Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C.'s gas station bill is hardly dead yet

January 17, 2012 - 12:09 PM
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(Photo: flickr/brownpau)

The Retail Service Station Amendment Act of 2011, introduced last summer in the D.C. Council by Ward 3 Councilmember and nationally recognized "babe" Mary Cheh, is still alive in 2012. The bill specifically targets the middle men known as "jobbers" — those individuals who distribute gasoline as well as operate gas stations. Does the dual role result in price fixing? Maybe. Two entities, as of now, control about 70% of the gas stations in the District of Columbia. But the question of how this plays out in the District's gas stations has resulted in a long, contentious debate stretching back more than half a year ... and today D.C. Councilmembers even turned to a metaphor of McDonald's and Burger King hamburgers in their discussions.

"This situation is untenable for station operators and can lead to market manipulation on the part of the jobber,” Cheh said to her fellow councilmembers at today's gathering.

"I want to go on the record vigorously opposing this bill," at-large Councilmember Vincent Orange spoke up moments later. "It's not clear this bill would reduce the cost of gas."

Orange has opposed the bill in the past, a reflection of larger opposition from the Washington Post editorial board, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others. In support of the bill we have a collection of independent gas station operators calling themselves the Coalition for Affordable Gasoline, which has gathered signatures in support of the bill and, as I wrote last week, released a video decrying Joe Mamo, a notorious jobber who operates nearly half of the gas stations in D.C. The coalition partnered with AAA Mid-Atlantic last November.

"Do you have a question?" Council Chairman Kwame Brown interrupted Orange.

The councilmember confirmed he did, and asked what had happened to the D.C. attorney general's purported investigations into jobbers and the work of Mamo.

“The attorney general is in an active investigation of this matter still," Cheh replied.

"So why should we be voting on it?” Orange asked.

The two councilmembers spoke back and forth for a few moments about how the bill's powers would manifest and the prospective divorcement provisions. Then Orange, speaking deliberately, brought up the matter of race. Wouldn't going after Joe Mamo effectively take down one of the most prominent minority entrepreneurs in D.C.? Cheh disagreed. She also hesitated to focus on the race of the businessman in question, which has received some national attention from individuals such as Rev. Jackson.

"This business about injecting race here — you should really look at the operators and their racial makeup and the people of the District of Columbia and their racial makeup," Cheh told Orange. The bill, she reasoned, would be uplifting these other gas station operators and District residents, many of whom are black, as much as it would prevent Mamo from serving his multiple roles in our gas station ecosystem.

What followed is not worth digging into, really, other than to say that Councilmember Orange and Cheh carried on a long metaphor involving McDonald's and Burger King hamburgers. Orange noted that Cheh was essentially saying that a person who wanted a McD's burger should be able to go purchase one at the King. Talking about, you know, gasoline. "You're mistaking things," Cheh replied, who continued the fast-food comparison when explaining how her bill wouldn't limit how gas station operators use specifically branded gasoline. And so on.

But ultimately, the D.C. Council affirmed that the conversation will continue on Feb. 7 in another legislative meeting. It's "agendized," if you can stomach such a word. Let's hope the hamburger metaphors continue in full force.

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