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Coalition Testifies Seeking Stronger Oversight to Correct FOIA Failures at D.C. Dep’t of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs

dcogcadmin | July 14, 2016

A D.C. Council committee roundtable chaired by Vincent Orange (D-At Large) on July 13 listened to a crowded hearing room packed with residents angry about illegal construction and weak consumer protection by city regulators in the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

The Open Government Coalition testified on basic problems for those seeking simple information. Building permits (approved or pending, plus the full file of plans) must by law be posted online but–years after the requirement took effect–remain unavailable.

Coalition testimony reviewed the scathing report of findings of a recent investigation by the Office of Open Government that DCRA for years has ignored the D.C. Freedom of Information Act provision on publishing full permit files outside the burdensome process of request and agency search (often with delay and cost).

Witnesses over and over told of their own problems finding permit details, about problematic prior work on their own house before they bought or to understand what was going on with new digging and building by a developer working fast on a project next door. Many got little or no relief through city channels when they found obvious flaws they thought a true consumer agency should have spotted and nixed any permit long before work started.

Housing demand accompanying the soaring D.C. population growth is fueling a construction boom with financial incentives for quick projects, for example, to turn a typical single-family row house into three 2BR condo units by excavating the cellar and popping out the back walls. WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported on the day of the hearing on ways developers are cutting permit corners, the small response of DCRA, and the frustrating legal battles of residents seeking accountability.  Questioning of the agency head, Melinda Bolling, by Council members returned repeatedly to issues raised by the vivid details and strong data in the WAMU piece that showed huge amounts of unlawful work, greedy players and a watchdog that hasn’t barked much.

On the FOIA point, DCRA staff conceded months ago they did not provide drawings and plans related to permits on the Internet (even saying they were unaware of the law, which the investigators found “unpersuasive” and “implausible”) but also pointing to problems of outdated agency computer systems that the investigation agreed posed “very significant challenges.”   

A Washington Post writer looking into the situation some months later reported finding the same flawed situation still in effect—no online permit access and, instead, copy service by an outside vendor collecting fees without oversight. 

The Council added $3 million for IT improvement in the 2017 budget just passed, and the committee budget report called it “imperative that these updates are made in order to better serve the public as well as to ensure that DCRA is in compliance with District law” — suggesting the funds were to be targeted at the FOIA problem.

The Coalition testimony (click on link below) welcomed this sense of urgency to address compliance with open government statutes and urged the mayor and Council to work together using oversight through the budget process to assure that new funds are promptly and properly spent so that the access to information that is mandated by law, and so long denied, can soon become a reality.

Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) probed the director about the Coalition testimony. Ms. Bolling admitted the FOIA access required by law is still missing, so permits are still not fully available online. Some data on recent permits are available in a system recently put back online after a period for its own repair and she promised that work to provide the mandated comprehensive access is under way (though references elsewhere in her testimony suggested the added FY 17 funds for IT may be spread across several DCRA systems needing work).

Video of the hearing is available here. The Coalition testimony begins at 4:01. Ms. Silverman’s discussion with the director on  Coalition FOIA testimony is at 5:01 – 5:02.