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D.C. Transparency Watch Updates – charters and FOIA, MPD stop and frisk data, FOIA portal improvements, school advisory groups now covered by Open Meetings law, and more great uses of FOIA by the public and the press

Fritz Mulhauser | September 18, 2019

As summer ended, the Coalition gathered a bumper crop of developments to keep you posted:

  • Charters and FOIA. A hearing October 2 will center on a bill introduced by Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and four others to include charter schools in the D.C. public records law (FOIA), the biggest change since the law was extended to the Council 20 years ago. Advocates include remarkable new voices of teachers and parents. The Coalition supports the bill and plans to testify (as we’ve done twice before) to explain it works everywhere else so why shouldn’t 123 schools, educating about 49,000 D.C. students with tax dollars, respond to public requests. Rachel Cohen in “How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics” (Washington City Paper, September 5) put the FOIA bill in context with a deep dive into the movement supporting charter schools.
  • Charters and the First Amendment.  Charters have argued their private nonprofit status should shield them from the proposals to apply open meetings and open records laws that apply to government bodies.  But a new lawsuit tests that claim of being private.  A parent at the E.W. Stokes Public Charter School filed suit in July with counsel from the Washington Lawyers Committee asking the federal court here to find charters are public enough that they should respect her First Amendment rights limiting government interference with speech. The school, according to the complaint, dropped the parent from the school’s message board for families and barred her  from the campus for five years after she expressed concerns about her children’s treatment.  The public-or-private argument has been resolved differently in courts elsewhere, depending on details of the cases and state charter laws.
  • MPD stop and frisk data—finally. The D.C. police department September 9 reported data on 11,000 stops by police in July and August, including 1,500 frisks, chiefly of African Americans. A flood of press coverage resulted.  This glimmer of openness followed years of darkness since D.C. Council legislation ordering such information be gathered and published. In a case brought by activists and the ACLU, a Superior Court judge earlier this summer finally lost patience and issued an order in writing that MPD should do as the Council directed. The department did itself no favors in the court of public opinion this summer by offering as “data” in response to a FOIA request, 31,000 body camera videos of stops, at their usual $23 a minute for redaction—a total, according to the ACLU that likely would reach $3.6 million. The police declined to interpret the new numbers and promised to contract with an expert.
  • FOIA portal improves. The District technology office (OCTO) has improved the online “portal” or site for requesting records from D.C. agencies under the open records law, according to a presentation to the Open Government Coalition in July. Improving users’ experience drew long-overdue attention by top officials and the contractor who provides the software following Coalition Council testimony in February. More agencies can be reached on the portal, users have more time to complete the form before their work is lost, and improper demands for identification are dropped. The portal is still not adapted to users on mobile phones and the “reading room” remains useless.
  • Open Meetings Act now covers D. C. Schools’ Local School Advisory Teams. The Office of Open Government after a five-month investigation issued an opinion in August, finding that multiple LSATs failed to provide adequate meeting information, in violation of the Open Meetings Act. The key part of the opinion holds for the first time that LSATs are subject to the OMA because they consider, debate and make recommendations on school plans, budgets, and staffing issues. Internal DCPS guidelines previously covered the groups’ operations but those now must conform to the law regarding meeting notices, agendas, minutes and limits on closed sessions, and enforcement has some new teeth. A specific opinion this month applied the new ruling, finding the Maury School LSAT had not followed the law. These opinions would seem to lend weight to the argument of advocates for applying open meetings and open records laws also to charter schools—that “openness should apply equally to all D.C . schools.”
  • Citizens and the press continue to use FOIA.
    • Jelleff turf fight. Advocates for more public use of sports fields at the Jelleff Recreation Center in Northwest D.C. used FOIA to gather records of the agreement they call a “backroom deal” years ago that turned it over to a private school. (The private school involved, Maret, invested millions in upgrades, installing artificial turf, fixing a pool and doing maintenance that had been beyond the D.C. budget.) Post general coverage here; sources unearthed by parent sleuths showed up in DCist coverage here.
    • Charter politics. Rachel Cohen used FOIA in her City Paper story described above, notably to uncover extensive and not widely reported interactions of charter supporters with legislators in the D.C. Council.
    • D.C. officials’ Las Vegas travel. Records obtained by FOIA requests showed “the bill to fly 21 D.C. government officials to Sin City and put them up in hotels for several nights was at least $41,000,” according to a September “Loose Lips” column in Washington City Paper by Mitch Ryals. The trip in May was to pitch D.C. opportunities to a real estate developers’ conference.
    • Lottery contracting. A Council member’s cousin heads a company that will be a subcontractor under the new Intralot sports betting contract, Fenit Nirappil reported in a Post story in July, based on CFO records obtained by FOIA request. And Steve Thompson reported in the Post in late August on how the overseas gambling giant may not be subcontracting with an actual local company as it wrote on contract papers and as it’s supposed to do in order to meet legal requirements that at least some part of big contracts remain here. Thompson wrote “the business Intralot has listed as its main subcontractor, Veterans Services Corp., had no employees.” How did he know? Shoe leather reporting, including visits to supposed offices, plus D.C. officials returned nothing to his FOIA inquiry for wage reports of the kind D.C. companies must file if they have employees. In response to his dramatic findings, Council members are talking fraud and nullification of the contract.