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D.C. Transparency News – Open Government Laws at Work

dcogcadmin | August 12, 2018

As the firehose of information swells apace, many organizations and outlets are providing a handy aggregator (21st century term for “clipping service”) so you can quickly catch up on a lot.  Here’s the Open Government Coalition version for the dog days of July-August:

  • White supremacy rally organizers’ emails to Park Service obtained by FOIA showed previously secret list of speakers planned for August 12 at Lafayette Park. Kelyn Soong, Matt Cohen, Alexa Mills in City Paper.
  • D.C. Council heard six hours of testimony July 13 on bill directing D.C. Auditor to create new collaborative project for education data improvement. In the wake of years of shaky data and slanted presentations by school officials, community witnesses were warm to the plan for rigor, utility and independence. Executive branch witnesses opposed, saying the plan for Auditor role (under Council direction) would “politicize” analysis and just be a “gotcha” shop. Rachel Cohen in City Paper.
  • More on the pending DC bid for Amazon.  Secrecy surrounding states’ and cities’ frenzied pursuit of the development known as “HQ2” has energized a small army of reporters nationwide, none more dogged than Martin Austermuhle of WAMU. After initial huge redactions and denials, he got more records of the DC offer after a successful appeal decided in April but not all. (We blogged about the appeal here.) Now on August 3 he Tweeted that the District’s nondisclosure agreement with Amazon finally arrived. The January document signed by the depuity mayor for planning that arrived in August is now available. Lesson for all D.C. FOIA requesters: always appeal denials, and when the mayor orders agencies to correct their mistakes, keep on them.
  • Feds have had for several years a plan to shut down Metro if they think the rail system is unsafe. But they kept the plan secret until Faiz Siddiqui of the Washington Post found it by FOIA and wrote it up this month.
  • Mayor Bowser’s aide fired after violent drunken episode at the Wilson Building, with unredacted details trickling out only as reporters pressed (first just asking, then making FOIA request) for police incident reports. Marina Marraco, Fox5 (via Twitter); Peter Jamison and Peter Herrman, Washington Post.
  • ACLU and others press Mayor Bowser to use authority in D.C. access law to override MPD FOIA denial and release police body-worn camera video. Allowed in situations of “significant public interest” and mayor did so in releasing video of 2016 MPD chase and shooting of motorcyclist Terrence Sterling. Concern this time is with officers’ interactions with Deanwood residents in June when bystander video showed search on the sidewalk that seemed harsh and lacking solid justification.  ACLU; Natalie DelGadillo, dcist.
  • New D.C. Director of Open Government Niquelle Allen started on the job, attending July 9 Board of Ethics and Government Accountability session, first since her selection by the mayor. Former director, Traci Hughes, was not renewed in April and D.C. Council rewrote the law during the D.C. budget process to decrease the office independence.
  • PACER users’ hopes are on hold for any refund of past years’ payments of the high ten-cents-per-page fee for online access to federal courts’ case records (D.C. Superior Court case records are free). U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle in the spring had found in favor of the basic claim in a class action lawsuit that PACER fees (totalling $923 million in 2010-16) had been hundreds of millions of dollars more than the cost-recovery and a few other uses Congress approved. But the law is unclear and has never been tested. The Solicitor General of the U.S. approved an appeal and this week (August 13) Judge Huvelle agreed that “before proceeding to a potentially lengthy and complicated damages phase based on an interpretation of the statute that could be later reversed on appeal, it is more efficient to allow the Federal Circuit an opportunity first to determine what the statute means.” Could take a year.
  • DC children have been victims of ineffective lead abatement in units rented by those holding vouchers (public rent subsidy)–dozens of instances stemming apparently from superficial inspections by DC  Housing Authority that manages the voucher program. (They say their inspections following HUD standards.) Individual tragic cases and the broader issues were uncovered by FOIA work and reported by Terrence McCoy in the Post.
  • Open D.C. data sighting: Yelp’s online D.C. restaurant listings in late July began to display a “health score” – not menu calories but results of D.C. Department of Health inspections. Individual establishment inspections are available in a searchable database on the DOH website, long forms with detailed check-boxes covering dozens of rules.  But Yelp gets the data from a private firm HDScores that mines raw inspection data nationwide and converts it (using a secret algorithm) into a score of 0-100.  (The firm says its database has reports from 42 states or 1,743 counties, covering 73% of the U.S. population, from which they have “flagged over 14 million health department inspection violations.”)  But is it really useful as you head out for an August dinner to know that in January at Founding Farmers on Pennsylvania Ave. a hand sink had dirty utensils in it? Or that in the same month Clyde’s in Georgetown lacked a visible thermometer on its walk-in fridge? Both corrected within days. In the Bay Area where Yelp has displayed HDS ratings for some years, and dining is high art and big business, Yelp has had lots of pushback (and in turn, deflected criticism onto local government inspectors that delay reinspections and data updates). Laura Hayes collected D.C. reactions for City Paper.     

And the Top Transparency Travesty of recent weeks:

  • Matthew Dunlap reported recently that the records of the Trump commission to investigate supposed voter fraud showed they found nothing. OK, but Matthew who?  One more concerned citizen, like many before him who questioned the whole mess? Far from it. Dunlap is the Maine Secretary of State and was a commission member, one of four Democrats. Commission Chair Kris Kobach and his staff tired of pesky Dunlap asking for commission materials so he could do his job . They just ignored him and he responded with what may be the most specialized records access lawsuit ever filed in federal court here. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly agreed with him that commission staff were wrong to freeze a commissioner out, failing to send him basic schedules, report drafts, and other working documents. The White House finally released 8,000 pages last month. Eli Rosenberg of the Post reported on Dunlap’s review of the worthless pages and quoted his parting shot, “We had more transparency on a [Maine] deer task force than I had on a presidential commission.”