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D.C. Transparency Watch: Open Government Office Scores Victory — Deputy Mayor Gives Up Plan for Two-Year Education Task Force to Meet in Secret

dcogcadmin | November 8, 2015

A D.C. government task force of officials and citizens on education no longer plans to meet in secret for two years as it develops recommendations for the mayor on the visible and sensitive subject of improved collaboration between schools in the two sectors, charters and DCPS.

The task force website wasn’t updated by today (8), still reporting “meetings will be closed to the public.”  But officials let it be known this week they plan to change course.

The move came in response to a legal opinion from the Office of Open Government that the task force is a public body under the D.C. Open Meetings Act and must therefore do its work in public. The D.C. Council in the original Act directed the Office to review complaints of violations and issue opinions that public bodies such as boards, commissions and task forces must follow.

The Office Director, Traci Hughes, responded October 7 to a citizen’s inquiry (filed by this blog’s author) about plans published in August by the Deputy Mayor for Education to convene a “cross-sector collaboration task force” which would meet for many months entirely in private. This was needed, according to the official announcement, to have a “safe and productive environment…for open and honest dialogue.” Occasional public sessions and postings were to take the place of the Act’s requirements of advance notice and agenda for all meetings, limits on closure of portions, and full records promptly available afterwards.  

Hughes’s analysis rejected multiple arguments she said had been offered by the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel to support the deputy mayor’s secrecy plans—that the task force is invited not appointed, was not created by statute or official order, will have no authority to carry out any proposals or take any other official action, and will likely make its recommendations without a vote.

Hughes recalled the legislative history showed the Council explicitly refused to limit the Act to bodies created by law or executive order, dropping just such language in a draft bill.

Most important, wrote Hughes, the Council intended the Act to be construed broadly; the nature of the meetings are paramount and given the task force’s “potential far-reaching impact on education policy” it was ”the only plausible determination” that the Act applied and the work should be done in public.

The official change was first reported Thursday (5) by the Post’s Michael Alison Chandler, quoting Shayne Wells, a spokesman for the deputy mayor for education, saying the office will comply with the ruling. According to Chandler, Wells said “We were committed to an open and transparent process … This will make it even more open and transparent.”