Counting Down the Top Open Government Stories of 2019
Fritz Mulhauser | December 30, 2019
We’ve compiled five top stories of the year from the many matters the Coalition has participated in as advocates and covered in the Transparency Watch item in our blog.
#5: D.C. Council effort to limit FOIA stopped by community opposition
Proposed FOIA changes to make fewer records available and harder to get were on the D.C. Council agenda in May. Slipped by the chairman into a budget bill, the proposals were never discussed with stakeholders or aired in a hearing and drew universal backlash from other Council members and the community. They were withdrawn (not debated or voted on) so their rationale and support were always murky.
Sources in the Council say members and staff have been troubled by some requests for records in recent years that involve thousands of pages and appear to be “fishing expeditions” (requests for “all emails of Councilmember X since 2005”) without clear focus. Such focus, of course, is not required by the public records law in D.C. or the federal law on which ours is based. A few D.C. executive agencies have also complained of burdensome requests (such as epic battles a decade ago between the police department and its union) and been frustrated when courts were unsympathetic–typically just ordering rolling production, stretched out over years if needed. The Council chairman said a larger FOIA reform bill with similar themes of managing burdensome and vexatious requests would be offered later, but none has surfaced yet. We and community partners are ready to work hard on modernization of the D.C. law, written decades ago, but also ready if these retrograde ideas surface again.
#4: Public access to police body-camera video came under overdue review this year
Five years after the Coalition and the community won public access to body-cam video, the Council reviewed the effort in an October roundtable. A chorus of testimony showed the unfulfilled promises of accountability and improved community relations that officials hoped would result from the new high-tech equipment capturing what police really do and say on duty.
Families grieving over loved ones shot by police told of waiting months to see video. Communities angry at harsh street patrol actions noted the mayor refused to help calm things with release of video on special authority she has. And the Coalition reported few actual video releases via FOIA in recent years. Why? MPD charges huge fees that are driven by over-redaction of details based on misreading what privacy law requires.
Councilmember Charles Allen has already moved emergency legislation by Councilmember Trayon White Sr. to allow next-of-kin faster access. For the longer-term, the roundtable showed needs for improved public reports and a deep evaluation of the program. Areas to check: how to improve officer compliance with the rules for having cameras on during all key actions; how to cut costs needlessly limiting public access (the Open Government Office usefully suggested D.C. now has internal capacity for redaction); and how to show the public police are expanding internal video use for training and accountability.
#3: Dramatic application of FOIA to legislative records – the case of Councilmember Jack Evans
The biggest D.C. political story of the year shows a great example how FOIA is useful. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has been for months in the headlines for various ethics problems and by year’s end both public opinion polls and a Council committee vote suggested “near-certain expulsion,” as City Paper “Loose Lips” columnist Mitch Ryals summed it up.
Law-firm reports first for WMATA, then for the Council fleshed out the story, and a grand jury is still at work, but don’t miss the FOIA angle. Early and powerful details came when Jeffrey Anderson of District Dig and Steve Thompson of the Post reported Evans’s multiple conflicts of interest based on emails from his Council account obtained via FOIA. The rest is history.
As Anderson summarized in an end-of-year retrospective, “They say ‘It takes a village,’ but the truth is that sometimes the ‘village’ just has to consist of The Washington Post, which followed The Dig‘s FOIA activity, cited its work, and persisted in forging new ground of its own.”
#2: Welcome signs of continuing independence as Office of Open Government marks first full year under new management
Observers worried in 2018 as the D.C. Council seemed to do a 180-degree U-turn on the highway of open government. In new legislation they ignored the mayor’s failure to reappoint the well-regarded first Office director, Traci Hughes, and instead lodged the Office fully under the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability that had just sacked Hughes. The Council rewrite even created a process for agency appeal, seeming to side with agency critics who had the mayor’s ear throughout the year. (Such a step is unheard of in the work of other independent watchdog offices like inspectors general or auditors.) The Coalition testified repeatedly against the changes.
But the Board and the Office seem to have coexisted productively for the year (perhaps aided by an added BEGA member with substantial open government expertise). And no appeals were filed, even in the case of one high-profile opinion that set aside years of D.C. Public Schools procedure for school-level advisory bodies called LSATs. The Office found no reason they shouldn’t comply with the general city-wide open meetings requirements as parent activists had long called for.
#1: Pressure builds to require charter school transparency: open board meetings and access to records via FOIA
From January to October four hearings showcased new advocacy by charter teachers and parents. Anger had grown over secret decisions as charters’ boards met behind closed doors and concealed facts of salaries, school spending and even campus closings. The new players disrupted settled political alignments in which charters for years had the clout (aided by the charter-friendly Washington Post and foundation-fueled lobby groups) to fend off any proposal that could nick the 123 schools’ treasured autonomy, the supposed secret sauce in the recipe for students’ superior performance.
The Public Charter School Board tried early to head off bigger change with January and February hearings on its own modest proposals. But as pressure mounted, Councilmembers Charles Allen and David Grosso both introduced bills, held lengthy hearings in June and October and marked up a provision for slightly more open board meetings.
Coalition witnesses testified all four times, noting new Coalition research showing most states include charters in their open government laws without hesitation (or ill effects). The Coalition remains active with community partners to press for movement on FOIA access in the new year.
And 2020 will bring more challenges. Please help support The D.C. Open Government Coalition’s efforts to strengthen public access to government records, meetings and data. Make your year-end contribution today: donate here.