D.C. Council Budget Hearing Ignores Troubling Developments Affecting the Office of Open Government

The D.C. Open Government Coalition testified Friday (13) against proposed budget cuts for the Office of Open Government and in favor of a separate board of directors. OGC Government Affairs chair Bob Becker reviewed these and other problems but only the budget came up in questions, and that only briefly.  The hearing was before the Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety chaired by Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

A new board, said Becker, is even more necessary than when it was proposed last year because of multiple missteps by the current overseers, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA).  The open government office is under the Board (purely for purposes of making the director appointment) but its statute makes clear its independence in all other ways which has led to friction over the years. (See earlier blog posts on the issue here and here.)

Lapses by BEGA that add up, he said, to a “lack of regard” for the Council intention include:

  • declining without solid reasons to reappoint the well-regarded first director, Traci Hughes, whose five-year term (set by law) is ending;
  • declining to follow the provision also in law that a director who is not reappointed shall stay on until a successor is on board;
  • issuing an incorrect job description for the next director that reduces the office independence in ways that violate the statute;
  • cutting the budget of the office to increase the ethics unit funding.

At the February performance oversight hearing many witnesses praised the Office of Open Government achievements in recent years under Hughes's leadership. The BEGA chair, Tameka Collier, admitted she had discussions with the mayor’s general counsel about her goal of increased oversight of the office. But she denied political pressure played any part in the decision not to renew Hughes’s position. Following Collier's limited explanation for the drastic action, chairman Allen raised questions whether the community can trust the board.  

Since then

  • BEGA's position description released to recruit a new director adds supervision by BEGA beyond what's in the law so the Coalition wrote the D.C. Human Resources agency and the Council explaining the problems.
  • The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil wrote April 5 about emails obtained since the hearing that show the mayor's staff highly sympathetic to agency complaints that the office made public embarrassing details of their failure to follow the laws, even suing for enforcement as the law allows. The mayor's top lawyer endorsed the complaints, calling Hughes "way outside her lane and reckless" and another office of the head mocked her, writing "Crazy the Director of Open Government wants to close government." The mayor’s office told the Post in a new statement they had no role in the reappointment decision.  (The Post editorial page had earlier raised questions about the decision.)

Chairman Allen did not suggest his thinking on these developments, or address them in any way  in this hearing.  Office director Hughes was at the witness table, but gave no testimony and was asked no questions.

The Coalition also asked the committee to hold a hearing and act on the Strengthening Government Transparency Amendments proposal introduced in March 2017. This is a package of improvements to laws governing open meetings, open records and open data and was developed by Council and executive agency staff and community partners including the Coalition.  It is bill B22-0188.

 

The April 13 hearing is available on video here.  The Coalition oral testimony begins at 7:52.  The full written statement for the record is linked below