DC Open Meetings Act
What meetings in D.C. government must be open?
The D.C. Open Meetings Act requires open meetings of public bodies, defined as any government council, including the Council of the District of Columbia, board, commission, or similar entity, including a board of directors of an instrumentality, a board which supervises or controls an agency, or an advisory body that takes official action by the vote of its members convened for such purpose. (There are 190 boards and commissions, listed in a database with links to their meeting calendars.)
What meetings are not covered by the law?
- any D.C. government agency;
- D.C. courts;
- the Mayor’s cabinet;
- staff meetings of public bodies when they meet outside the presence of a quorum of those bodies;
- D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (covered by their own open meetings law).
What counts as a meeting that must be open?
“Meeting” means any gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body, including hearings and roundtables, whether formal or informal, regular, special, or emergency, at which the members consider, conduct, or advise on public business, including gathering information, taking testimony, discussing, deliberating, recommending, and voting.
A meeting covered by the act may be held in person, by telephone, electronically, or by other means of communication.
The term “meeting” does not include chance or social gatherings (if they’re not held to avoid the provisions of the law) or press conferences.
Meetings during the emergency counted as open if the body takes steps “reasonably calculated to allow the public to view or hear the meeting while the meeting is taking place, or, if doing so is not technologically feasible, as soon thereafter as reasonably practicable.” That exception has continued until December 2022 here, as in many states, after the emergency as the Council recognized citizens valued online access even if that’s the only access. Arrangemets for hybrid meetings — in person and online — are slowly developing.
What advance notice of meetings is required?
A public body must publish a notice with the date, time, location, and planned agenda to be covered at the meeting. If the meeting or any portion of the meeting is to be closed, the notice shall include, if feasible, a statement of intent to close the meeting or any portion, including citations to the reason for closure allowed in the law under and a description of the matters to be discussed.
Meeting notices are to be posted at least 48 hours in advance at the public body office, on a website of the public body or D.C. government, and published in the D.C. Register. Public posting requirements originally lessened for the pandemic have been continued until December 2022.
If I can’t attend, what record must be available afterwards?
Meetings must be recorded, since it is difficult to argue it’s infeasible. Written minutes (available within 3 days) are a substitute only if full records are not feasible.
A copy of the full record, including any recording or transcript, shall be made available for public inspection as soon as practicable, but no later than 7 business days after the meeting.
Deadlines were postponed for issuing meeting minutes or full after-meeting materials for the duration of a public health emergency. That began in March 2020 but ended July 25, 2021.
Can a public body close part or all of a meeting?
Meetings must be open unless specific steps are followed:
- advance word of the possible closing in the meeting notice;
- in the actual meeting, the presiding officer must explain the reason for closure, including citing an allowable reason from the exclusive list in the Open Meetings Act and the subjects to be discussed; and
- discussion in the closed session must be only on matters allowed by law.
How do I complain about a problem with a meeting?
The D.C. Office of Open Government investigates complaints that a public body is not following the law in how they handle meetings.
A complaint form is available online. (Regulations govern the details of how complaints are processed.) Complaints may be submitted about problems with an an upcoming meeting, or about a violation afterwards (within 60 days of the alleged violation). In the past the Office has investigated promptly and thoroughly and often recommended changes. Opinions are published at the Office website.
Will my complaint have an effect?
The Office of Open Government has resolved complaints, issued advisory opinions with recommendations, and also sued for enforcement in D.C. Superior Court. The law does not allow lawsuits by the public, which puts the duty squarely on the government to police itself.
There has been only one lawsuit, which the Office won when the court agreed with its findings that a mayoral advisory commission repeatedly violated the law by inadequate notices and poor record keeping. The Office asked the court to impose a fine since the agency had been willfully out of compliance for months despite much outreach and remedial training. The court declined to fine the commission (holding the law is unclear on the exact situations where that penalty is allowed) and the Office did not appeal.
Events in 2018 suggested aggressive enforcement may be at risk, after D.C. Council bearings brought to light significant criticism at high levels of D.C. government of several Office enforcement actions, and the Office director was refused reappointment. But the independence of the Office appears to have continued, with some notable Open Meetings opinions including one that the D.C. Public Schools local school advisory teams must comply.
Complaints about charter school boards’ compliance may be a special case for a period. The Council in 2020 extended the law to require open meetings of boards of directors of charter schools, effective October 1. That adds over 60 public bodies to the enforcement agenda. The Office has offered extensive training to help the charters comply (see materials posted online) as they range greatly in size and management depth. The Open Government Coalition plans to review charter boards’ compliance when practice stabilizes after the disruptions of the pandemic period.