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“Novel” Lawsuit Headed for First Showdown – D.C. Office of Open Government Seeking Injunction for the Future and Penalties for Past Violations of Open Meetings Act

dcogcadmin | January 26, 2017

The District of Columbia, citing the “novelty” of this Open Meetings Act enforcement action, got more time over the holidays for the mayor’s Caribbean Community Affairs Commission to figure out its next step in the case. The commission is one of the D.C. mayor’s many public advisory bodies, and is alleged to have failed in fulfilling the law’s requirements to inform the public in advance about meetings and to furnish a record of each meeting promptly afterwards.

Filed in October 2016, the case is the first court action by the Office of Open Government, an independent agency created by the D.C. Council in the 2011 Act to be the enforcement watchdog.  Prior complaints, including several by the Coalition, led to investigations and opinions by the Office requiring compliance. SImilar steps in this case seem not to have worked.

An earlier post on this case is here.

The commission’s reply submitted January 8 combined a recital of corrective actions taken and promises to comply in future with an attack on some charges (referred to, in lawyerly brio, as “speculative and conclusory allegations of past noncompliance”) and on parts of the law said to be too vague to support harsh enforcement.

Unclear standards, says the commission, include what violations of the Act are enough to trigger the penalty fines?  What does it mean that meetings must be recorded except if “not feasible”?   And is web posting the only way an agency may make meeting materials “available for public inspection”?

Thus the case pits the watchdog against a unit of the mayor’s office, but the public and the government will both benefit if some ambiguities can be sorted out.

The D.C. Attorney General represents D.C. agencies in court, but legal ethics rules (and common sense) prohibit the same law office appearing for both sides in a case. So the Office of Open Government has outside pro bono counsel. (Disclosure: an attorney volunteering in the case for the Office is also on the Coalition board.)

The Office of Open Government has until February 7 to respond, and the court has scheduled a conference of the parties February 10 to discuss next steps.

The case is Office of Open Government v. Michael Yates, No. 2016 CA 7337 (D.C. Superior Court).