Traci Hughes has stepped on a lot of toes.
And now, she’s being booted out of her job.
Hughes since 2013 has been the first and only director of the D.C. Office of Open Government. That office has broad authority to order the city’s more than 170 boards and commissions—many of them politically powerful—to follow city laws on public disclosure and open meetings. Hughes has made about 30 such rulings in the past year.
But days ago, the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), whose current members didn’t hire Hughes, voted to not reappoint her when her five-year term is up in April. No public reason was given. Has she been made a martyr for open government? If so, it would be a bad mark against BEGA’s independence as Mayor Muriel Bowser heads into her reelection campaign. Or is the problem, as some claim, that Hughes’ management style brought about her own downfall?
On Monday on the WAMU Kojo Nnamdi Show, Hughes said that although independent, she has been pressured to lighten up on some of her decisions. She declined to name names on the air, but said, “That [political pressure] has happened before. I resisted the pressure and I do think that’s part of the reason I am in the position I’m in today.”
Ward 6 councilmember Charles Allen, whose judiciary committee is holding an oversight hearing on BEGA Thursday morning, says he would ask about Hughes. “I expect on Thursday to raise this and dig deeper,” Allen tells City Paper. “Has Hughes been wronged?” he asks. “I don’t know that.” Allen says Hughes was appointed to a five-year term and was not entitled to “automatic renewal.”
Sources familiar with Hughes’ situation say Bowser’s administration has been upset with Hughes since at least last year.
In particular, Hughes publicly questioned whether appointments had been made legally to the Commission on the Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges. The three-member commission, one of whom is appointed by the mayor, oversees more than 30 administrative law judges who resolve major and minor disputes—many financially lucrative—among dozens of city agencies, the public, and private business.
In her report on the commission, Hughes suggested that if any commission member were not properly appointed, their work and that of the administrative judges under them may be open to legal question. Hughes said her report was discussed in the highest levels of the mayor’s office in December.
A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said that BEGA chairperson Tameka Collier met in December with Betsy Cavendish, legal counsel to the executive office of the mayor. The mayor’s spokeswoman LaToya Foster said they frequently meet, but declined to say whether Hughes had been discussed.
Hughes said Collier later suggested BEGA might “go in a different direction” rather than reappoint Hughes. City Paper‘s calls to the BEGA office were not returned.
But the unhappiness with Hughes may go back much further. Back in 2016, in what some saw as an effort to end run Hughes’ office, Mayor Bowser created her own Mayor’s Open Government Office, part of Cavendish’s counsel office. The job description promotes open government, but it encourages city agencies to go to the mayor’s office for ethics advice and training rather than to Hughes’ office.
“It creates a parallel universe,” says Robert Becker of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. Under the guise of good government, he says, it allows the mayor’s office to get early warning signals of ethics complaints. Becker says the decision to not reappoint Hughes is troubling and a blow to ethics reform in the city.
Hughes’ office also recently ruled that the board of the troubled United Medical Center improperly met in secret to make crucial decisions to shut down its obstetrics ward. The UMC management crisis has mired Bowser—who nominates the UMC board members—in political battles with the D.C. Council and the community.
Critics of Hughes praise her work educating boards and commissions on ethics rules, but say Hughes chafed under BEGA management, which controls her budget, and sought legislation last year to have the D.C. Council make her work totally independent with its own staff and board members. The Council declined to act.
Some officials associated with BEGA also questioned Hughes’ reluctance to keep the board fully informed of her activities, her spending, and her performance plans. Hughes dismissed those as routine disputes within any office.
Hughes says she will be at the Council hearing on Thursday, but not as a witness. She says she was told that BEGA chairman Collier will speak on behalf of BEGA before Committee chairman Allen’s committee. But Hughes says she’ll be there in the audience to answer any questions, if anyone wants to call on her.