The D.C. Council keeps a routine schedule. The public easily can find out about the Council and its committees on the Council website.
But one of its most influential meetings is not on that website nor on the Council calendar. You are not invited. And if you try to attend, you won’t be let in.
It’s the regular, pre-legislative breakfast meeting in Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s private conference room, just steps away from the actual Council chamber. There, amid casual and informal banter and lukewarm buffet food and coffee, the 13 councilmembers discuss what they intend to do once they get to the public meeting room.
At the breakfasts, members talk about bill amendments they plan to bring up, or agree informally not to bring up. Sometimes the conversations get heated, providing a good sounding board for vote counting that can alter legislative strategy on contentious issues. It’s a “can’t miss” meeting for councilmembers and key staffers who sit in the 30 chairs that line the room. (A bonus for the staff members is they get to eat any leftover food once the councilmembers leave.)
If you listened closely Tuesday to the final Council meeting of the year, you could hear members reference what they’d discussed during the breakfast that’s out of sight to the public.
Sometimes the breakfast meeting can last well over an hour, delaying the start of the open meeting. That means that members of the public—people who have taken off from work to support or oppose legislation, or hired sitters, or just bothered to come watch the Council in action—are left in the dark as they wait for their elected officials to appear. Rarely does any councilmember offer an explanation or apology for the delays.
“I think if they are going to be public meetings then they should be in public,” says D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson, who as a councilmember in 2006 tried to amend the law to open the breakfasts.
The District has an open meeting act that requires meetings of public bodies generally to be open except for discussion of legal or specific personnel matters. However, Chairman Mendelson told reporters this week that the public is properly excluded because members of the news media are allowed in—if they can find a seat. That view relies on a provision of the law that says meetings “shall be deemed open to the public if … the news media … is permitted to be physically present; or the meeting is televised.”
Traci Hughes, the former director of the District’s Office of Open Government, tells City Paper, “The public should be allowed to view [this meeting] even if it’s not by law. I don’t see why it would do any harm.”
For many years, even the media was excluded from the breakfasts.
In 2004, then-WTOP reporter Mark Segraves and Washington Post columnist Colby King attended one breakfast meeting until then-Council Chairman Linda Cropp ejected them. In 2006, Cropp relented and allowed reporters inside (again, if they could find a seat) but kept the breakfast off any public schedule. It still is unadvertised.
Auditor Patterson notes that the Council does allow cable television to broadcast annual breakfast meetings where they discuss the city budget, which happens each spring. “It’s a sausage making meeting,” Patterson says, but it shows that the Council could televise every breakfast.
And Segraves, now a reporter for NBC4, says the whole intent back in 2004 was to open the breakfasts to public observation. “I thought this issue of public access to these meetings was resolved years ago,” Segraves tells City Paper. “The effort to open the meetings to the public was spearheaded by members of the press, but not just for members of the press. The intent was for the public to have access, too.”