Board Chair Seeks Power, Authority Over D.C. Open Government Office—But Why?

D.C. February 9, 2018 -- Listing only plans to redefine the job of Office of Open Government director (adding performance measures and more reporting in), Tameka Collier, chair of the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), Thursday (8) offered the D.C. Council few details to explain the board’s decision not to reappoint Traci Hughes, the current director as her five-year term ends in April.

Her work was fine, said Collier, but Hughes just hadn’t “collaborated” enough.

Pressed by committee chair, Charles Allen, what that meant, Collier cited an episode in fall 2017. An angry agency head wrote the board to complain about Hughes’s office. Investigation of complaints had suggested a host of problems with meetings, and even the possibility significant actions had been taken without enough properly appointed members which the office referred to others to consider.

Collier told Allen "Hughes writes under our letterhead" and as board chair she was distressed to know few details of an investigation that aroused harsh commentary from a target, though Hughes said she met with the board monthly throughout her years as director. (Witnesses gave few details of the agency critique, which was copied to Hughes as well, but Hughes said she attached it to her testimony so it should eventually be available in the record.)

Of course, as other witnesses pointed out, that was the way the law is written. The law creating the Office of Open Government gives a slim role for BEGA -- appointing the office director and little beyond that. This is in marked contrast to the ethics work of the board where all actions are in its name and staff are closely supervised and guided by board votes in deciding investigations to open and actions to take on findings. The D.C. Council chose a different approach in establishing the open government office.

Board chair Collier dreams of more -- as she put it, "we don’t have the authority to tell Director Hughes, ‘maybe you shouldn’t pursue this.’" And that's not a bug; it's a feature, as the software saying goes.

Questioned under oath, Collier denied mayoral spokeswoman LaToya Foster’s account (reported by Tom Sherwood in the City Paper) of her “frequently meeting” in the mayor’s office.  Her only interaction, she said, had been a call to the mayor’s general counsel, Betsy Cavendish, to talk about a “legislative solution” to her frustrations about not knowing details of the Office work described in the agency head complaint. She denied talking to the mayor at all, and said she received no pressure from any source to deny Hughes’s reappointment.

In testimony for the Open Government Coalition, Fritz Mulhauser (this writer) cited the Council history establishing the independent open government oiffice and concluded “BEGA doesn’t understand the independence expected for this office” and “has been a poor steward of government transparency.” The Coalition urged a restructuring to give the office its own oversight board with balanced membership appointed by executive and legislative branches. (Coalition testimony is in the hearing video beginning at 5:40:35.)

A half-dozen public witnesses spoke in support of Hughes and in light of her exemplary work all questioned how BEGA could fail to reappoint her.  As witness Sandra Moscoso put it, “what is [the board’s] vision for open government if not this?”

Chairman Allen ended the hearing with the BEGA chair and Hughes still at the witness table, emphasizing he saw “clear work ahead of us,” in light of what he heard that day, to reassure the public there is “a government they can trust” since many with years of experience and commitment to open government feel “that trust is frayed.”

 

Coalition statement for the record is linked below.  Washington Post coverage of the hearing by Fenit Nirappil is here.