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Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser introduced a bill this past March that would make local government bodies more open to public scrutiny. Her proposal came during Sunshine Week, the nation’s annual celebration of all things transparent in politics.
But as Bowser’s legislation—dubbed “Open Government is Good Government” or “Open Meetings”—gestates in the D.C. Council, some say too much sunshine will hurt their eyes.
ANC members throughout the District have almost uniformly said they want to see the bill’s language altered to exempt themselves from some of its regulations, according to Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Simon says that due to the ANCs’ limited resources and all-volunteer staffs, commissioners take issue with the statute subjecting them to lawsuits by anyone who feels that they might have failed to adhere to the bill’s standards.
“This is truly punitive and chilling… in an excessive way,” says ANC 4B Secretary Sara Green. She added that the D.C. Attorney General generally would not represent individual commissioners in such cases, forcing them to seek out lawyers on their own time, and foot the bill by potentially dipping into their individual ANC’s slim $16,000 budget.
“It’s already a tough gig,” concurred ANC 1D Chair Gregg Edwards. “$16,000 goes very fast.”
To safeguard against unscrupulous lawsuits, Edwards suggested the city give ANCs “sufficient money or an account…[and] a cheap computer to work with,” so commissioners could post online all their documents that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, including e-mails.
Gigi Ransom of ANC 5C would also like to see her commission’s budget increased to help it follow another of the bill’s rules, which states that government bodies must provide notice about a public meeting through the D.C. Register at least five days before convening. (The rhetoric defines “meeting” as whenever officials gather to vote on something, which are usually the only times ANCs ever get together.)
Having to go through the Register complicates things more than simply posting in advance a meeting’s date and time on the Internet, which most commissions do already. Ransom would rather see the city update the Office of the ANC’s central website and use it as a comprehensive scheduling database.
“We should be receiving that financial help,” she said, “not taking more money from out budget to comply [with Bowser’s bill].”
While many individual commissioners across multiple wards have voiced similar concerns over the legislation, only ANC 4B has made an official statement for consideration by the D.C. Council. Simon attributes the lack of action to commissioners not knowing about the bill until late July or August, when proponents started really touting it, and when ANCs are not in session.
Most will not meet again until after today’s deadline to put forth a recommendation.
ANC 4B was able to do so only because it held a special meeting on August 31 to address quite a different issue. Bowser attended that evening, and said she would consider 4B’s desired changes before the bill goes to a vote, which her office said she hopes will happen sometime this fall (it now sits before the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment).
Meanwhile, the law would still not apply to the many parts of D.C.’s bureaucracy that do not cast votes, such as the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and the Zoning Board—both of which enjoy larger budgets and more personnel—and the fact that these institutions have nothing to worry about irks those involved with ANCs.
“I don’t understand why committees dealing with millions of dollars are exempt,” said Green, who authored her commission’s recommendations.
“The ABC Board and BCA can think about, talk about, [and] brainstorm in private while ANCs cannot,” said Simon. “I don’t know in either case if their decisions are enhanced by having all of those thought processes done in a fishbowl.”
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