Open Meetings Act compliance 2013-14: Problems continue

  The D.C. Open Meetings Act is now more than three years old, since taking effect April 1, 2011. This is the Coalition’s third review of the statute in operation. 

  We have followed a set of public bodies for three years to see their compliance with requirements in the Act.  This time we examined 24 bodies over the 11 months of September 2013 through July 2014.   From their Web sites we found evidence of 459 meetings; for each, we looked for the details mandated by law: advance notice and agenda; advance notice of one or more of the permissible legal grounds for closing the meeting (or any part); and availability of information afterwards including roll call vote to close any part and a full record of the meeting by recording or transcript (or detailed minutes in place of a detailed record).

  The 24 public bodies we reviewed are in Appendix A. A summary of the provisions of the act and how we applied them in our review is in Appendix B.

Is a public body complying with the OMA?

Summary of Findings

  1. Of the 24 we re-evaluated, three public bodies posted no meeting information on the Web.
  2. Many of the 21 other bodies studied gave basic notice of all or most meetings: 14 noticed all and 7 posted notices inconsistently. (We could sometimes tell there had been a meeting, even with no notice, from agendas or minutes.)  
  3. Meeting agendas are also posted inconsistently: 11 bodies did so regularly but 10 posted none or irregularly.
  4. Closed meetings: 7 public bodies (with posted information) closed about a quarter of all meetings in part or completely (and one of the bodies with nothing posted told us all its meetings are closed).   Advance notice of the legal basis for closure was inconsistent (only 66% of the time).  Information after the fact about closed sessions was even worse: we found no recorded vote to close for half (65 of 120) of the relevant meetings (closed in part or whole).  Four bodies with a total of 50 closed parts had no recorded roll call closure vote information for the full period we reviewed.  
  5. Public bodies posted online a full meeting record (recording or transcript) for half the meetings (253 of 459) but those 253 were meetings of only 7 bodies.  Nine additional bodies posted adequate minutes online for 58 meetings.  Full meeting records of four more bodies were available at an office.

Discussion: Trends and Observations

  Meeting information on Web sites of public bodies remains needlessly difficult to locate.  Information is inaccessible in two ways:

  • Meeting notices and links to meeting materials are sometimes included among many other items on a general calendar where meetings are difficult to spot.
  • Full meeting records (such as videos) are sometimes buried in a news or other section of the site whose title is too generic to guide the public seeking meeting details.  

  The Open Government Office could help advocate for improved access.  Major D.C. agencies have this year started adopting a standard home page format with a tab for “Open Government Information,” including records available without request and also Freedom of Information Act request details. If boards and commissions used a similar standardized home page tab, that would be a logical place for Open Meetings Act details.  

  Full results are in the table of public bodies following the appendices. Key observations include:

A. Fewer bodies with no Open Meetings Act postings at all.  Three of the public bodies reviewed (down from five in 2013) have no information about meetings on their Web sites: the Judicial Disabilities and Tenure Commission, the Rental Housing Commission, and the Real Property Tax Appeals Commission.  The first two remain dark from our 2013 survey; the third is newly dark, adding nothing new since last year.  These public bodies can benefit from further guidance how all of their “gatherings” (as the statute defines them, including hearings and closed sessions) are covered by the statute.  We followed up to learn views of staff about application of the statute; notes from interviews at all three are in Appendix C.

B. In general: three bodies improved but consistent compliance remains rare.

(1) The Contract Appeals Board, Employee Appeals Board and Public Employee Relations Board have improved their Open Meetings Act compliance since our last review. The Contract Appeals Board has advanced from posting no meeting information to posting regular notices and detailed agendas, though full meeting records are still not available. The Employee Appeals Board added minutes to their site, though still does not post meeting notices in advance.  (We determined the total number of meetings after the fact, by inspecting the posted minutes.)  The Public Employee Relations Board improved modestly; instead of posting nothing at all as in 2012-13, the Board now posted meeting notices but not agendas or full meeting records or minutes. 

(2) Public bodies, in general, in 2013-14 were still far from full compliance with the Open Meetings Act;

a. Three posted nothing and two posted almost no information; six were this deficient last year.

b. Nine public bodies posted some information, but with much missing; eight last year.

c. Eight posted significant information but omitted some important items; seven such last year.

d. As in both prior reviews, only one body was in full compliance.

C. Meeting notices still missing in too many.  Though 80% of meetings were noticed, still five bodies that posted other details published no notices (for 33 meetings), in addition to the three bodies that provided no meetings details at all.  (Notices could have been posted at one time, but been removed by the time of our review.)  This is worse than last year. 

D. Agenda posting is improving.  Of the 21 bodies that posted information, 18 complied in this review by posting advance agendas for over 80% of meetings. That compares to less than half the bodies in our 2012-2013 review.  This is an essential requirement, since accurate advance agendas are essential for the public to locate public bodies’ meetings of interest.

E. Meeting records are still a trouble spot.  Public bodies have the most difficulty complying with the statute’s requirements that meeting records be quickly available afterwards.   Meetings must be recorded; “detailed minutes” suffice only where “recording is not feasible.” Copies of meeting records shall be “made available for public inspection” (the statute doesn’t say how) on a fast schedule (3 days for minutes, 7 days for recordings or transcripts).  We found full records or minutes posted for about two thirds of meetings (we couldn’t tell if they had been posted timely).

For the 14 bodies without full records on the Web we called and found four have them available at their offices.   But clearly many public bodies may be still struggling to document meetings’ full contents in the first place. (For more details on these bodies without full records see Appendix D.)

(1) Full records are online for half the meetings, at seven bodies.  We found full records (recording or transcript) of 253 of our 459 meetings (about half) but these were at only 7 of the 21 bodies: the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Historic Preservation Review Board, the Public Charter School Board, the Public Service Commission, the State Board of Education, the UDC Board of Trustees, and the Zoning Commission. The other 14 bodies (of the 21) posted no full record information.

(2) Some minutes are posted and their quality has improved.  We found minutes posted as an alternative to full records for 58 meetings by nine public bodies.  In general, they seemed adequate. (In prior years when we found all or most minutes too brief to suffice, the Coalition and the Office of Open Government disagreed over criteria of evaluation. For further discussion of what the Coalition looked for, see Appendix B.)

(3) Other access to full meeting records.  When we tried to talk to someone at each of the 14 bodies lacking online full meeting records, four explained how to get access at their office to a full record (though one charged a fee).  Eight proved impossible to reach in repeated tries and the rest said they had no full record accessible in any form.

F. Trends. Overall, 12 bodies’ compliance was unchanged from last year (and received the same Coalition grade).

(1) In a definite improvement since 2013, we found six bodies improved their information posting in some way: the Contract Appeals Board, the Public Employee Relations Board, the Eastern Market Advisory Committee, the Employee Appeals Board, the Corrections Information Council, the Police Complaints Board, and the State Board of Education.

(2) Unfortunately, three bodies did worse: the Real Property Tax Appeals Commission did not post its meeting information at all in the past year, in contrast to 2013.  The Board of Elections and Ethics posted fewer meeting notices. And the Public Charter School Board also neglected to post notices and declined in its agenda postings as well.