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Transparency Watch: Your D.C. Open Records Law At Work (Even While D.C. Council Hears Ideas to Weaken It)

Fritz Mulhauser | May 10, 2019 | Last modified: August 12, 2019

Update: the proposed FOIA changes were withdrawn and not debated or voted on, so their rationale and support remain unclear. The Council Chairman said a larger FOIA reform bill will be offered in the fall.

Changes to the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to narrow records available and make them harder to get are on the D.C. Council agenda May 14, slipped by the chairman into a budget bill. Fortunately, the proposals—never discussed with stakeholders or aired in a hearing—face a major backlash from other Council members and the community. Good background is available from Martin Austermuhle at WAMU, Peter Jamison at Washington Post and in a letter by the ACLU of D.C. to the D.C. Council. (See link below.) The D.C. Open Government Coalition letter went to the Council Friday (10) as well. Linked below also.

Meanwhile,  it’s always good to take note of how access to public records is helpful to the public and the press. Here are examples in recent weeks:

  • The D.C. child welfare agency overworks staff to an extent possibly dangerous to vulnerable children and manipulates data to hide performance problems, according to an 8,000-word deep dive by City Paper’s Morgan Baskin, based in part on agency records obtained through FOIA.
  • Not a further word in the Post about the police video of Council Member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) in an MPD traffic stop, released after their own lawsuit (discussed in our blog here). But Mitch Ryals, Loose Lips columnist in the City Paper, was on it, filing his own FOIA request and reporting on the D.C. payment of $15,000 of the Post’s legal fees. (With no detailed reporting yet of its contents, maybe the video proved unremarkable, and if so, again casting doubt on the fierce D.C. MPD fight to keep it secret.)   
  • D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) was recently disciplined by Council vote and stripped of some committee responsibilities, the biggest blow to his political standing in many years. The action came in response to news the veteran council member repeatedly used his government staff and email to solicit business from law firms that lobby the city, offering his influence and connections to help their clients.  Steve Thompson’s Post story was based on emails obtained by FOIA that had been sent on government accounts.    
  • DC Line columnist Jonetta Rose Barras headlined a recent piece “are charter school leaders ignoring D.C. laws?” and said she was “enraged” to learn a law directing all schools to address youth suicide prevention may have been downplayed by charter leaders dismissive of Council interference with their autonomy. The family of a student who died by suicide last year while attending SEED Public Charter School read the sad and astonishing words in emails of charter board executive director, Scott Pearson, and FOCUS lobbyist, Michael Musante, obtained by FOIA request to the charter board. Maybe it’s no surprise these are also leaders in the effort to reject pending Council bills that would expand coverage of FOIA to charter schools themselves.
  • Advocates known as Unsuck DC Metro who champion more rider-friendly Metrobus and rail are trying to use the transit system FOIA equivalent to find data from a recent study of what riders think. (It’s not a law like FOIA but an internal board directive called Public Access to Records Policy, or PARP, and available here.) Or they tried to do so, asking WMATA for the results of a customer satisfaction survey last year—and so far with no luck as the agency not only stonewalled at first but after appeal charged $324.17 in fees for blacking out all but one of the pages Unsuck received based on bizarre assertions of exemptions (confidential business data?). Unsuck enlisted super-gadfly group Judicial Watch as counsel and filed suit recently,. Frederick Kunkle’s Post story explains details while also running down the painful record of years of  Metro secrecy. They’re likely to gain ground in their litigation, so we’ll count this a tentative win for access laws.

This list is culled from just a few weeks of local news. The amazing array of examples suggests to the Coalition the value of the law as it stands now and the importance of D.C. Council members taking time to ask “where’s the problem?” What requires the rushed amendments now on the agenda?