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Open meetings compliance 2012-13 still lagging

dcogcadmin | February 4, 2014

  Public bodies meeting in the District continue to fall short of compliance with the D.C. Open Meetings Act, according to a December 2013 D.C. Open Government Coalition report .

  Over the past 17 months, the Coalition examined information available online and at offices of 25 public bodies to assess whether they meet minimal requirements: giving the public advance notice of meetings, publishing agendas before meetings, and making recordings, transcripts or minutes of meetings available for public inspection. The Coalition found major shortfalls in public information:

• Five public bodies posted no meeting information;
• Twenty posted advance notices, but only 10 posted meeting agendas;
• Records of meetings are limited and not easy to access – the recording or transcript required by the act is available on-line for only half the meetings and only at seven public bodies; the public must visit an office to see the record at another seven bodies. Bodies may provide minutes if recording is not feasible; ten do so, but the minutes are not detailed enough to substitute effectively for the recording.

  The newly established Open Government Office, which opened in 2013, oversees the Open Meetings Act. The report suggests much work for the office to do — and with a staff of just one, greater resources may be necessary. The Coalition shared its findings with the Council of the District of Columbia and the mayor’s office.

  The D.C. Open Meetings Act is now almost three years old, since taking effect April 1, 2011. The D.C. Open Government Coalition has checked in twice to review performance of a judgment sample of about two dozen public bodies among the 170-plus covered by the statute. We first looked at performance in the first year, to March 31, 2012. Those results are at published here, and a discussion of the findings during Sunshine Week 2013 is available here.

  In this report we examine 25 of the original 27 public bodies over another 17 months, April 2012 through August 2013.1    We conducted the second Open Meetings Act compliance review in September 2013.  We did this review in the same way as the first.2   We reviewed Web sites of 25 D.C. government public bodies and looked for accessible information on meetings held.  We found 338 meetings and for each, we looked for details mandated by law: advance information (basic notice and agenda); for meetings with any closed portion, advance notice of the statutory basis for closure; and availability of information afterwards including record vote to close any part, full record by recording or transcript (or detailed minutes where recording wasn’t feasible). We followed up with staff at the public bodies about findings that raised questions. The Open Government Office gave comments on a draft of our findings and we made technical corrections as needed.

  The 25 public bodies we reviewed are in Appendix A. A summary of the provisions of the act and how we applied them in our review is in Appendix B.

Summary of Findings

  A. Of the 25 agencies we reevaluated, five agencies posted no meeting information on the Web.

  B. The rest of the agencies are giving basic notice of meetings – 18 of 20 did so for all meetings.

  C. However, agendas are posted much less consistently. Half of the 20 agencies for which we found Web data posted no meeting agendas during the study period.

  D. Agencies closed meetings a lot – all or part of meetings were closed in one-third (110/338) of our set of meetings, almost always (99 of 110) with statutory bases for closures announced in advance.   But formal closure is lax; we could find a recorded roll-call vote to close in only 14 cases out of the 110 closed meetings or segments. 

  E. The public can’t consistently find what happened in meetings; the required records are the biggest shortfall in compliance.  We found a full record (recording or transcript) posted on-line for less than half the meetings and that was by only seven bodies of 25. Seven more provide access to a full record at their office.   In lieu of full records, ten of the public bodies posted minutes; we judged them not detailed enough to substitute for the full record.

Discussion and Observations

  Overall, accessibility is mixed, with meeting data generally one to two clicks away from the home pages of 14 of the 20 public agencies for which we found data. Full results are in the table of public bodies following the appendices. Key observations include:

  A.   Five public bodies have no information about meetings available on their Web sites (Contract Appeals Board, the Employee Appeals Board, the Judicial Disabilities and Tenure Commission, the Public Employee Relations Board and the Rental Housing Commission). This is a small improvement; in 2012 we found eight public bodies with nothing about public meetings available on their Web sites. Even if all meetings are closed, the act requires a covered body to provide public information about meetings.  Follow-up discussions with staff at all five suggested training in the application of the act to bodies that hold no public meetings would be helpful.

  B.   Between the 2012 and 2013 reviews two bodies improved a great deal, the Corrections Information Council and the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee. Both lacked Web sites a year ago but both now have sites with at least notices and agendas.

