D.C. Office of Open Government Wins First Open Meetings Act Enforcement Lawsuit (Mostly)

The D.C. mayor has lost a year-long battle to stave off defeat in a suit testing the enforcement powers in the District’s Open Meetings Act.

D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge John M. Campbell ruled September 27 that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs violated the law by holding half a dozen meetings in 2016 without advance notice or draft agendas for the public and failing to record meetings even after staff were trained and given equipment.

Filed in October 2016, the case was the first court action by the Office of Open Government (OOG), an independent agency created by the D.C. Council in the 2011 Act to be the enforcement watchdog. Individual citizens can’t sue for violations of the law, though that would be allowed under the Strengthening Government Transparency bill pending before the Council. Now, only the OOG may seek court enforcement. The Office, represented by outside counsel, asked the court to order the mayor’s commission to obey the laws covering their meetings and pay a fine for each past meeting done improperly.

Prior complaints about other public bodies, including several filed by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, led to investigations and opinions by the Office requiring compliance. The Office took similar steps in this case including warnings and offers of training and assistance that were unsuccessful (though as the suit dragged on, the commission finally claimed to be in compliance).

Even so, the court declined to impose a fine, ruling that part of the law didn’t clearly apply in the situation. The Office could ask the D.C. Court of Appeals to review that opinion.  Meanwhile, the court's opinion settles only issues in this case and has no broader effect. 

See an earlier blog post about this case here.  The court's opinion is attached.