen said. “From our office, we were constantly sending them letters, asking them for feedback and suggestions. I don’t know how they can say we were trying to sneak something past them.”

The bill would classify daytime noise as a disturbance if it exceeds 70 decibels or is 10 decibels above the ambient noise level — whichever is higher. Wells introduced it in response to complaints about amplified preaching from members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge at the corner of Eighth and H streets Northeast.

Powell said his union will lobby heavily and predicted that “maybe four” of the 13 councilmembers would vote for the bill.

Allen was more optimistic. He predicted that the vote would be close, but the bill would pass.

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