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D.C. Mayor and Council Meeting Daily and Excluding the Public

Fritz Mulhauser | April 1, 2020 | Last modified: May 12, 2020

UPDATE 4/1/20 12:30 p.m. The mayor’s office has backed down and is providing press access to the council-mayor calls. At her press conference today, the mayor said “I don’t have a problem with press listening to anything.” Soon after, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff told reporters they will provide press with the separate listen-in line available for staffers. Public access was not mentioned.

The full D.C. Council is holding daily conference calls with Mayor Muriel Bowser and senior members of her administration on the District government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and the press and public are excluded from those calls.

Washington Post reporter Fenit Nirappil revealed the calls in a Tweet Tuesday (31), reporting that “D.C. Council Chair [Phil] Mendelson and City Administrator Rashad Young complained today about the Post learning about council-mayor coronavirus calls.” The mayor’s press office had previously refused press requests for access.

The reporter noted “It’s a bedrock of government transparency to have media access when a quorum of a public body meets. That’s why mayor-council breakfasts at the Wilson Building are open press. We are in a pandemic and council-mayor discussions should not be secret.”

The concern for limiting public access seems especially odd in light of other details.

  • First, the executive branch officials are not sharing confidential information. According to another part of today’s Nirappil Tweet, “I’m told Rashad Young in today’s call suggested that he would only relay information that the public can hear because of the Post.
  • Second, access is not, in fact, closely controlled. The Coalition has learned the mayor’s office has distributed a number government officials can call to listen in. That open access suggests the government has waived any claim the discussion is secret or privileged communication.   

D.C. Council rules, sections 371-375, call for open meetings and list only a few topics that can be considered in closed session. The rules (which have no enforcement mechanism open to the public) also require that any closed segment must be agreed in public session, by a roll-call vote, and with a written statement of the basis for closure. There must be available afterwards a transcript or other detailed record of the substance of the closed segment. To the Coalition request under the Freedom of Information Act for records of calls so far, the Council said May 12 they have no such records.

Closed meetings at this difficult time are troubling. Public interest could not be higher in how the District government is managing an urgent situation affecting the public health and while the mayor gives frequent public updates the Council is not meeting in any public sessions or holding any hearings.

The Council should reconsider whether it is truly appropriate to conduct this sort of official business behind closed doors. There are no doubt details of the pandemic response that must be closely held. But are those discussed on the calls? Why exclude the public, particularly if the topics are scrubbed and many are already indiscriminately allowed to listen in.