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Coalition Successes in Council Advocacy: D.C. Fiscal 2023 Budget Plans Can Strengthen Open Government 

Fritz Mulhauser | May 11, 2022

Open Government Coalition recommendations led to funding and other specific directions to D.C. agencies, including for new plans to deal with 21st century issues of access and archiving of digital records, according to D.C. legislative committees’ budget reports voted on in late April.

Several recommendations directed activity to be done with community partners including the Open Government Coalition.

Each D.C. Council committee reviews its parts of the mayor’s budget in hearings in March and April. Members can rearrange funding within the total in the committee area, transfer funds with other committees, and make recommendations for policy and program activity. From the committee reports voted on in late April, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson prepared a draft budget that is being considered in two Council sessions, the first held Tuesday, May 10, and the second coming May 24.  

In response to community and Coalition requests for action on multiple areas of needed improvement to build transparency, in their reports’ texts and budget details, Council committees outlined many steps:

  • ANCs — Added a General Counsel and other resources to help Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the central office manage records and FOIA
  • FOIA backlog — Directed the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel to deal with a backlog by once again deciding FOIA appeals promptly and providing detailed quarterly reports on progress
  • Digitizing records — Encouraged the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability and its Office of Open Government to make an ambitious new plan, jointly with the Chief Technology Officer “and community partners,” to digitize D.C. records for proactive publication and FOIA, as well as to write a new code of conduct for officials and employees on open government obligations
  • Improving FOIA — Directed the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to work with the Open Government Coalition on FOIA matters including reporting back on any new legislation needed; also directing OCTO to work with those planning the new D.C. archives to properly welcome digital records   
  • D.C. Archives — Directed the Office of the Secretary to take care public access to records continues as a new archives building is planned and built, and to assure public input on the plans
  • Publishing OAH opinions — Doubled IT staff at the Office of Administrative Hearings, charging them to develop (in consultation with OCTO and the Coalition) a firm schedule to publish long-delayed opinions by January 2023; also added staff to help the public use the office and funding a study of whether the busy administrative court has appropriate staff and pay levels to attract the workforce needed to drive efficiency and innovation

In one other open government development, the Council chairman also has proposed to rewrite the Freedom of Information Act to remove grounds the mayor uses in refusing to publish agency budget requests online as one “proactive publication” section of the law requires.

The Committee of the Whole that he chairs is sending forward a change in the FOIA to make clear an exemption asserted by the mayor doesn’t apply. This addresses a “deliberative process” exemption, just one of the many grounds on which the mayor refuses to carry out the proactive publication requirements in D.C. FOIA. The mayor’s refusal is the subject of a pending case where a D.C. trial judge ordered compliance, a ruling the mayor is challenging in the D.C. Court of Appeals. The Coalition has filed an amicus brief. See blog post here.

For a quick guide through the details of proposals and committee responses, see this guide and summary in compact form (an 8-minute read), with links to the committee reports and the specific sections where can be found the open government budget and policy recommendations.