  C.   So five bodies posted nothing and for the remaining 20, there is still a long way to go. Percentages are of the full 25 reviewed, and the results reflect the situation for a 17-month period through August 31, 2013 (there have been some improvements since).

• Three public bodies (12%) have almost no information posted.  This is an unfortunate trend; the previous review found only two with so little.
• Nine public bodies (36%) have some information posted, but with much missing. Again, this is worsening, as we saw only five (or 20%) this way before.
• Seven public bodies (28%) have significant information posted but are missing some data. This is an improvement; the first time we found that nine (36%) posted significant information but missed some. 
• Only one public body is in full compliance with the Open Meetings Act with all required data posted: the Historic Preservation Review Board. This was true in both our reviews.

  D.   On average, the 25 public bodies we reexamined would get a C on their Open Meetings Act report card: 24 are not in full compliance.   Now that the Open Government Office is active, this serious shortfall suggests there will be a need for enforcement priorities and procedures.

  E. The majority do post advance notices of meetings: 20 of the 25 bodies did so, for 332 of the 338 meetings we found. 

  F. But less than half of the bodies complied with the agenda posting requirement. Accurate advance agendas are essential for the public to locate public bodies’ meetings of interest.

  G. Public bodies have the most difficulty complying with the act’s requirement of electronic recording (or the substitute, “detailed minutes”).  Meetings must be recorded; minutes suffice only where “recording is not feasible.”  Copies of records shall be “made available for public inspection,” but the statute doesn’t say how. We checked on the Web and also by calling offices.

• On-line, we found full records (recording or transcript) of 137 or less than half our 338 meetings, and that was in only seven public bodies (Cable Television Public Access Corporation Board of Directors, Board of Election and Ethics, Historic Preservation Board, Public Charter School Board, Public Service Commission, UDC Board of Trustees, and the Zoning Commission).  The first three posted both the recording and minutes, though that is not required.
• Also on-line we found minutes (only) posted for 152 more by ten public bodies. We reviewed their content and concluded they fell short of being “detailed.” The Open Government Office thought our standard of review was too high and that a summary could do the job. Further discussion of what Coalition researchers looked for is below in Appendix B.
• For the 13 bodies where we found few or no on-line meeting records, we made follow-up telephone calls to learn more, including whether the public could “inspect” the record in some other way.  We learned of one fix: the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration told us the D.C. government technology office improved the agency Web site in October, after we finished our review. That has allowed posting full records of Alcoholic Beverage Control Board meetings that we found missing. Seven others provide public access to a full record in various ways at their offices (though nothing about that was mentioned on the Web sites and often took several calls to find out).  Four acknowledged they don’t provide public access to the full record (two said they were working on it–Education Licensure Commission and Taxicab Commission). One never replied (Human Rights Commission).

  H. Overall, 13 agencies reviewed have performed the same as we found in last year’s compliance review (and got the same Coalition grade).

  I. On a positive note, there are only five agencies, three fewer than in the previous audit, receiving a grade of F (reflecting zero compliance).

  J. Four agencies have improved their information posting: the State Board of Education, the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, the Corrections Information Council, and the Cable Television and Public Access Corporation Board of Directors.

  K. Unfortunately, one agency has worsened. The Taxi Commission previously complied with the recording (or minutes) requirement but this year we couldn’t find accessible minutes or full records for any of their meetings. There are a few meetings’ minutes hidden away on the site but we found them by accident and the public would not readily locate them. We discussed this backsliding with commission staff members. They agreed with our data and conclusions, said progress was under way and noted they have problems with a transcript contractor. Staff agreed the commission should better label and locate meeting information on the Web site.

  1This report considers 25 public bodies. That is because two of the 27 we first reviewed, the Public Defender Service Board of Trustees and the Convention and Tourism Corporation (now known as Destination D.C.), although included in the list published by the Mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions and in our first review, say they’re not subject to the Open Meetings Act. See details in Appendix C.  We dropped them from the second review.  Any comparisons made between this review and the previous one reflect 25 agencies.

  2Qiana Brandon and Rosana Chavez, students at the U.D.C. David A. Clarke School of Law, gathered and analyzed the data, with advice from Professor Matt Fraidin. John Albanes, a post-graduate fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, did much of the work for the 2012 study (with another post-grad fellow, Alexandra Wood) and contributed to the present one as well. The Coalition is grateful for the work of all four.