Event Highlights Transparency Problems and Potential Solutions

At the D.C. Open Government Coalition event on Thursday night, Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, who is chair of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, promised to hold a hearing soon on both her Freedom of Information Act-reform legislation as well as Councilmember Muriel Bowser’s open meetings reform bill. In addition, the event featured Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, who provided some alarming observations of difficulties the newsroom has faced when seeking access to government information from the executive branch. The D.C. Open Government Coalition underscored these problems by releasing the results of two recent projects that highlight disturbing findings about the District government’s compliance with FOIA, and the Coalition provided a set of questions to ask the candidates during the upcoming election season to keep the focus on increasing transparency in District government operations. 

On the topic of legislative reform, Councilmember Cheh described the fundamental importance of public access to government records, as well as some of the problems that have been occurring in the District with the implementation of FOIA. She described the provisions of the Open Government Act of 2010, which would create an independent ombudsman in the District to monitor and facilitate compliance with the law’s requirements. 
Councilmember Bowser first congratulated the open government community in D.C. for the recent success in having the Council’s budget negotiations accessible to the public for the first time via live video coverage. Bowser described her own surprise as a new Councilmember at the frequency of secret meetings, and urged support of her bill, the Open Government is Good Government Act of 2010, which would establish an open meetings framework that would replace the current law (she noted that the current law has “a loophole so wide you can drive a truck through it”).
Later in the evening, the D.C. Open Government Coalition returned the focus to the accessibility of public records in the District, releasing the results of its audit of EFOIA compliance. The D.C. FOIA has a provision requiring all agencies to post certain information online; in a survey, the Coalition found that 54% of the time the agencies have not posted the required information. The Coalition also described the interim results of its ongoing project to review the FOIA denial letters maintained by each agency. Though FOIA requires agencies to keep a separate file of such letters for public inspection, the Coalition received widely varying results in responsiveness, including some major agencies that were far from the mark. 
The Coalition also made available portable cards with questions about important transparency issues, and urged the audience to use these questions to keep candidates for public office focused on the problems and potential solutions to public access to information in the District during the upcoming election season.