In an unorthodox move this past month, two city council central staffers---supposedly apolitical, braintrust employees who work on specific issues for the entire council---sent letters to the council, their bosses, opposing a legislative proposal.

The proposal, aimed generally at encouraging small and home-based businesses, would allow commercial uses on the ground floor of buildings in areas of Capitol Hill currently zoned for low-rise and mid-rise housing and within a quarter-mile of light rail stations. The legislation would also increase the threshold for the size of a development to trigger environmental review.

For a central staffer to advocate on an issue before the council is kind of like a nonpartisan GAO staffer testifying on an issue in front of Congress. It doesn't violate the city's ethics code---both of the two staffers, Rebecca Hertzfeld and Michael Jenkins, have recused themselves from staffing the zoning issue, central staff director Ben Noble confirms---but it is a weird gray area.

Wayne Barnett, director of the city's Ethics and Elections Commission, says he spoke with Hertzfeld and told her "you don't give up your rights to be a citizen when you take a job with government. As long as she's not working on the issue---as long as neither of them are working on the issue---they can communicate with the City Council as homeowners just as anyone can."

Both of the letters, by Herzfeld and her fellow central staffer Michael Jenkins, are similar: They argue that allowing commercial uses in non-commercial zones would hurt nearby business districts and harm the neighborhood's residential character.