The city’s Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs (DCRA) has never welcomed scrutiny. For years, merely finding a spokesperson was an investigative project unto itself. To this day, queries on even the most mundane topics are guaranteed to get batted back and forth among the department’s various agencies.
And good luck prying documents from the place: Recently, a woman who called the DCRA’s Office of Professional Licensing to ask for the names of three board members was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
Last month, however, the agency outdid itself in thwarting the Fourth Estate. On May 19, 2005, a Washington City Paper photographer and I visited DCRA headquarters on North Capitol Street to cover a public meeting of the D.C. Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.
A few minutes before the meeting was to begin, the photographer, Pilar Vergara, stood up and started taking photos. The board members immediately covered their faces with sheets of paper or manila folders, as if they were drug informants leaving a courtroom. The chair of the board, Dr. Jay Merker, turned his back to Vergara. When she maneuvered around to get a better angle, Merker threw down his papers, stood up, and shouted at her to stop taking pictures.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “You do not have my permission to take my picture!”
Vergara responded that she did not need his permission, because the meeting was open to the public. “Yes, you do!” he roared. “If you keep taking pictures, I’ll cancel this meeting.”
Merker left the meeting room, and we followed him out to the main area. Linda Argo, the DCRA’s public-information officer, and Sinclair Long, an agency lawyer, appeared. I explained what had happened and stated again that because the board meeting was a public one, we should be able to take photographs. Argo led us over to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board office and asked us to wait while she did some research on our claim.
About 15 minutes later, we rejoined the meeting in medias res. Argo handed us a copy of the D.C. regulations that, she believed, explained why taking photographs at the meeting was prohibited, and then left the meeting. Long, who also serves as the board’s legal counsel, stayed.
The first provision couldn’t have been clearer: “Photographs for news purposes may be taken in entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors or auditoriums when used for public meetings.” And the second provision didn’t appear to apply to us, because we were in a public meeting room: “Photographs for news purposes may be taken in spaces occupied by a tenant agency only with the consent of the occupying agency.”
I decided to wait for the board to ask for comments from the public, as it does near the end of every meeting, to announce that we would take some pictures and get out of everyone’s hair.
The board seemed to move right into other business, so I approached Leon Lewis, the DCRA administrator for the vet board, to ask when it would take comments from the public. He told me that the time had already passed.
“But you never announced it,” I said.
I stood up to make my announcement anyway, but I never got out a word, because when Vergara raised her camera to get light-meter readings, the room exploded. Lewis and Long immediately stepped in front of the lens.
“But I’m not taking pictures,” Vergara protested. “I’m just checking the light.”
“She’s lying,” someone said over the hubbub. “She’s not doing her light meter.”
“Get out!” Merker shrieked. “You’re disrupting the meeting!”
“Should I call security?” asked Cheryl Randall-Thomas, a DCRA manager.
Lewis and Long forced everyone except the board members out of the room. In the hallway, Long told me that the action was taken at the “director’s request.”
I restated that this was a public meeting.
“There will be no pictures today,” said Long. “I don’t care what you say.”
“You’re misinterpreting the law,” I said.
Long replied, “Maybe I am, but you’re not taking pictures.”
Security arrived and escorted Vergara downstairs. I went and waited next to the front entrance of the DCRA building with her, to see if any board members would come out. Just as we were about to leave, Long walked by and struck up a conversation with Vergara. “Sorry, but they’ve all gone home,” he told her, suddenly friendly. “You’re not going to get any pictures.”
Then he asked her if she was married.
“Why?” asked Vergara. “Do you think my husband’s going to get involved or something?”
“No,” said Long.
“That’s a strange question,” said Vergara. “I wouldn’t ask you if you were married.”
“Well, I’m not,” said Long.
“I’m working right now,” she replied. “Does your question have anything to do with our business?”
“No,” Long said, smiling. “It’s for personal reasons.”—Huan Hsu
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.