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Public Will Have Greater Access in this Year’s D.C. Council Online Budget Hearings

Fritz Mulhauser | February 23, 2021 | Last modified: March 1, 2021

UPDATE 3/1/21: The mayor and Council are postponing submission of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget in hopes it can include billions in federal stimulus funds authorized in a bill moving slowly in Congress. The American Rescue Plan Act, according to D.C. Delegate Norton’s office, “includes provisions uniquely vital to the District, including state-, city-, and county-level fiscal relief for the District, since D.C. provides each level of service, and $755 million in retroactive CARES Act fiscal relief to fix D.C.’s treatment as a territory instead of a state for fiscal relief in the CARES Act, considering that D.C. is almost always treated as a state for federal funding. The bill provides D.C. an estimated $2.2 billion in fiscal relief.” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson explained the reasoning at a press conference today on items for the March 2 Council legislative session that will include a proposal to extends the deadline until April 22. The same amount of time will be available for the postponed hearings, he said.

The D.C. Council will hold 230 hours of virtual budget hearings over 16 days beginning April 7 this year. This is a 63 percent increase from the 141 hours allowed in 2020, according to Coalition analysis of the published schedule.

The other big set of hearings annually, virtual agency performance oversight hearings, began this year on February 8 and continue to March 19, with about as many scheduled as in 2020. (Schedule here.) Last year’s oversight sessions were the last face-to-face Council work before the emergency — just over 50 hearings in the four Wilson Building hearing rooms, some days with three or four at once, beginning in the morning and lasting until the last witness was heard. Online hearings will number about the same this year but with definite ending times.

Last year’s budget hearings, the first ever online, were limited, 39 hearings instead of 54 the prior year, for reasons never fully explained. Staff were in the dark but told the Coalition that senior managers had said the problem was technology–the new virtual platform, put into service quickly as the pandemic closed in-person government, couldn’t stream simultaneous virtual hearings. Previously Granicus software routed live video to recorders and to the Internet from hearing-room cameras.  

The Coalition never learned more; we wondered how could new digital information streams from all-virtual hearings be less flexible than old cameras and wires? And the public got less chance to talk to legislators. With fewer time slots available and the budget calendar, already delayed for downward revenue estimates, didn’t allow adding more hearing dates, the Council chose to cut public participation: 24 of 39 sessions last spring were for government witnesses only. 

This year, following the mayor’s budget arrival March 31, simultaneous online committee hearings are back, two at once are scheduled just about every one of the 16 days; and only five are limited to government witnesses.

Council materials say the public can watch hearings on the Council website, entertainment.dc.gov, D.C. Channel 13, and in some cases, on Facebook, YouTube, or personal websites of a committee chair. Access details for each committee are in an eight-page appendix to the hearing schedules. Again the oversight hearing schedule and access are here, and for budget hearings here.  The Council online calendar shows at least how to find hearings live on the Council feed.

Public testimony will again be accepted in ways that were novel in 2020, now routine—including submitting a voicemail up to three minutes long that will be transcribed and included in the hearing record. The call-in number for each committee voicemail is in the instructions following the schedules.

Advance sign-up for live testimony is required so there probably aren’t walk-ons as in past years when a committee chair would often say at 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., “is there anyone else in the room who came to speak today?”  Nothing in D.C. law requires that all be allowed to speak who wish to.

Online hearings that allow remote testimony expand opportunity to participate; use of such technology should be continued somehow in the new normal, even as pandemic conditions lessen. To assess total demand, it would be useful if Council committees could report the number of requests they turn away for slots in this year’s online testimony.