All eyes are on the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) as they take on a new role overseeing the Office of Open Government. The D.C. Council changed the law last year, ending the independence of the Office and requiring its director to report to the board--five members appointed by he mayor and confirmed by the Council.
The board drew criticism in 2018 for its apparent hostility to open government in failing to renew the respected director, Traci Hughes, as her five-year term ended. (Hughes is now a member of the board of the D.C. Open Government Coalition.)
The Coalition and others opposed placing the Office under a board that had no members qualified to deal with open government matters. The Council’s changes eventually included a requirement that at least one of the five members “shall have particular experience in open government and transparency.”
Council member Charles Allen, who as chairman of Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety crafted the BEGA changes, told inquirers at the time that this detail was intended to demonstrate the continuing Council commitment to open government.
When the mayor’s first new BEGA nominee under the new statute, transportation attorney Charles Nottingham, lacked the required qualifications (as did all the continuing members) the Coalition communicated disappointment through all possible channels (including in this blog, where we reported “the law seems to have had no effect” and asked that the name be withdrawn). The nomination expired January 9 without Council acfion, perhaps--we thought--simply a victim of hectic end-of-session scheduling.
But a clearer explanation has surfaced.
Council member Allen wrote Steve Walker, the mayor’s headhunter, chief of the Office of Talent and Appointments, a January 16 letter to spell out why his committee rejected both BEGA nominees for cause. In the letter, first reported by the Washington City Paper’s Mitch Ryals, Allen said the new nominee, Charles Nottingham, lacked the qualifications the law required for the open seat.
As to a second name sent at the same time, renomination of BEGA chair, Tameka Collier, Allen wrote that while she had shown “strong leadership” he recalled he had warned the staff "to consider a different choice" for chair as well. Collier, he said, did not commit to a full term and the board needed a chair with “more ethics and open government-specific expertise.” With a third member’s resignation effective in February, according to Allen, that could cause quorum problems if only two members remain, Allen said he hoped for new names soon and offered to advise in advance to help smooth their passage.
Council member Allen recognized during contentious oversight hearings last spring that public trust in D.C. government commitment to transparency was badly shaken by the executive branch decision on Hughes (with fig-leaf justification and evidence of months of high level discussion among agency heads and mayoral advisors on putting the famously independent Open Government Office in its place with a “legislative solution”).
The January 16 letter indirectly offered an olive branch. Noting “the District’s open government and transparency advocates were not consulted” on Nottingham’s nomination, Allen said “I strongly encourage [the talent office] to engage these stakeholders before nominating another candidate.”
The Office of Open Government enforces the Open Meetings Act and has a leadership role in other D.C. government transparency topics such as through its authority to write opinions on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. The Open Government Coalition looks forward to playing a part in assuring that a qualified board oversees this important work.