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Is Open Government Returning Along with Monuments, Movies, and More?

Fritz Mulhauser | July 16, 2021 | Last modified: July 29, 2021

TSA screened more air travelers July 4 than any day since 2019, the Capitol fence is down, the zoo and some Smithsonian museums are open, the Washington Monument reopened Wednesday (14), the Nationals hosted 37,187 (90% capacity) for the Dodgers game July 4. And with 81 percent of theaters open, millions watched Disney blockbuster “Black Widow” that opened over the past weekend, delayed from its original release in May 2020.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition shares the collective delight in return of parts of life as vaccination lowers the COVID-19 risk.

D.C. government employees are back at desks this week. But from our observations, much of familiar pre-pandemic open government is not yet restored. [Note some details have changed since this was published, after the D.C. emergency expired July 25.]

  • Delays are routine in public records access—the Open Government Coalition alone has seven requests and four appeals that are far beyond deadlines, one over a year. Join the upcoming Coalition webinar on efforts to get school data on safety issues in the pandemic.
  • You can’t attend a D.C. Council meeting or visit a member’s office to lobby.
  • Public bodies may meet virtually but meetings can even be unavailable to the public if phone/video access is ”technologically not feasible” and some notice and meeting record requirements are still suspended. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions can meet less often and need not meet in person–leading to a conflict reported in DCist when Ward 2 ANC 2F met for virtual discussion of clearing a homeless encampment, a meeting the encampment residents couldn’t attend.
  • D.C. courts remain largely virtual and jury trials are few, though with public log-ins to observe virtual events and remote computer centers for litigants who lack home access. Case backlogs are sky-high: court figures for last year show case filings dropped 50 percent in 2020 but so did dispositions (exacerbated by 12 of 62 judgeships vacant), leaving 5,000 more cases pending December 31 than at the same time in 2019–(Updated figures in a Superior Court statement July 23 showed 700 charged with felonies are in D.C. Jail detained pending trial. A court spokesperson told the Coalition there are about 10,200 pending criminal cases, double the number this time a year ago. Many, of course, will not involve a trial after plea negotiations.) The Office of Administrative Hearings has a 16,000-case backlog according to the Council FY22 budget report.
  • Federal courts here remain closed to the public, which means you can’t see the dramatic videos of January 6 Capitol riot mayhem, shown in many pre-trial hearings in recent weeks. CNN and media coalition efforts to get the video are described here and the chief judge’s order for limited press-only access is here.
  • And as COVID case rates rise again, details such as virus variant and vaccination status of recent cases are unavailable in DC unlike surrounding areas. A new dashboard is promised in coming days, the Post reports.

Open government limits still in effect by law were not addressed as the Council passed an emergency bill on pandemic adjustments before their summer recess began this week. The bill extends other special emergency rules for now and phases them out over time–what the chairman called “soft landings” over the next few months for many still needing assistance after COVID-related job loss and other distress.

The scramble was needed when the Council learned the mayor will not extend the public health state of emergency expiring July 25. That will trigger the end of many important protections for vulnerable residents now linked to the declared state of emergency. The Washington City Paper has a rundown on the full Council action extending limits on utility disconnection, foreclosure, and lawsuits for debt collection and eviction.  DCist report here and Washington Post here.

Fears of the surging Delta virus variant may have counseled caution in reopening in light of inequities in vaccination leaving many still vulnerable. Los Angeles County announced yesterday (15) it is reimposing a mask mandate for those indoors at public settings and businesses, regardless of vaccination status. The bill passed here narrowed the mayor’s authority, allowing declarations only of lesser emergency (public health emergency is required for the strictest decrees) and only until October 8.

The Council in December returned D.C. FOIA deadlines to normal effective January 15 (for new requests), following community protests about a huge backlog and long delays. A special carve-out allowed indefinite delay (as long as a public health emergency) for requests where staff searching for records could be in danger entering areas not yet disinfected. This possibility should disappear as the emergency is lifted and government offices reopen. This week’s Council action did not extend the Open Meetings Act changes passed in March 2020, so those will sunset in the near future and enforcement of the original statute will resume.   

The Council’s summer recess will be July 15 to September 30, with members returning (virtually) for budget votes July 20, August 3 and 10. The mayor’s budget arrived later than usual, delayed from March to May to include last-minute details of huge federal stimulus funds. Typically during Council recess, all committee work and legislative sessions are suspended. The Council passed a special rule authorizing a few committee activities and the full Council final budget action.