D.C., Md., Va. advocates oppose WMATA safety board secrecy

UPDATE: See Washington Post 8/22/16 story on Coalition letter and 8/31/16 editorial leading with the letter, calling again for transparency and reporting "it is unclear who was behind the push for secrecy. Mr. Evans, also a D.C. Council member, told us he thinks the exemptions are “just a terrible idea” and that he will push for changes when the matter comes up later this year before the council. We hope he succeeds and that lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia follow the lead toward openness."

  Transparency advocatees from D.C., Maryland and Virginia jointly urged legislators to ensure the public and news media have access to meetings and documents of the Metrorail Safety Commission proposed to oversee the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”). The D.C. Open Government Coalition; the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association; and Virginia Coalition for Open Government sent letters Aug. 18 to key lawmakers in the three jurisdictions seeking amendments to a proposed interstate compact to establish the safety commission.

  Legislation is already pending in the District (Bill 21-828), and lawmakers are expected to introduced identical bills when the Maryland and Virginia legislatures' 2017 sessions begin. The current bill alludes to an expectation of openness as a matter of policy, but falls short of mandating public access, and does not provide any enforcement mechanism.

  Kevin Goldberg, DCOGC president, noted that “it is obvious that WMATA needs more oversight, and the public should be able to participate in that process.” The proposed commission is intended to act as a government agency and, “should be treated as a government agency for all legal purposes, including open meetings and access to records purposes,” Goldberg stressed.

  The groups are asking that legislators make the commission proceedings subject to the transparency laws of each jurisdiction, or the federal Government in Sunshine Act and Freedom of Information Act; and that they provide a clear right of appeal to a higher body within a jurisdiction, and a right of judicial review in federal court. Megan Rhyne, VCOG executive director, said “this change shifts the public right of access from a passive suggestion to an enforceable requirement highlighting the importance of public participation.” 

  Public input will be critical to get a realistic picture of the Metrorail system, and the public must have faith in the process and be able to hold this new commission accountable. The Commission is being formed after significant safety lapses and the failure of the Tri-State Oversight Commission to ensure the safety of the system. “The public’s perception of the Commission’s findings and actions will be shaped by their perception of whether the process is fair or not," said Rebecca Snyder, MDDC Press Association executive director. She noted that the Commission is “starting in the negative in terms of public perception if the public feels it is being shut out of the process.”