D.C. Open Government Coalition Hosts Former Mayor, Senior Officials, and Community Activists at “Summit”
Fritz Mulhauser | March 22, 2023 | Last modified: March 23, 2023
Anthony Williams, CEO and Executive Director of the Federal City Council, told an audience of transparency enthusiasts last week that his approach as mayor had been to “get info out promptly and manage it later” since “people should know what their government is accomplishing.” He praised journalists for pulling together mountains of facts for the public (and urged them as well to be fair to hardworking government employees). He welcomed public advocacy “for the capital investment needed” to manage and make available for free the records of the government in the digital age.
Williams, a former D.C. Chief Financial Officer (1995-99) and two-term mayor (1999-2007), was among nine speakers in a fast-paced program Wednesday (18) in the Open Gov Hub. The evening brought back the popular in-person gathering held traditionally during Sunshine Week but convened online for the last three years.
The mid-March week features dozens of events by open government groups nationwide to celebrate the birthday of James Madison. Madison is considered the founding father of government transparency and one of the designers of the U.S. Constitution. He once wrote, “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives” and perhaps most famously, “popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
Other speakers included–
- Norma Hutcheson, chair of the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, and Niquelle Allen, Director of Open Government, who noted the Board’s recent annual “best practices” report that called for bringing Advisory Neighborhood Commissions under the Open Meetings Act, and for permanent legislation mandating retention of electronic messages by government employees. They added support for expanded public access to police discipline data, included in the police reform act now under challenge in the House, and for a government-community task force to propose long-needed FOIA/OMA reforms and improvements in government transparency broadly, including the capital investments that Mayor Williams mentioned.
- A lightning round of government officials reflecting on their experience with government information the public needs:
- Charlotte Dreizen, solid waste (trash) expert and former D.C. Public Works official, who noted how strengths and weaknesses of trash data limit environmental policymaking when large parts of a complex set of actors are not as well understood as others;
- Ruth Wattenberg, a former State Board of Education president, echoed the theme of paralyzing inconsistencies in data access, citing teacher turnover and student graduation rates where concerns grew from press and advocacy, yet official data were thin or even false, and the board struggled to find what it needed;
- Kent Boese, newly installed on the D.C. Council staff as Director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, works with the 345 commissioners, almost two-thirds of whom are new to the task of representing the 2,000 people living in each of their districts. Transparency, and needed technology, are big issues in the 46 commissions, yet he warned his office can’t direct these elected officials; he is, according to his business card, only their “primary source of advice,” helping with meetings, websites, and keeping track of paper and electronic records (including responding to FOIA requests).
- A panel of three activists experienced in building the coalitions needed to demonstrate to D.C. Council and executive agencies the community support behind proposals:
- Damon King, policy lead at the ACLU of D.C., urged in such a diverse city as D.C., “really know your partners’ reasons for involvement, know their detailed skills, and be comfortable with different approaches.”
- Kathy Chiron, president of the League of Women Voters of D.C., said the group works chiefly on statehood as the primary route to full citizen empowerment in the District. Meanwhile, the all-volunteer League members work to improve access to today’s limited voting for disenfranchised residents, especially those in jail and prison. In that work, transparency challenges have included locating D.C. sentenced persons in hundreds of federal institutions and working through resistant correctional workers who object that “giving out voting materials isn’t in my job description.”
- Alex Baca, DC policy director at Greater Greater Washington advocating for walkable neighborhoods and improved transit, warned that successful coalitions must have concrete goals, specific plans, and “robust” staffing to keep things on track (that is, experienced leadership, not simply volunteers and students) since “this is difficult stuff.”
Tom Susman, the founding (and now outgoing) board president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, welcomed the group; incoming president Kirsten Mitchell chaired the session; and board members Jim McLaughlin, Sandra Moscoso, and Akosua Ali moderated segments. Vice president Liz Hempowicz handled many details of arrangements. Open Gov Hub staff were great hosts.
Mitchell ended the evening, noting other ways the public may be further involved with the Coalition:
- community training sessions on skills for “Digging Into D.C.” will be offered by a Coalition team led by board member Miranda Spivack in library branches through the year under a new agreement with D.C. Public Library.
- and the Coalition’s monthly board meetings are open to all, usually on the third Wednesday. Locations may change; send an email for details, firstname.lastname@example.org.