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Coalition Opposes FOIA Exemption for D.C. Neighborhood Commissions

dcogcadmin | July 8, 2016

Updated 7/14/16 to add confirmation by Council Member David Grosso in a Tweet 7/11/16 that Committee chair Anita Bonds told him the ANC FOIA exemption provision would be removed from the bill discussed below.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition testified July 6 to the D.C. Council opposing legislation that would bar public access to records of the 41 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions through the Freedom of Information Act that applies to the executive branch and the D.C. Council. 

Hundreds of commissioners are elected at the neighborhood level. Commissions (4-6 per ward) advise on D.C. government actions including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District’s annual budget.

Half the ten public witnesses and the head of the D.C. Office of Open Government echoed the Coalition’s points—that these elected bodies should be as transparent as every other part of D.C. government is required to be.

Council Member Anita Bonds, chair of the committee holding the hearing and author of the legislation, told a reporter afterwards the proposals limiting transparency will probably be dropped. Council Member David Grosso, who opposes the proposal Tweeted July 11 that Bonds had told him the same.

Bonds in January cosponsored an omnibus transparency bill, B21-0577, introduced by Council Members Mary Cheh and David Grosso that expands public access generally and, with regard to ANC transparency obligations, conflicts directly with the ANC legislation discussed in the July 6 hearing.

Bonds explained in the hearing that many commissioners asked for lighter requirements on those holding the volunteer positions. 

One commissioner testified how transparency burdened a colleague who had to devote a day and a half to reviewing emails demanded by a requester under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act.  The witness predicted openness burdens will mean fewer people will run for office, and half the positions are already uncontested.

A D.C. official overseeing the commissions testified only four FOIA requests were submitted to ANCs this year.

The Coalition also called for amendment to require ANCs to follow the District’s open meetings law. Commissions now operate under their own separate statute covering rules for ANC meetings only.  But it is not comprehensive and lacks a means of enforcement.

Video of the hearing is available here. The Coalition testimony (on behalf also of the D.C. Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists), presented by board member LaVita Tuff, is available at a link below. Testimony of the Office of Open Government, presented by director Traci Hughes, is here.